Stop Burning Out Your Mental Muscles and Make Smarter Decisions

One time my first year in law school, I’d had a particularly long day of tough classes, studying in the library, and being “on” for a professional networking event (which as an introvert, I find absolutely exhausting). As soon as I got home, I was ready to order pizza and zombie out in front of the TV when a doorbell rang. Five minutes later, I’d bought three magazine subscriptions from a very old-looking teenager.

Why did I do it? I knew about door-to-door magazine subscription scammers, and yet here I was, with magazines I don’t even want to read supposedly on the way.

I’d fallen victim to my own decision fatigue.

Just like your body gets tired if you keep running mile after mile, your brain gets tired if you keep making decision after decision — and that lead to unwelcome consequences.

The Science Behind Why Making Decisions is So Tiring

Decision fatigue is a result of something called ego depletion. When you wake up, you generally start out with a full tank of self control, including mental fuel for good decision-making. As the day goes on, you keep making decisions and exerting willpower, and at some point, you need to refuel and recharge to refill that mental tank.

I’m not just talking big life decisions either. Take my long law school day. Every detail — from what shoes to wear in the morning, to whether to buy that delicious-looking cinnamon bun at the coffeeshop, to what to write in my notes during class, to who to approach in the networking event, and where to sit down when my usual study carrel was occupied — were all choices that drained fuel from my mental energy tank.

This draining can certainly feel physical — think about how by the end of some workdays, you’re just worn out. But more often than not, you don’t even realize that it’s happening. As psychologist Roy F. Baumeister writes in his fascinating book, Willpower, this lack of awareness explains why smart people make dumb choices:

[People] don’t realize that decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at their colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket, and can’t resist the car dealer’s offer to rustproof their new sedan.

Decision-making is tiring, psychologists explain, because it “requires an effortful inner process.” Making a choice “consumes some of the self’s limited supply of energy, thereby rendering the resource less available for future self-directed activities.”

In other words, there are no free decisions. Every choice costs something in terms of your self-control and willpower, which in turn impacts future decision-making and willpower.

For example, researchers have found that decision fatigue contributed to procrastination and lack of motivation. In one experiment, college students chose classes satisfying general and major requirements from a course catalogue and then filled out a mood questionnaire. Before the final part of the experiment, a math test, the experimenter left participants for 15 minutes with some sample math problems, magazines, and a hand-held video game — and told them that past research showed that practicing for 15 minutes would significantly improve performance on the math test.

The result? Students who had to look through the catalog to make course choices spent less time studying and practicing math problems and demonstrated less self-control by playing video games and reading magazines.

When you start to get decision fatigue, your choices start to become much more impulsive or you default to couch-potato mode. The shiny, easy path or the do-nothing path becomes much more attractive, whether it’s staying in bed checking Twitter instead of doing your laundry or reaching for the cheesy puffs rather than the apple. It’s why Netflix starts the next episode automatically — stopping your binge session seems much more effortful a decision than just letting it happen.

3 Ways to Combat Decision Fatigue

Here are three easy ways to increase your decision-making power for the stuff that matters and reduce dumb choices:

Simplify your digital life

Our phones and devices not only present a slew of choices with each ping and notification, they also represent the digital equivalent of cheesy puffs, the easy choice to make in any situation.

Daniel Levitin, author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, puts it this way:

Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend, is competing for resources in your brain with important things like whether to put your savings in stocks or bonds, where you left your passport, or how best to reconcile with a close friend you just had an argument with.

The mental resources you use to make decisions that seem trivial end up competing with more important things. Try using apps to measure how often you open your phone, or how much time you spend on Facebook and Twitter. You can also automate tiresome tasks like Zapier and IFTTT, or use digital assistants like EasilyDo so you can spend more time on the stuff that matters.


Schedule everyday or important decisions for when your mental tank is more full than empty. One 2010 study found that even judges hearing parole cases are just as susceptible to decision fatigue as you and I. Researchers from Ben Gurion University and Columbia found that judges’ rulings in favor of candidates up for parole would start out high at the beginning of the day or right after lunch and then decrease from there. This meant that the time of day and the scheduling of a case ended up having more of an impact than the actual merits of the cases.

Schedule certain choices like exercising, studying, or working on important projects earlier in the day or after breaks such as lunchtime. Plan to go grocery-shopping after having eaten so you don’t catch yourself in the candy aisle.

Scheduling helps outsmart the future-you with a tired willpower, who is much more likely to listen to the happy hour or video games that are calling your name.

Know yourself

The first step is realizing just how many decisions we face throughout the day — including how we choose to spend our attention and time. Then, when you’re able to recognize and prioritize what’s important to you, like spending time with your family over responding to unimportant work emails, or working on your novel rather than watching another episode of Big Bang Theory, you can take more control over how and when you spend your brainpower.

How do you manage your day to prevent decision fatigue?

By Janet Choi, Marketing Manager at She writes about productivity, psychology, and how people work. Follow her @lethargarian or on Google+.

Originally published at on November 24, 2014.

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