Decision Fatigue in Shifting Times

A number of years ago I walked through the grocery store and felt a rising anxiety. Looking at an abundance of choices for every item on my grocery list was oddly unnerving and overwhelming. An inconsequential decision for brand of toothpaste suddenly left my head spinning. At the time I recognized it as sensory overload and chalked it up to my being disgruntled with Western consumerism gone overboard.

Later, however, I came across a concept called “decision fatigue.” I discovered that the very energy I had to spend on tasks that were ultimately unimportant to me could actually have a negative impact on my life and my ability to exert import decision making skills in other, more important, areas.

One researcher, Roy F. Baumeister (you can read a 2007 study he summarized here: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~prestos/Consumption/pdfs/BaumeisterVohsTice2007.pdf), looks at the importance of self-control/ self-regulation in our lives. He found that when a person has to exert energy making endless decisions, his/her ability to operate with self-control diminishes. And when our self-control diminishes, we are more likely to do things like overeat, overspend, be aggressive when provoked, respond to an array of sexual impulses, feel unable to extend kindness toward others’ bad behavior, etc.

Sound familiar? As we globally face the challenge of COVID-19, almost universally we are being put in situations that are demanding more decisions than usual in our lives. Instead of just getting up and moving in the routine of our normal work/ personal life, almost every day we are making endless numbers of new decisions – how to shift to new workspaces, how to interact with people virtually, how to manage demands/ needs of family members, how long we will stay quarantined, how we will get our groceries, where we will try to find toilet paper… the list could go on!

Though some of us thrive in spontaneity or enjoy challenges, all of us are being overwhelmed with decisions (not to mention thoughts and feelings) that are not normally a part of our daily life. Baumeister would say that as a result, we are likely all experiencing a level of fatigue that leaves us vulnerable and less successful in our attempts to exert good self-control. This is concerning, as areas where we probably need to remain the most focused and healthy are the areas where we may be feeling most overwhelmed.

So what do we do? First—receive grace! Know that you are not alone if you are experiencing a swirl and an exhaustion that seems like it is leaving you incapable of managing life the way you normally do! From there, realize that there is always a bit of a learning curve in the shift of so many routines at once. Take it one day at a time. Perhaps, try to carve out a little bit of time for stillness (trade off with another family member if you have to!) to center your heart and mind. As always, breathe! Low deep breaths.

Baumeister shares that humor and laughter and other positive emotions help to re-regulate us (there is a purpose to all the memes and videos you’ve been consuming!). Also, implementing “if-then” plans can be incentivizing (e.g. if I spend the morning focused on my work then I can enjoy a walk around the neighborhood at lunchtime). Baumeister also notes that the effort to make so many decisions depletes blood-glucose levels, so eating a small snack actually enables you to exert fresh levels of self-control (read: good decisions and responses). Finally, an ability to set some new structure and routines into your day minimizes the number of choices you have to make—an important and necessary help in a season like this.

Successful men like Albert Einstein, Barack Obama, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have been known to wear the same clothes / suits/ styles day in and day out. These men have commented that because of the many other decisions they need to make, taking this one off their plate enables them to focus on decisions that are much more important.

Consider what are some decisions you could streamline in your life today. If you happen to be an individual working from home, recognize that you can take at least take one decision off yourplate each day: make it a pajamas to work day and relish the delight of being comfortable as you work from your new home office environment! And if anyone asks—tell them that you are combating decision fatigue and encourage them to do the same.

Blessings to you all as you navigate this season. You are not alone.

Peace, Abbey Foard MA, LPC, NCC

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