Decision Fatigue: When Discussions & Logistics Wear You Down

Decision Fatigue: When Discussions & Logistics Wear You Down

Tess Wilson
Sep 1, 2014
(Image credit: flickr user gregory mc. under CC BY 2.0)

Like the esteemed Homer J. Simpson, I'm often singin' what I'm thinkin', and I recently caught myself belting out a melancholy verse of "All we do is discuss things and driiiiiiive..."

The driving aspect is simple to explain: I don't like to drive and I've never really done it— I just got my license 9 months ago and only make the 5-mile drive to work when it's impossible to bike— so making the 70-minute roundtrip drive from our current house to our new place at least once every day is utterly foreign to me. And if I hate driving in the dark, I really hate driving home at 11:30pm on dark country roads after a 17-hour workday, slamming Vanilla Pepsi With Real Sugar to stay awake.

The discussion part is more complex. I love to talk, and I especially love to talk with my partner, but the last six months have been nonstop discussion. Discussing is very different than talking, and completely different from my beloved chatting. Discussing involves hashing out all available information, presenting and considering every possible outcome and complication, weighing the various costs, desperately trying to remember all the important factors involved, compromising, debating, and eventually, making a decision. Renovating one house, prepping another to sell, and moving between the two means that every day is chockablock with big points of discussion, and innumerable smaller decisions to make related to each of the big ones.

I read the New York Times' "Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?" with fascination when it came out in 2011, and lately I've found myself thinking of it frequently. Though I am a thousand times lucky to have decisions to make in the first place, and I do my best not to forget that for a moment, I'm still worn out. And getting stupider by the second...

"The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice."

My reaction to decision fatigue has been kind of a combination of the two: I do NOT want to think anymore, and am happy to start doing work, any work, right now, even if I have to redo it later, as long as I don't have to think now. It's become painfully apparent to both of us that I've hit the point in which I'd rather move a hundred heavy boxes than have a single discussion or make a single decision. I don't have any brains left to give to this project, it's up to brawn from here on out.

"Once you’re mentally depleted, you become reluctant to make trade-offs, which involve a particularly advanced and taxing form of decision making. In the rest of the animal kingdom, there aren’t a lot of protracted negotiations between predators and prey. To compromise is a complex human ability and therefore one of the first to decline when willpower is depleted. You become what researchers call a cognitive miser, hoarding your energy."

This can be particularly tricky to navigate when you're working as a team. In a "mentally depleted" state, it would be difficult enough for one person to make compromises. When you're both in that state, attempting to make compromises both with the world and with each other? Cue the tears, arguments, rash decisions, impulse purchases, and general unhappiness. This is not inevitable, of course, but it certainly seems likely considering all the pressure and stress. Whenever possible, I did my best to avoid meltdowns by using one simple weapon: a nice little snack.

How do you handle decision fatigue, or, even more amazingly, avoid it in the first place?

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