decision fatigueLet’s say it’s your birthday.

First, happy birthday! We got you a cake.

We’ll come back to the cake in a moment.

Second, we have a question for you on your special day. Your friends want to give you the celebration you deserve, but they’re stumped. They can’t decide whether to a) let you plan your perfect evening, from the first stop through the main event, or b) plan the perfect evening for you, leaving you with just one responsibility: to enjoy.

Which would you pick?

For myself and a surprising number of people I talk to, the answer is B. I would much rather have someone else plan the event and take care of the details. Even though the result might not be exactly what I would choose, a night free from the minute-by-minute pressure of decision-making is a true luxury.

We’re conditioned to think that more choice is always a good thing, but in the past few years, studies have discovered something called decision fatigue. The research helps explain why decisions are so much harder at the end of a work day and why we’re tempted by the candy in the checkout lane after a marathon grocery trip.

Our cognitive resources are regularly depleted because we’re fighting an uphill battle every day — physically and mentally, both at home and at work.

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It doesn’t have to be that way, though. When we understand decision fatigue and how to combat it, we are able to make better choices and free our cognitive resources to solve big problems and spark fresh ideas.

Let’s start with that cake.

Running on empty – The decision fatigue phenomenon

Kathy Sierra has written and spoken extensively on this topic. Take the time to watch her recent Business of Software talk, Building the Minimum Badass User. It’s phenomenal.

In the talk, she tells the story of a famous experiment by Professor Baba Shiv. Two groups were given different mental tasks (memorizing a 2-digit or 7-digit number). When they were finished, the students had the choice of a piece of cake, like your birthday cake above, or a bowl of fruit. Those who had faced the more mentally taxing task were significantly more likely to choose the cake.

This was unbelievable; it took them a long time to figure out what was happening, because it seemed so bizarre. But what happened is willpower and focus and concentration and working on problem-solving are all coming from the same pool of cognitive resources. More significantly, it’s really a scarce resource that’s easily depleted.

Roy Baumiester and John Tierney introduced decision fatigue to a wider audience in their book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. In a piece for The New York Times Magazine, Tierney summarized the idea:

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy.

As you might guess, decision fatigue is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Here is a list of some of the most depleting activities that will drain your brain and turn you more likely into a cake-eater:

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When there were fewer decisions, there was less decision fatigue. Today we feel overwhelmed because there are so many choices.

Obviously, more choice is often a wonderful thing, as is using our cognitive resources to learn, think and grow. When our cognitive resources are depleted in unproductive ways, we not only have less willpower and make poor decisions, but we also don’t have much left in our mental tanks for the big problems and questions. As Kathy says, “we should be patching cognitive leaks everywhere we can.”

The rise of simple

Some smart companies have come to the conclusion that reducing mental drain is good business. Trader Joe’s, a thriving grocery store chain, has a unique approach. The average grocery store carries around 50,000 different products. Trader Joe’s features about 4,000. Whereas most chains compete on offering the widest selection, Trader Joe’s has cultivated a large, passionate customer base by focusing on the quality of the products and the experience. Inside the Secret World of Trader Joe’s is an excellent look at the company.

Swapping selection for value turns out not to be much of a tradeoff. Customers may think they want variety, but in reality too many options can lead to shopping paralysis.

Not only do fewer choices make purchases easier and less taxing, they make customers happier.

Studies have found that buyers enjoy purchases more if they know the pool of options isn’t quite so large.

Other companies exemplify a similar approach. Apple, with its tightly limited product lines, is an obvious example, but there are many others on the web and in our neighborhoods. Numerous online services intentionally limit the number of features and plans they offer to provide refuge from the overcomplicated and confusing sign up pages and interfaces of their competitors. Restaurants are attracting discerning customers with pared-down menus featuring a few unique, high-quality items.

Companies that offer fewer choices and a simple, high-quality experience are rewarded with happy, loyal customers.

Now that we understand decision fatigue and how some companies are responding to it, let’s talk about what you can do to protect your cognitive resources and make better decisions.

5 Ways to fight back

1.) Know your limits

Fighting decision fatigue starts with being smart about how you plan your day. Build different types of work into your schedule so you can avoid making decisions for hours in a row. If you’re facing a big decision, try to process it early in the day and after a meal so that you’re at your peak mentally.

On days when you feel the effects of decision fatigue, avoid situations where a poor decision could have significant repercussions.

2.) Make decisions that free you from making more decisions

We can’t avoid decisions, but we can be smarter about how we make them. Here are a few examples…

  • Meals: Instead of trying to decide about dinner after a mentally exhausting day, plan the meals for the week a few days in advance, when your decision-making is at its best.
  • Television: Hundreds of channels provide enormous choice, but those choices drain our mental energy. Be intentional about what you watch by renting or buying the best shows and then cancel cable or switch to a package with fewer channels.
  • Automation: Try a service like Amazon’s subscription program, which will ship frequently purchased items to you automatically. Use Pandora or iTunes Genius Mixes and let the cloud pick the next song. Schedule your posts to social networks with a tool like Buffer. Each of these frees you from endless micro-decisions.

3.) Choose products that energize you instead of drain you

Seek out things that reward and nourish you and drop those that leave you depleted with little to show for it. A simple test is a vacation. When we take a break from our normal routines, many of us set aside the apps and services that constantly demand our attention.

Most aren’t even missed, but once we return to normal life, we find ourselves pulled in again. Instead, try to leave them behind and develop new routines.

4.) Help others

You can make a big difference by helping your friends and family escape decision fatigue.

  • Plan the next date, or if you’re really ambitious, vacation!
  • Avoid saying, “Whatever you want is fine with me”, which places the responsibility on the other person.
  • Champion customers at work and look for ways to simplify and improve their experience.

5.) Simplify one thing right now

The key to change is to start small. What can do you do today to start replenishing your cognitive resources? Pick something and share it in the comments so we can learn from each other. For more inspiration for taking the first step, read Leo’s post on making changes stick.

When you become aware of what drains your mental energy and what replenishes it, you’ll be able to make small changes that will produce huge results. Freed from decision fatigue, you’ll have the resources to make better choices and be more creative. I’d love to hear what works for you. How have you overcome decision fatigue? What replenishes you?  


About the author: Brian Bailey is a writer and content strategist in beautiful Austin, Texas. He is dreaming up Uncommon in Common, a front porch for the Internet. Previously, he was part of the initial team at Gowalla. He’s @bb — say hello!

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Written by Brian Bailey
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  • Craftobsessed

    I do understand your idea of decision fatigue. I get it and I can relate to your examples. But I disagree with the surprise birthday party. The reason most people pick B in your example has to do with being “surprised”. If you ask a bride if she prefers to a: plan her wedding with all the many details and decisions involve or b: would she rather sit back and have someone do it for her. More than likely, she will choose a. What I am trying to say is that decision making can be fun if the end result is rewarding and also the process of acheiving the end result is also fun.

    • That’s a great point. The element of surprise is a strong motivator as well.

      And you’re absolutely right that there are many times when decisions are not only required and worth the effort, but fun and rewarding, too; whether it’s picking which movie to see on a Friday night or choosing the name of your new business.

  • Years ago a friend of mine stopped ordering at restaurants. He simply said, “Bring me what you like.” He said that it relieved him of one less decision that he had to make (he was/is in a type of senior executive position).

    I did a version of this. I would narrow down to 2 or 3 choices, and ask the waitress to pick. I didn’t even want to know until she brought the food. I tell you what, it did feel good!

    • I like that idea, Joey. As a bonus, they usually know what’s best 🙂

      Thanks for reading!

  • Nick

    I began weekly one-day fasts every Monday since January and inadvertently adopted a few things to avoid decision fatigue; wearing the same thing (all black like Johnny Cash, which became an inside joke with my office) and not having to decide what to eat/cook/drink — even beyond the decision fatigue avoidance, I’ve seen a myriad of mental and physical benefits in the last 18 weeks. I have more energy, I am more decisive, I’ve shed some fat (although not an original goal) and I just feel all around good. The mental fortitude of controlling your most basic desire is a nice bonus… and the veggie scramble on Tuesday morning is Delicious!

    • That’s fantastic, Nick. You’ve really captured the benefits well. Keep it up!

    • I guess you made good habits, which I believe is one key thing to stay happy each day. It’s amazing that we can actually choose to be happy and keep at it with just a little work and maintaining it for 30 days. I think iI should try that diet thing 🙂

  • Zygmunt Bauman has been discussing this for years. Read Art of Life (2008) or Liquid Fear

    • Thanks for highlighting Bauman’s work, Georgia. I look forward to learning more.

  • I ran into decision fatigue long ago because of the sheer volume of micro-decisions that naturally come up throughout the day while driving projects.

    Luckily, I happened to read Flawless Execution, where the author explains how fighter pilots have to deal with it on a regular basis. They named the problem “task saturation” and explained that there are three signs:

    1. shutting down

    2. compartmentalizing

    3. channelizing

    Surprisingly, the way they deal with it is largely through checklists to reduce stress. This helps “automate” the lower level stuff, so they could focus on higher-level decisions.

    I learned to pay attention to how much effort I was spending on decisions. It’s way too easy to spend $20 on a $5 problem. The key is to empower people to make more decisions where the action is, and create a culture of decisive action.

    The other key is to know to take enough brain breaks — we can actually recharge pretty fast, if we make taking breaks a habit throughout the day.

  • Brian, nice post. Have you read – The Paradox of Choice, why less is more – – excellent book, ties in with what you’re discussing here.

  • Mahdi

    I enjoyed. Recently I am limiting my newsletters, social networks, mobile apps and nototifications. I am setting cloth combinations for different days. I tray to stay focused on what matters for me. Very nice Text, thank you.

  • Decision fatigue is so common to most of us human beings because of so many overwhelming choices and decisions everyday. But certainly, there are things to beat our mental exhaustion and simplify our life.


  • Ryan Creech

    Did anyone else find themselves trying to make decisions about what decisions to cut out??? This article made me aware of decision fatigue but also added to my decision making. Ironic

  • Venks Pai

    I manage different teams that work on different projects. Any given day is pretty action packed. I did try working on the advise provided in Peter Bregman’s ’18 minutes’ which was very helpful. Spend some time early on in the day planning it out and then stick to the plan. If I remember to plan the day, it usually works. This post supplements that advise very well.

  • Mihail Malostanidis

    Zero comments about the cake being a Portal cake. I am disappoint. What a tragic community.

  • These are great tips, and the term you’ve used, ‘decision fatigue’ is absolutely spot on! I think the most important is to know your limits and establish a discipline when it comes to work and decision-making. Reading a co-worker’s email just before bed can get you in a really bad spiral of trying to find solutions that are meant to be made in the morning – this will not only ruin your good sleep, but also make you tired and a lot less productive on the next day.

    So, have some rules and adhere to them, i.e. no phones/emails after 8 p.m. , at least 30 mins. of lunch break, etc. etc.

    And of course, my favorite tip – use modern technology to your advantage! Brainwave entrainment is my favorite tool for reaching some very deep levels of relaxation as well as supercharging my creativity when I most need it!

  • I like the choice of words in decision fatigue. These days I am always looking for ways to reduce the number of decision that I have to make.

  • Michele Carla

    Brian, never heard of this before, but helps me understand a lot of what I’m doing. Thank You!!

  • I don’t agree with part of the article.

    If I don’t have enough choices, good ones, good things, good food, good ideas, good activities, I find I am far more exhausted in trying to “make do” with less than ideal.

    Grocery stores are missing the point.

    Clothing stores are missing the point.

    Restaurants are missing the point.

    What we want and need are better products that we produce by people we know and trust.

    Most problems would be solved if we were involved and engaged in making our own lives and other’s better, than being buried in the gossip train or in TV and the net.

  • Mike

    There is a restaurant in Eureka, CA called the Somoa Cookhouse. Its a family style place where you pay a fixed cost and get whatever they’re making that day. Lots of courses, delicious and all you can eat. I realize what I like so much about the place is that I don’t have to decide what I want. Just how much I want. I think more restaurants should try this formula

  • JMcClaren

    This kind of assumes that cake is something everyone is universally struggling to avoid. Maybe it’d be more accurate to assume the metabolic intensity was the motivating factor.

  • Mushroom overlord

    The problem with deciding is being overly concerned with making the right choice – a mind that has perfectionist tendencies with a desire to self improve will inevitably obsess about making the right choice which leads to procrastination frustration and perpetual doubt – at least this has been my experience – it also stems from having too many rules about what constitutes right…

    However this still doesn’t change the fact that there is BS coming at you from every corner – cheap garbage created by greedy corporations with the sole purpose of addicting you.

    The secret is to simplify without it fAlling into the trap of perceiving it as a bore and that is precisely what culture reinforces – you are not cool if you do not wear these clothes drive this car or refuse the cake or pizza and obviously there are a bunch of others – unfortunately there is not much way round it unless there is a mass shift in peoples attitudes and what they demand in terms of purchases.

    One has to find the right balance of having decisions automated by knowing in advance what you want and spontenaiety where you can decide on the spur of the moment to do something you really want to without it becoming a rule breaker.

    I also think knowing your own mind and body is the best strategy and you can only learn about that through experience.

  • Dr. Simone Ravicz

    what I think many of us are missing is the essential aspect of mindfulness during our days. Mindfulness, being in the here-and-now and having a nonjudgmental, accepting stance is an ideal practice to counteract decision fatigue. Unfortunately, most of us live our lives focusing on the past or future and judging whether relevant decisions were/will be optimal. By replenishing our mind’s energy, through the practice of relaxation techniques or mindfulness meditation, we will avoid much of the brain drain we put ourselves through daily. In addition, getting some physical exercise during the week does much to increase the amount of mental energy we have available. For more on this, you can check out “Brain Bliss: 7 Ways to Help Your Brain Help Yourself” to be out around May/June 2014 – Dr. Simone Ravicz.

  • Thanks for this post! I found it after reading several other articles on similar topics and opening links throughout the content. I read about creativity and success (Start before you feel ready) which I’m already sure will help me with work, and I feel like this one can actually help my marriage. So again, thank you! Fun and easy to read.

  • Mark van Tienen

    Sorry for being a nerd/geek, but my problem is that I can’t choose what character to play in games… In League of Legends there are about 130 champions (characters) you can play. In DC Universe Online there are about 6 powers you can choose from (fire, ice, etc), about 10 weapons you can choose from (bow, fists, one handed weapons, etc), 3 movement types to choose from (flight, superspeed and acrobatics) and finally hero or villain? Do you have any tips for this? I think I have this problem for a couple of years now. I think I’ve researched games more than I have played them….

    Kind regards,