Overwhelmed? How To Cope With Decision Fatigue

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The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult in so many ways—and not least of all because we’re constantly weighing risks versus benefits before making any decision. Whether it’s a playdate for the kids, attending a wedding, going on vacation, or even catching up with a friend, we’re in hyper decision mode, trying to decide what is safe and what’s not.

“All of these seemingly innocent activities are now fraught with worries of whether you or your child will get COVID-19, or whether you’ll pass it along to a loved one who is high risk,” says Lisa MacLean, M.D., a psychiatrist with Henry Ford Health System. “We’re all exhausted with these decisions. And it’s not just that—spending more time at home might be adding to the decisions we have to make. Now we need to decide: do we put laundry in just before the meeting? Should I wash the dishes now or wait until after work? With a fridge full of food, what do I eat for breakfast and lunch?’ The decisions we’re making are endless, and it can lead to something called decision fatigue.”

What is decision fatigue?

Decision fatigue occurs when decision making becomes increasingly difficult, leading to mental and emotional strain. And it can happen more often than you might think. The average person makes more than 35,000 decisions each day, says Dr. MacLean. (And each decision—no matter how small—requires time and energy.)     

What are symptoms of decision fatigue?

With the stress of decision fatigue comes symptoms such as tiredness and brain fog. You might find yourself engaging in behaviors such as:

  • Procrastination—purposely not making a decision.
  • Avoidance—engaging in distraction behaviors like impulse buying or binge eating.
  • Indecision—constantly wavering back and forth on a decision.
  • Being impulsive—quickly making a decision that you didn’t think through, and one that you’re not comfortable with.

“This happens because your brain is worn down and you’re stressed,” says Dr. MacLean. “It can also make you easily agitated and cross.”

So, what can we do about decision fatigue?

Eliminate as many small decisions as you can to save your energy for big decisions, says Dr. MacLean. Here are some tips: 

  1. Pick out your clothes the night before. “I have my clothes on a rotation, so I always know what I’m going to wear for work ahead of time,” says Dr. MacLean. “That way, you don’t have to try on several outfits and use all of your energy before the day gets started.” While you’re at it, if you’re heading to the office, you can do the same thing with your lunch—pack it the night before.
  2. Reserve the morning for the most important decisions. In the morning, you’re refreshed and energized. If you need to make a difficult decision, do so when you’ve had your coffee and breakfast (don’t make decisions hangry) and your head is clear.
  3. Don’t make decisions that you don’t have to—delegate. At work, divvy up tasks and let co-workers make some decisions. At home, split up decisions with your partner. Your kids can also make some decisions (what to eat for dinner, what new show to start binge watching as a family, what activities they want to do next weekend).
  4. Create daily routines. It might sound boring, but try sticking to the same breakfast each morning. Get up at the same time, exercise at the same time. Creating routines will allow you to move throughout your day without making a decision about everything that you do.
  5. And finally, don’t be so hard on yourself. “Give yourself grace,” says Dr. MacLean. “We are imperfect and we live in an imperfect world. One of the best things we can do is give ourselves—and others—the benefit of the doubt. We’re doing the best we can, and we can’t ask for much more.”
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To find a doctor or therapist at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-436-7936.

Dr. Lisa MacLean is a psychiatrist specializing in adult ADHD treatment at Henry Ford Behavioral Services in Detroit. She is the director of physician wellness for Henry Ford Health System, using her expertise to help doctors optimize wellness and find balance by teaching them healthy coping strategies so they can better serve their patients.

Categories: FeelWell