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  • Nora Buckley

Feeling drained and 'braindead' by the end of the day?

If you are feeling drained and "braindead" by the end of the day, you may have made too many decisions!

Have you ever spent a day making various decisions at home and at work, then gone out to dinner and been unable to choose what you want to eat from the menu? Or you’ve skillfully decluttered a closet, making clear piles of stay/donate/go, until suddenly you cannot decide what to do with that ratty old sweater? Perhaps you’ve prepared two weeks of meal plans, complete with your pandemic-era grocery list, remembered your mask and gloves and hand sanitizer and list, and then found yourself in the grocery store staring at the frozen vegetables with no idea which to choose?

Most likely, by the time you arrived at that final sweater, the restaurant, or the frozen vegetable aisle, decision fatigue had set in.

Decision fatigue is a term coined by social psychologist Dr. Roy F. Baumeister at Case Western Reserve University, where he was studying ego depletion, the idea that people have limited mental resources that become depleted after a certain amount of use.

Baumeister and his colleagues discovered that decision fatigue depletes self-control, resulting in emotional problems, underachievement, lack of persistence, and failures of task performance. We are more apt to make impulsive decisions, or alternately, to make no decision at all. In Dr. Baumeister’s book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, he concludes that “Making decisions uses the very same willpower that you use to say no to doughnuts, drugs, or illicit sex”.

Dr. Jean Twenge added her own perspective when she wondered if simple decision making could draw from the same limited reserve of mental energy. The team developed an experiment where one group of students made a series of shopping related decisions, while a second group only considered choices. Afterwards,both groups took a willpower test. The decision makers scored significantly lower.

It is believed that the average person makes 35,000 decisions by bedtime, each one demanding time and energy, and depleting willpower. The more choices we make in a day, the harder it becomes for the brain to make more. The brain attempts to conserve energy by making impulsive or “safe choice” decisions. For example, judges on an Israeli prison parole board were found to give parole around 70% of the time to prisoners who appeared in the morning, but only 10% of the time to those who appeared later in the day.

Decision fatigue affects all of us, but is an additional challenge for those with ADHD, who often have problems prioritizing or filtering out various possibilities and often have a history of making impulsive and poor decisions. Terry Matlin, MSW, ACSW, a psychotherapist and coach who specializes in ADHD, suggests to go with your gut for less important decisions, such as what to eat, as this will “begin to give you confidence that it’s ok to jump in and just choose”. She also suggests creating a written deadline for making a decision, to help avoid the ADHD tendency to procrastinate, and seeking feedback from someone you trust.

Strategies to keep decision fatigue at bay include:

Make fewer decisions.

For example shop from a list rather than walking the aisles making decisions. Limit unimportant decision making, for example by setting out your clothes the night before. You could also use your GPS for directions rather than thinking it out yourself, and automate regular bill payment.

Make important decisions first thing in the morning.

Research has shown that time of day impacts our judgment and ability to make good decisions. This holds true for night owls as well as for morning people.

Limit your options.

Having too many choices stresses our brain. Pick two or three to compare, make your decision, and stick with it.

Simplify your life.

If by evening you are inclined to veg out on the couch with junk food, it may be a sign that a day of constant decision making has left you depleted. Try to cut out things that are not important and simplify your life.

Snack frequently.

Choose healthy snacks throughout the day to provide glucose to your brain.

Delay the big decisions.

Be aware that you may be making poor decisions later in the day; if possible, put them off until the following morning.

Give your brain a break.

When you go for a walk or otherwise free your mind from decision-making, you free up the prefrontal cortex, the “thinking” part of the brain. The brain can then make improved neural connections and better decisions.

Establish routines to eliminate unimportant decision making.

Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and former President Barack Obama all wore basically the same outfit every day to cut down on decision making. Obama told Vanity Fair in 2012 “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing, because I have too many other decisions to make”.

I myself try to think of decision making along the same lines as “picking my battles”. I have learned the hard way that if I waste my morning on decisions of little consequence, I have no fuel left to make the important ones later on.

I need to consciously choose to not waste my brain power on things that do not matter each day, or I will indeed forget and ruminate over my breakfast choice or the order in which I might attempt the tasks on my endless to-do list.

A post-it on my monitor reminding me that Decision Fatigue is real helps to clear my mind and encourage focus on the decisions that matter most.

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