How to deal with 'decision fatigue'

Aug 30, 2011, 07:30 IST | Priyanjali Ghose

The next time your mind goes blank and you cannot decide the best course of action, don't panic. It's probably 'decision fatigue'. Here's what you need to know about it, plus, expert advice on ways to cope

"Decision fatigue is a recently recognised cognitive phenomenon that refers to the tiredness from continuous decision making that can reduce the quality of decisions being made by an individual," explains integrated wellness therapist Ameeta Sanghavi Shah.



Corporate edutainer Deepak Rao has experienced decision fatigue first-hand, and recalls his confusion regarding whether or not he wanted to stay back in India on his return from the US in 1991. "I experienced a mild mental dullness and loss of clarity of thought. Soon, the fog engulfed me and taking normal decisions was cumbersome and tiring," he shares.

Deepak is not alone; according to experts anyone who has had to take too many decisions in a limited time period can experience decision fatigue.

Cause and effect
Clinical psychologist Seema Hingorrany says that urban professionals are more exposed to stressful situations, which could hamper the decision-making process.

Situations where trade-offs have to be considered, internal conflicts, exercising self-control in a hyper environment, having to make small choices or a series of decisions, and repeated temptations are the main causes of decision fatigue, according to Sanghavi Shah.

"Biologically, we get low on mental energy. When glucose levels fall, the brain is unable to process long-term consequences and seeks immediate rewards, like making an impulsive purchase at a mall," explains Sanghavi Shah, adding, "Psychologically, the tiredness affects an individual's ability to make choices that impacts the individual's professional or personal life."

Hingorrany says that high irritability levels, depression, anxiety, relationship issues with partners, comfort shopping or eating, mild insomnia, small fights, road rage and taking faulty or bad decisions are some of the
symptoms that signal that fatigue is setting in.

The most common effect of a bad decision is regret and/ or guilt, according to the experts. "The more decisions you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for an easier way," says Hingorrany.

What you can do
"One way of coping with decision fatigue is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of thinking through the consequences," suggests Hingorrany.

Exercising, eating high protein and nutritious foods that help stabilise blood-sugar levels in the body can help reduce decision fatigue. Taking occasional breaks can also help reduce strain.

"Too many choices also make it extremely difficult to make the right choice. The synonym could be if there are too many dishes for lunch or dinner, one may end up in eating none," says JB Kabra, director of a management
consultancy company.

Gender roles
Hingorrany believes that gender impacts the way decisions are taken. "Men usually take pragmatic decisions, while women might need more assurances from their significant others before taking decisions. This is because of our mental make-up, whereas for men, they have grown up being allowed to take major decisions in their lives," she elaborates.

Experts say that the timing of the decision has to be perfect. "A decision taken on time is very important for efficient functioning in our life. Late implementation of any decision can cause stress, pressure and confusion," says Hingorrany adding that procrastination is best avoided.

She adds that before taking any decision, it's best to keep one's goals in mind and to consider the consequences of the decision.

Paralysis of analysis?
Kabra, however, cautions against "too much thinking" and says that taking time or mulling over decisions isn't always the best way to go about making them.

He describes a phenomenon known as 'paralysis of analysis', where taking a lot of time to analyse a situation may halt the decision-making process for uncertain periods.

Sanghavi Shah quotes research studies that prove that timing impacts decisions. For example, at the beginning of the day or after a period of rest; the brain is energised resulting in positive decisions. On the other hand, fatigue sets in at the end of the day, thus affecting the ability to make 'quality' decisions. 

She clarifies, however, that there is no such thing as a "fixed time" during the day for taking decisions. "Any big decisions should be made after adequate rest. Thinking through options does not cause fatigue."

Snap out of it?
While making snap decisions, or decisions in a shorter amount of time than the 'problem' might merit, can sometimes work, they are not always advisable.

"Snap decisions are good for small decisions where the choice will not have too much of a repercussion on one's life. For example, when you have to decide between which chocolate to eat. These are instances in which energy can actually be conserved," says Sanghavi Shah.

Kabra defines intuition as, "a feeling that comes purely out of heart", and says that there are times when decisions are based on intuition. Hingorrany says that while relying on instinct may be helpful, at times, it should not be made into a habit.

Making decision or choices can be a pleasurable activity, provided there is clarity of thought, feels Rao. He cites the example of professionals, who regularly take important decisions throughout the day, but still retain enough energy to play squash in the evenings.

Stressing that successful decisions boost ego, Rao says, "Take decisions quickly, not immediately, and let intelligence, wisdom, experience and well-wishers' opinions support the decision. All this put together is what I term as, intuition and gut-feel, which finally boils down to a yes or a no."

7 ways to make more empowered decisions (and gift yourself with foresight)

Become more flexible. If you are the sort to obsess over every detail and micromanage to make sure "everything is perfect", stop! This isn't a perfect world and things don't always turn out the way you want.

Keep a diary. Penning your thoughts down is a wonderful way of putting problems into perspective. One strategy that has proven effective in coping with decision fatigue is keeping a 'Decision' diary.

Eat well. Take the time to eat breakfast, as it will help keep you going through the day. Research says that consuming less food leads to a decrease in serotonin levels, the brain chemical that regulates mood and can make you more vulnerable to mood swings and irritability.

Bond with your colleagues: Just knowing you have one or more co-workers who are willing to assist you in times of decision-making will reduce stress levels.

Talk to yourself: Give yourself a pep talk. When you are stressed you are more vulnerable to negative self-talk, causing hindrance in decision-making. Counter these with affirmations about your ability and self-worth.

Take an imaginary trip. Soothe strained nerves by taking an imaginary trip to an ideal place. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and for the next 10 minutes imagine yourself in any place you wish to be!

Accept. We can 'accept what we cannot change by changing what we can'. Make choices that are realistic.

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