A Non-Exhaustive Read On Fighting Decision Fatigue

Want to plan your day, your meetings, and your commute better? Factor in how your body and brain may make bad decisions after being worn down from making the right moves earlier in the day.

The ThinkerDid you read that weighty, informative article on "decision fatigue" in The New York Times magazine last weekend? Probably not, if you had to choose between those 5,400 words and Mad Men on Netflix at the end of a hectic day. It's a great article, but a paradox of its own description: a weighty bit of disciplined reading that describes how easy it is to fall into simple indulgences and short-term thinking after work, children, or just life itself has sapped you of your willpower.

So here are the lessons and take-aways on decision fatigue, cut into bite-sized pieces that you can easily digest, even if you were forced to describe the merits of 25 different rebranding logos before lunch today:

The best summary of "decision fatigue," from the expert

John Tierney's article is a great read, and it comes from a forthcoming book he wrote with Roy F. Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University and expert on all things self-control. In a post by Tierney at "The 6th Floor Blog," a companion to the Times article, Baumeister gives the money quote on decision fatigue:

"Making decisions uses the very same willpower that you use to say no to doughnuts, drugs or illicit sex," Baumeister says. "It's the same willpower that you use to be polite or to wait your turn or to drag yourself out of bed or to hold off going to the bathroom. Your ability to make the right investment or hiring decision may be reduced simply because you expended some of your willpower earlier when you held your tongue in response to someone's offensive remark or when you exerted yourself to get to the meeting on time."

It's not quite that simple—there are factors involving, among other things, sugar—but that's the most compressed take on decision fatigue you're likely to see.

Schedule around temptations and weakness, not just time:

Most of us set up our calendars and agendas to make sure we're at the right place at the right time, and hitting all the right points. In some cases, you should consider the endless drip of your willpower into the daily drain.

Baumeister's quotes and notes suggest a few smart agenda changes:

  • Don't schedule back-to-back meetings: In terms of taxing your willpower/decision reserves, being a good team member for extended periods is like designing a custom tuxedo and then planning a wedding in one day. You'll have no smart, calm decisions left to give anyone else.
  • Set up habits and avoid temptation: It's not a matter of resisting the burger when eating out at lunch, because you can probably do that. But choosing the chicken, skipping the fries, sticking with water—they all chip away your bad decision barriers. Pick your day-to-day meals, make appointments to exercise with a spouse or friend (in the morning), and figure out a way home from work that doesn't take you past Chinese food or fried chicken.
  • Don't be afraid to "sleep on it": It's tricky, because the height of decision fatigue can lead someone to make the easiest possible decision: no decision at all, even if consequences will pile up. But if you know you've fought your way through a day of self-restraint, or made too many stress-inducing moves at work already, try to move your decision to the next morning. Or at least ask if you can grab a bite first.

Respect the duality of sugar

The Times article provides a much clearer understanding of just how hard dieting is. That's because, after being a proper lady or gentleman for extended periods, your body just wants something simple, instant, and reassuring of your ability to survive: a cheeseburger, a soda, peanut M&Ms. Blood sugar, in fact, does an intricate dance with your willpower all day. So eat a good breakfast, have healthier snacks available for stress eating (The Morton Report has some good picks), and, once in a while, don't be afraid to give yourself a little treat when you feel like you're at your wit's end. A quick shot of calories can partially restore your ability to step back from the brink and make good calls.

Make expensive decisions earlier in any process

How do you sell someone overpriced car options? Run them through 48 other decisions first, then make that sunroof seem like an obvious, safe pick. In other words, decision fatigue isn't just a day-long process, but one that impacts any judgment call you have to make after feeling constrained and taxed. If you're reviewing a contract, negotiating compensation details, or just going shopping, discuss the big-money items first, and give yourself some space and time to look everything through.

Sure, this wasn't quite so heavy a lift as that big ol' Times piece. But don't close this browser tab and open an email from a boss. Take a quick walk, grab a few almonds, and tell him you'll meet on it tomorrow.

Add New Comment


  • Cedricj

    I find that making a decision to first do difficult things that I inherently don't like and follow that up with something I do like breaks decision fatigue (sometimes also called procrastination).


  • Seena Sharp

    Good general advice. But business decisions require different criteria, especially those that aren't related to people.

    Solid business decisions almost make themselves if the information on which they're based includes ALL of the following: current, objective, relevant, accurate, and sufficient.

    In the less volatile times, experience and data were relied on heavily, especially by those who had both.

    Today's chaotic, crazy, and totally unpredictable times require different input for smart decisions. Experience, data, common sense, intuition ALL reflect the past, which may no longer be true. More importantly, they don't include what's changing and emerging, which is where the opportunities are.

    Since decisions are only executed today and tomorrow, they are much more likely to be successful if they are heavily weighted in favor of info that captures what's true today. 

    Seena Sharp
    Author, Competitive Intelligence Advantage
    Principal, Sharp Market Intelligence

  • Denise Corcoran

    I appreciate the comment that reading the original article was a "fatiguing" exercise in itself.  I did not even finish reading it for that reason.

    From my perspective, decision fatigue is part of a syndrome called brain fatigue which neuroscientists have known about for awhile.  Yes, our frontal lobe (the part of our brain that is responsible for higher level functioning like decisions, planning, etc.) has a limited mental bandwidth before it is depleted and needs a break.

    I am surprised that the above does not mention about planning to look at emails till end or morning or afternoon.  That is one of the biggest drains on our brain power.  People should plan the tougher more complex tasks of their work first thing in the morning.  NOT look at their email.

    From a neuromarketing study, they found time of day will determine how well someone can close a deal because of brain fatigue.  There are many aspects to brain fatigue that impacts on day to day functioning.

    Denise Corcoran

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    This is really helpful, thank you! It also tells me I want to read the full article. It wold seem that scheduling restful time to consider big decisions would be a good idea.

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Time Coach
    Heroes and Heroines always have a Guide:
    Arthur had Merlin
    Luke had Obi-Wan
    Buffy had Giles
    You have Me
    Time to be Extraordinary!

  • David Kaiser

    I read the article at the NYTimes. Well worth it. I printed it out to make it easier to read, and so I would have a copy. Very helpful.