I remember that it first happened sometime in January 2021.
My brain felt tired. Totally dry. At the time I described it as “I’ve just run out of decision juice.” and that’s exactly how it felt.
I was asked a simple question “What do you want for lunch?”, my answer “I don’t know.”. “There’s eggs, soup or ham salad.”, my answer “I don’t know.”…
I feared that I sounded awkward, maybe as if I was being difficult but I wasn’t meaning to. After a pause I followed up with “Will you decide for me?”.
At that moment I realised that I’d run out of decision juice.
I really can’t remember the detail of what was happening in my life at the time but, here in the UK we were still mid-pandemic. We’d cancelled Christmas and celebrated a New Year like no other. Covid case numbers were falling after hitting a high of over 60,000 new cases a day and, like many people, we were hoping that our turn to get a call for the vaccine would arrive soon… Until that happened we were mostly staying home and masking up each and every time we left the house.
A simple decision to go shopping involved many decisions – the first was did I really need to go shopping? Then, which store would have the goods I wanted, what was the best time of day to avoid crowds, have I put in a new mask/filter, did I top up the hand sanitiser, should I take some wipes in case there were none in store? These small, seemingly inconsequential decisions were actually having significant consequences.
I recognised that I was experiencing what a psychologist might call decision fatigue or executive function depletion. That part of my brain which makes decisions was depleted. It could function no more.
I’d first read about something called ego depletion in Roy Baumeister’s ground breaking 1998 publication which explored whether our ability to make good decisions was like a muscle that could be exhausted by overwork. Baumeister and colleagues described in 2008, many cases where making decisions about relatively trivial tasks affected our ability to engage in or persist with more challenging or important tasks later.
Making many decisions can even reduce our ability to self-regulate our emotions.
Practically speaking this means that if we spend the first hours of our day deciding what to eat, what to wear and what tone of emoji to choose when replying to a sarcastic social media post we will be using up our “decision juice”.
Yes, seeing the a selection of sweet snacks and resisting temptation – or not – while deciding whether to have oat or soya in our coffee, with or without foam – this series of decisions really can impact our day.
When we do start working we will be more prone to putting off replying to that tricksy email to our Manager, anaylsing the cash-flow figures or engaging with other more cognitively demanding tasks.
Not only will we be worse at making these more important decisions but we are less likely to be polite, considerate or even vaguely self-controlled in subsequent interactions – we might end up doing much less than our “best self” would want because our early decision-making spree will have depleted our ability to self-control our emotions.
So how about you?
- Have you found yourself more tired and irritable?
- Are you sometimes struggling to make decisions?
- Do you find that your ability to resist cake, alcohol or impulse-buying the gadget that appeared in your Facebook feed is surprisingly reduced compared with your pre-pandemic-self?
If yes, the science says you need to rest, replenish and to reduce demand on your over-worked executive function.
Rest: Practically this looks like, well, rest. Doing nothing that involves making choices or decisions – and even scrolling your social media feed or answering emails involves many micro-decisions that we still find incredibly depleting so, stop…
Replenish: this could be as simple as a small amount of sugar. In research studies, using lemonade made with sugar rather than sweetener supplied the required boost and yes, in the moment that’s why we resort to coffee and cake. If you want to replenish sustainably it’s better to go for only a small amount of easily available sugar and, for preference, choose a healthier slower release carb source and a snack containing protein and healthy fats.
Reduce demand: You need to reduce the number of decisions you are making. Barak Obama is reported as saying he only ever wore grey or blue suits as he had far more important things to be making decisions about. Apparently his clothes choices were made the evening before so, come morning, that was one less decision to make before the working day started. There are definitely some benefits to being a creature of habit in our morning routines.
If you want to upgrade some of your time management and prioritisation strategies you could certainly start by downloading my free Out of Overwhelm Route Map, an infographic and short video show the way!
Me? I’ve remembered that I need my mason jar salads.
Getting lunch for my sister each day as she is beginning to go back to her normal activities is a decision each day that I’m finding particularly exasperating. I mean, out of all proportion triggering. What is that about?! Pre-pandemic I would prepare a number of mason jar salads on a Sunday evening or Monday morning and keep them ready in the fridge. You’ll never believe the relief that this provided and, for the last year I’d forgotten that.
Now I’ve remembered.
I’m anticipating a significant improvement in my decision-making and my mood when it comes to choosing lunches. And I’m certain that I’ll not be the only person to be pleased with that change!
What about you?
Are you aware of being worn out from decision-making? What would you like to do about that: rest, replenish, reduce…
I’d love to hear your thoughts!