The Subtle Drain of Decision Fatigue
Updated: Jul 23
By cataloguing the trivial decisions that sap our daily mental reserves, can we automate the mundane and elevate the creative?
"The fatigue produced on the muscles of the human frame does not altogether depend on the actual force employed in each effort, but partly on the frequency with which it is exerted."
– Charles Babbage
A BRIEF RESPITE FROM CHOICE OVERLOAD. OR IS IT?
In one episode of the sitcom The Big Bang Theory, the lovably eccentric physicist Sheldon Cooper announces to his friends that he will “make all trivial decisions with a throw of the dice, thus freeing up [his] mind to do what it does best: enlighten and amaze.” He theorizes—as many in the real world have—that decision-making comes at a cost to self-regulation and executive function; that, in fact, if he can save himself the mental coin of mundane choices like whether to order the burger or the soup, he can apply this raw intellectual energy towards a Nobel-worthy discovery in physics.
This principle is not without its practitioners in the real world. Perhaps one of the most famous is Steve Jobs in his ubiquitous black turtleneck, or former president Barack Obama in his purposefully-limited wardrobe of black and gray suits. In fact, in the past 15 years, amidst the publication of books like Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice and Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, a concept known by psychologists and behavioral economists as decision fatigue has sprouted its adherents and its debunkers. The notion posits that the more choices you make, the less rational each subsequent choice becomes—one source even claims that, on average, each American adult makes 35,000 decisions per day! (Quibbles about the dubious accuracy of this statistic aside, we can likely all agree that the sentiment feels true to life.)
But the act of making decisions is not entirely reductive, by any means. Many cognitive scientists claim that decision-making is one of the highest degrees of cognitive function that humans have managed to attain; that a function to be done at such a great mental cost must indeed have been evolutionarily powerful—that is, it must have been worth it. So, if we are to deplete our mental reserves on a daily basis, perhaps we too, would be wise to do so in pursuit of great benefit; to not squander our decisions on things that don’t matter.
In fact, we might use this time when most of our routines have been thrown into flux to ask ourselves certain questions: Do our daily decisions align with our larger values, or have they become rote? Are there things we do by rote that actually should be conscious decisions? Perhaps it is through this—by harnessing decision fatigue and recouping burger-or-soup mental energy losses—that we can identify options we never thought were available to us. And though not all choices are equally available to everyone, we can indeed exercise control (and responsibility) over our personal daily allotment.
If we spend all of our energy re-making the same decisions, after all, how will we ever make new ones?
PHILOSOPHY & PARADOX: SMALL CHOICE IN ROTTEN APPLES
As a practice that accrues both a cost and a benefit, the act of choice brings to light some fascinating paradoxes worth our reflection.
The first, which you may have encountered in one of its myriad manifestations, is a satiric thought puzzle called “Buridan’s ass.” In this fabled paradox, a donkey is set up equidistant from a bale of hay and a pail of water. The donkey, being equally hungry and thirsty, can’t decide what to do. Paralyzed by indecision, it perishes of both starvation and thirst.
The irony is that it takes longer, in some ways, to make decisions that don’t matter—when the difference in benefit between the two items is only marginal, we find it difficult to choose. This is likely why we spend so long mulling over trivial daily concerns. According to a mathematical model devised at the University of Geneva, “optimal decisions must be based not on the true value of the possible choices but on the difference in value between them.” By this line of thinking, the donkey’s paralysis makes sense: Even though the inherent value of either option is life-saving, the “difference in value” is zero, and, therefore, the donkey could not possibly know which choice to make.
In the fraught and persisting struggles between individuals and institutions, we see time and again that people fight for the power to choose; but, paradoxically (as researchers Kathleen D. Vohs, et al point out), they also fight to give it away.
In a 2011 article in The New York Times Magazine, John Tierney writes,
"Willpower turned out to be more than a folk concept or a metaphor. It really was a form of mental energy that could be exhausted. The experiments confirmed the 19th-century notion of willpower being like a muscle that was fatigued with use, a force that could be conserved by avoiding temptation."
Many spiritual practices employ (if peripherally) the idea that choice limitation can heighten the practitioner’s ability to engage in more transcendent matters. Consider the activities in convents and monasteries, fasting in the month of Ramadan, or the art of meditation. The same principle is apparent in in more mundane settings: We download non-distraction apps that temporarily reduce functionality or pay in advance for an exercise class so that we have no choice but to go—all to protect us from choice overload. These things turn a choice into a non-choice and, thereby, give us the freedom from having to make it.
And yet, as Dan Ariely argues in Predictably Irrational, we in the modern world also make decisions in an attempt to keep our options open; this causes us, he rightfully claims, to stockpile an abundance of items with functions and features we will likely never use, to make plans for future careers we will likely never have, and to safeguard opportunities which, even if they arose, we would likely never take. Indeed, as Tierney ominously points out,
"The word “decide” shares an etymological root with “homicide,” the Latin word “caedere,” meaning “to cut down” or “to kill,” and that loss looms especially large when decision fatigue sets in."
We are naturally loath, in other words, to annihilate our options.
But these drives seem to be contradictory; how can humans be wired both to court choice and to avoid it? In their paper "Decision Fatigue Exhausts Self-Regulatory Resources — But So Does Accommodating to Unchosen Alternatives," researchers Kathleen Vohs, Roy Baumeister, and Jean M. Twenge attempt to clarify the forces behind this complex behavior. Since “decision-making” energy is pulled from the same reservoir as other types of energy, they theorize, the decision-making cost of your own choice must be calculated against the self-regulatory and willpower cost of living with someone else's choice. It takes a certain amount of mental energy, they claim, to adapt yourself to an environment you know you didn’t choose.
It seems, somewhat delightfully, that choice in the human mind cannot be boiled down to a perfectly cost-efficient system. I will leave you to ponder a quote by philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (in a passage that likely echoes the internal monologue of Buridan’s poor donkey):
“…Laugh at the world’s follies, you will regret it; weep over them, you will also regret it; if you laugh at the world’s follies or if you weep over them, you will regret both; whether you laugh at the world’s follies or you weep over them, you will regret both… This, gentlemen, is the sum of all practical wisdom.”
PRACTICAL STEPS YOU CAN TAKE TO COMBAT DECISION FATIGUE
"Avoid the trap of thinking that a decision requiring you to assess a lot of complex information is best made methodically and consciously. You will do better, and regret less, if you let your unconscious turn it over by removing yourself from the info flux.” - Sharon Begley, Newsweek
To become better acquainted with your relationship with decision fatigue and to begin to master its effects, try the following activity:
STEP 1: GATHER THE INFORMATION
For just one day—from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep—make a list of every trivial decision that leads to an immediate concrete action (remember, we are most interested in choices regarding daily habits, not those in which you contemplate your ontological existence!). Next to each decision, write the number of times you re-made this decision. At the end of the experiment, add these up to find the number of decisions you make in a single day.
For example, you make a decision (however groggily) to snooze your alarm 3 times. You decide on an outfit for the day, re-decide, then replace the pants, and then change your mind about your hat. This counts as 4 choices (and if you make further decisions about clothing that day, you can add them to the same count). Then, you wonder if you should take the train or call a ride-share—you decide on the ride-share, but once you step outside and realize it’s springtime, you re-consider the cost and walk to the train after all. That’s 2 decisions. Should you have lunch before or after you finish reading this newsletter? After. That’s 1!
It is up to you how granular you want to make your item count—my advice is be reasonable, but be thorough!
Finally, compare the number of total decisions to the number of total items. For example, you may have had 30 things to decide that day, but you find you have taxed your brain by making 110 choices about them.
STEP 2: MAKE A PLAN
The goal is not to eliminate daily decision-making entirely. Choices are a sign of thought and consideration, adaptation and integration of new information. Training yourself to doggedly stick to a decision simply because it was the first decision would certainly not help you take advantage of your fully complex human mind. Our goal here is to diminish the number of decisions that add no stimulation, but that do cause fatigue—those that are nothing but a drain on your brain, a brain which can potentially be saved for making the interesting decisions that you couldn’t possibly have expected to encounter. In order to do this, you will have to create some rules (that you can reasonably stick to without having to re-decide if they are warranted). For example, if you find that choosing a method of commute sends you into a flurry of decision-making, you can make some rules—based on your own desires—that you can strictly follow. Make the decision once now so you don’t have to make it thousands of times later. For example, some rules for your morning commute decision may look like the following:
If it’s raining, I get to take a ride-share no matter the cost.
If the ride-share costs more than 2.5 times the train cost that day, I must take the train.
If I wake up with a headache, I will take a rideshare…
STEP 3: EXECUTE THE PLAN
What you will likely find is that your rules feel very intuitive—so intuitive that it seems absurd to have bothered to write them down! The former sentiment is absolutely warranted: the rules feel intuitive, of course, because they came from you. But despite knowing what you want, how many times do you second-guess yourself? “I do have a headache, but I don’t know, maybe I can survive the train and save a bit of a cash. Or can’t I? Should I?”
Spend a day following your rules, and record the same data in your chart as you did in Step 1. How do the item counts compare now to the decision counts? To what extent did this conserve your mental energy? Or did you feel trapped—did you accidentally strip away some of the more exciting decisions of your day? You will likely have to experiment several times, re-calibrate, and finally settle on a level of daily decision-making that is optimal for you. Eventually, the hope is that these decisions become unconscious. When your mind starts feeling cluttered again or your daily circumstances have changed, you can repeat the process.
Recommended Reading & Listening
In this long-form article from 2011, Tierny follows the detailed journey of studies, theories, and failed hypotheses surrounding the then-nascent concept of decision fatigue.
Williams carefully links each of his claims back to their academic sources. His thorough analysis demonstrates his breadth of research among books, articles, and journal papers on the subject; also included is a fair bit of advice on possible practical application of these findings to your lifestyle.
Malcolm Gladwell speaks about the marketing implications of the vast diversity of choice, extending these to larger ideas about our perceptions of satisfaction.
Listen to the highlights of Barry Schwartz's book by the same name and reflect on the ways in which this is more, less, or differently relevant today.
In this pivotal work of behavioral economics, Ariely describes why humans make choices that seem to defy rationality.