People make as many as 35,000 decisions a day. Most of these do not have significant consequences, but science suggests that the number of decisions we make has a big effect on behavior. Decision fatigue is when the act of repeated decision-making exhausts and impairs a person's ability to control their behavior and make subsequent decisions. Everyone experiences decision fatigue.

Strength Model of Self-Control

The phenomenon of decision fatigue is rooted in the Strength Model of Self-Control. This theory states that humans are only able to control their behavior to a certain point. With every act of self-regulation, like making good decisions, they lose a little bit of their internal ability to control themselves. So, while someone may have no problem making five or ten good decisions, it becomes harder when asked to make ten or twenty more, and even harder to make the dozens after that.

man trying to make a decision working remotely


Too Many Choices

Decision fatigue can also arise when there are too many choices to make. Studies show that when people are asked to make a series of decisions, they are predisposed to developing decision fatigue. Many studies on this topic show the same results, and one study also concluded that the more complex the decisions are, the more decision fatigue sets in.

For example, college students choosing consumer goods will feel a certain amount of decision fatigue, as will judges making decisions at parole hearings. But as the judges have to consider significantly more important factors, they are likely to have more decision fatigue.

businessman making decision with lots of choices concept



Studies also show that a lack of self-regulation is related to decision fatigue. Self-regulation is the ability to control one's emotions and actions, and the more acts of self-regulation someone partakes in, the more likely they are to experience decision fatigue.

For example, someone working hard to stick to a healthy diet and avoid junk food or a person attempting to stop smoking or drinking is practicing a lot of self-regulation constantly, so they are more likely to experience decision fatigue in other areas, or even in the field of their specific focus.

woman stressed in front of laptop


Situational Factors

Another study showed that situational factors play a role in decision fatigue. For example, the time of day largely affects people's decision-making. One study showed that students taking standardized tests made poorer decisions as the day went on, and another showed that people make fewer morally sound decisions later in the day. This type of decision fatigue affects medical professionals, too. A 2015 study showed that doctors were more likely to prescribe unnecessary antibiotics as the day progressed.

exhausted doctor sitting on back stairs in hospital


The Least Amount of Effort

Research demonstrates that one of the main factors of decision fatigue is that it causes people to choose the option that takes the least amount of effort. Studies show that, as decision fatigue sets in, judges are more lenient. Doctors are less likely to comply with proper hand hygiene, and surgeons and nurses alter their approaches to patient care.

woman choosing between two choices


Effects of the Default Option

Decision fatigue often causes people to choose a default option or the one that takes the least amount of analysis. One study showed that this is not always a bad thing. The more conservative option is sometimes the best choice. This study looked into how decision fatigue affects people in finance tasked with approving loans.

Subjects' approval rates were high in the morning, declined in the middle of the day, then went up again in the afternoon. This pattern indicates that as decision fatigue set in, loan officers were more likely to revert to the default option of denying the loan.

couple receiving approval on bank loan



Many people have studied decision fatigue and describe several common characteristics. Self-control is consistently a factor. Every decision eats away a little bit and there is less and less to draw upon for subsequent decisions.

Decision fatigue is driven mostly by the period after each decision is made -- when you cannot change your mind -- and less so by the deliberation, analysis, or consequences of making the decision in the first place. Studies also show that 10-minute breaks or taking a few minutes to eat a meal or a snack can restore self-control, helping to combat decision fatigue.

taking a break with a cup of tea



Decision fatigue has a variety of consequences. Procrastination is one of the most common and usually occurs when someone cannot bring themselves to make any decisions.

Many people choose the path of least resistance. If there is an option to do nothing, they will take it. Other people make decisions based on their immediate needs, ignoring long-term consequences.

Generally, decision fatigue causes people to lose their inhibitions and make choices impulsively to avoid thinking about them too much.

angry businessman yelling into his phone


Reduce the Number of Decisions

One way to deal with decision fatigue is to reduce the number of decisions you have to make. There are many ways to make decisions in everyday life easier.

For example, make Tuesday taco night and Thursday pasta night to eliminate the need to decide what to cook for dinner every single day. Set reminders for things like garbage night or an alarm for when it is time to pick the kids up from school. These things free up mental space, which helps maintain self-control.

woman meal planning for the week


Plan Ahead

Planning is a good way to combat decision fatigue. Some decisions are impossible to plan for, but many are not.

Take advantage of routine instead of procrastinating by taking care of the things you know are upcoming. Fill the car with gas, iron your work shirts, and complete work reports as soon as you have the time. Do not put off little things because, later, they could become one more decision that zaps your reserve of self-control.

man choosing a shirt from his closet


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