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Decision Fatigue: Why It Drains You and How to Avoid It

Decision Fatigue: An Issue Moms Can Avoid

Every day moms make decisions that affect their families, careers, and well-being. Try these tips to avoid decision fatigue and make better choices.

Every day we make decisions. What will I wear to work today? What should I eat for breakfast? Should I contact my child’s teacher? Should I reschedule my conference call today? What will I cook for dinner? Do I watch Netflix or wash the dishes? There are so many little decisions working moms make for themselves, for their children, for their families and in their careers that add up throughout the day.

In each of these instances we hope to make good choices that are beneficial. Experience, however, teaches us this is not always the case. So many times we make unproductive and unhealthy choices despite knowing we could do better. But why? Is it a lack of willpower? Is it a lack of concern? Is it a lack of intelligence? It’s decision fatigue. James Clear, writer and researcher on behavioral psychology and habit formation, offers a great explanation for how willpower works and the science of decision fatigue:

Your willpower is like a muscle. And similar to the muscles in your body, willpower can get fatigued when you use it over and over again. Every time you make a decision, it’s like doing another rep in the gym. And similar to how your muscles get tired at the end of a workout, the strength of your willpower fades as you make more decisions. Researchers often refer to this phenomenon as decision fatigue.

If there is any group most susceptible to the pitfalls of decision fatigue, it is working moms. Of course, decision fatigue is not limited to only working moms— it plagues Americans as a whole. The sheer number of products, websites, and articles aimed at busy moms to help them eliminate choices and save time to combat this phenomena is proof that it IS definitely an issue for working moms. They may not be labeled as “solutions to combat decision fatigue,” but that’s what they really are.

Do you suffer from decision fatigue?

Decision fatigue refers to the idea that people tend to make worse decisions after having made a lot of decisions. Here again, James Clear offers a good litmus test to determine whether this is something that you experience:

If you have a particularly decision-heavy day at work, then you come home feeling drained. You might want to go to the gym and workout, but your brain would rather default to the easy decision: sit on the couch. That’s decision fatigue.

Ding, ding, ding! When I read that excerpt, the lights came on and I heard the bell ring. There are so many decision-heavy days at work, followed by decision-heavy afternoons running errands, planning, prepping and participating in all that comes with caring for a family. No matter how badly I want to put in that Jillian Michaels DVD to work out before bed, I get stuck on the couch watching reality TV. An article I read in Fast Company summed up the “draining of your productivity reservoir” quite nicely:

Decision fatigue seems to be the mental equivalent of hanger, that dreaded combination of hunger and anger. As decision after decision depletes your willpower, John Tierney, the Times writer, says you’ll eventually do one of two dumb things:

  1. Act impulsively: Since you have no energy to think about consequences
  2. Do nothing: Since you have no energy to agonize

Impulsive behavior and lack of action is bad news for anyone, let alone working moms! I have days like this. Do you? I want to do the right thing, I know what the better thing to do is… but I just can’t muster up the energy to do it.

What’s a mom to do about it?

Cue the horns! While decision fatigue may be an issue many of us working mothers experience, there’s hope for us all! This topic has been well researched and you can find lots of ways to overcome decision fatigue. I have pulled a few of my favorites from here, here and here to share:

Timing is everything

Make vital decisions early in the day. If you have important decisions to make or a high volume of decisions to make—do this first thing. All the research supports that you put your best attention, energy, and focus toward the decisions made earlier in the day. As working mothers, mornings can often be the most difficult and frustrating time of the day for us, so organization is key.

Save unimportant decisions for later in the day. As you get weary throughout the day your potential to make impulsive choices or just do nothing increases. This is a good time to do simple chores and tasks that don’t involve making decisions that could have dire consequences.

You need to routinize yourself

What to eat – Plan your meals. Make lunches and meals ahead of time. Have a rotating set of recipes or themed meal days like “Taco Tuesday.” Have go-to dishes at go-to restaurants to eliminate the stress of perusing menus or searching for places to eat.

What to wear – Steve Jobs famously wore his signature black turtleneck and jeans, it was his “uniform.” Create a uniform for yourself or a capsule wardrobe. Pick and plan your outfits ahead of time. Do the same for your kids or have them do it for themselves.

Finances – Money brings with it its own type of stress, so the fewer decisions you have to make on the fly, the better. Create a budget and stick to it. If you get a paycheck, have it be directly deposited into your checking account. Set up scheduled transfers directly from checking to savings, and automatically pay for any service provider that offers it (cable, energy, etc.)

Stop making decisions, start making commitments

Create a schedule – Rather than deciding what to do next in the moment, make an action plan, think ahead. Create daily, weekly, monthly even yearly schedule.  As each day comes around you don’t have to think about what to do, just look at the calendar and do it. If you schedule the gym for Monday and Wednesday mornings, it’s one less thing to decide. It’s just what you do on Monday and Wednesday mornings. Create morning and bedtime checklists for your kids to get them to stick to their own schedules. There is a whole market for calendars, apps and websites to assist you with this effort.

Increase accountability – I know they say it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind. While this remains true, constantly changing your mind encourages decision fatigue. If you commit 100% to actions and choices ahead of time, you no longer have to decide! If you sit back and hope that you’ll be able to make the right decisions each day, then you will certainly fall victim to decision fatigue and a lack of willpower. Make a choice and stick to it.

Advice going forward

If you want to know more about decision fatigue, James Tierney, a science columnist for The Times, wrote a very thorough essay adapted from a book he co-authored with Roy F. Baumeister, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. The essay and the book go into much more detailed explanations on this topic.

From one working mom to another, no one is expecting you or me to make the right decision all the time. There will always be decisions that pop up each day that you can’t prepare for. That’s OK. It’s a part of life. However, knowing when and how to increase the likelihood that we will make good decisions and knowing when we won’t make good decisions is certainly a win for everyone.

“The best decision makers………are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.” – Roy F. Baumeister

As I begin another year, set new goals, new resolutions and go about my daily routines with new optimism, I have begun to use more of these strategies.  I am hoping to make decision fatigue an issue I can avoid or experience a lot less of this year.

Making too many decisions can diminish your ability to make the best choices for yourself, your job, or your family. Learn more about decision fatigue—and how to fight it.


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3 thoughts on “Decision Fatigue: An Issue Moms Can Avoid

  1. Such a great post! I’ve read a lot about this issue, whether it’s decision fatigue or choice overload or willpower strength. Like anything, our energy is depleted as the day moves forward so it’s really best to make the big decisions early on.

    Also, this is why I’m all about the same breakfast nearly every day of the week! It’s oatmeal and fruit for the whole family, with pancakes on Saturdays. And having a simple wardrobe helps too!

    1. Thanks Nina! There were days when I was just out of gas and I couldn’t figure out why – It’s good to know its not just me! I have been really implementing some of these strategies and I have really seen an improvement!

  2. YES! This is so important! Over the years, I’ve started switching to eat the same foods over and over again, paring down my wardrobe to only things I love, and wearing them on repeat to doing everything in the same order when getting up in the morning.

    Effectively leaving my precious brainpower to work on bigger decisions and deep work. I think it makes us happier – is there science behind this too?

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