What should you eat for breakfast? What email should you answer first? Who should take the notes in your team meeting? What project will your team prioritize next? Which candidate are you going to hire? What route are you taking home? 

Trivial or consequential, we make a lot of decisions – some sources estimate as many as 35,000 choices every single day. 

That level of control can sometime feel freeing, but it can also be incredibly taxing. Constantly making selections (whether they’re big or small) can leave you feeling depleted, foggy, and even irritable. So much so that, by the time you need to figure out what’s for dinner, you feel like you can’t make one more gosh darn choice. 

Sound familiar? There’s a name for that: decision fatigue. 

What is decision fatigue?

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Decision fatigue is exactly what it sounds like: you’re tired of making decisions. The premise is that the more decisions you make, the more drained you become, which means you might:

  • Put off and procrastinate decisions (“I’ll figure that out later.”)
  • Make poor, unsupported, or hasty decisions (“Let’s just do it this way and get it over with.”)
  • Overanalyze your decisions to the point of analysis paralysis (“I just need a little more time to think through our options.”)

The basic idea here is that you only have so much energy for decision-making. Every decision you make depletes that energy, until you feel like you’re totally tapped of the mental resources you need to make another choice.

It’s a common psychological phenomenon that’s been observed in a variety of contexts and occupations, including nurses, judges, and credit officers. Put simply, it can happen to anyone.

What causes decision fatigue?

Ego depletion is one term you’ll see come up a lot related to decision fatigue – it theorizes that your willpower is finite, a well that can run dry.

Ego depletion can be both a cause and an effect of decision fatigue. However, the entire theory is contested, with some researchers saying there isn’t enough evidence to support or disprove the fact that motivation and self-control are finite resources.

So what’s actually behind your exasperation in making yet another choice? It could be any number of things. You may experience decision fatigue if you:

  • Make a lot of decisions: The sheer number of decisions you make can play a role. More decisions usually mean more fatigue, plain and simple. That’s one reason why decision fatigue (and burnout) are more likely in leadership positions.
  • Make consequential decisions: The potential impact of your decisions carries some weight too. High-stakes or complicated choices are inherently more stressful and mentally draining, which can compound the stress and exhaustion you’re already feeling.
  • Have a higher stress level: Speaking of stress, it can manifest as a vicious cycle in decision-making. Stress impacts your ability to make decisions. And at the same time, decision-making (particularly under pressure) increases your stress and fatigue.
  • Are a perfectionist: Decision fatigue may also be felt more acutely by people who have a strong drive toward perfection. An ambition for flawlessness makes every single choice (even small ones) feel make-or-break, which means more stress and more demands on your energy. 
  • Don’t sleep enough: Physical fatigue and mental fatigue are closely related, so lack of sleep is another factor that can impact how much decision fatigue you experience. Sleep restores your cognitive function, so catching too few z’s at night can make it that much harder to make choices the next day. 

The underestimated costs of decision fatigue

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If you’ve ever had to make a choice when you’re already feeling zapped and exhausted, then you know it can be a grueling process. But beyond it being a major chore, is decision fatigue really that big of a deal? 

It can be. While it might seem obvious, the biggest consequence of decision fatigue is poor decision-making. You make worse choices when you feel spent and unfocused. You can see this take shape in a number of ways both individually and on your team:

  • Decision avoidance: You procrastinate or dodge making a choice until you absolutely have to (or the decision is made for you).
    • Example: Your team keeps delaying the conversation about whether or not to send a few representatives to an industry trade show. Eventually, the registration deadline passes and you can no longer attend. 
  • Cognitive biases: When your brain is already tired of making decisions, it’ll look for the easy way out. That’s where biases come in. You’ll default to old perceptions and processes (even if they’re incorrect) simply because they’re accessible and comfortable.
    • Example: Your team decides to move forward with an ambitious project timeline, without first confirming whether it’s feasible with key team members and stakeholders (that’s optimism bias, by the way – our tendency to overestimate the likelihood of positive outcomes). 
  • Decisional conflict and regret: Decision fatigue can also lead to more doubt and debate about a decision, as well as fueling a sense of uneasiness and regret once the decision has been made.
    • Example: After a lot of back and forth, your entire team agrees to eliminate a feature from your product roadmap. Almost immediately, several team members voice concerns over whether or not it was the right move. 

In short, decision fatigue directly translates to making suboptimal decisions – whether that means they’re slow, rushed, biased, unsupported, or contested. 

6 tips to combat decision fatigue on your team

You and your team want to make logical and informed decisions. To do that, you need to keep decision fatigue at bay. Here are a few strategies you can apply both individually and team-wide. 

1. Set up some systems

One way to avoid getting tired of making decisions is to make fewer of them. That might feel impossible, but there are relatively small things you can do to minimize the number of decisions you need to make:

  • Make a decision once: Mark Zuckerberg says this is the reason he wears the same gray t-shirt every day. It’s also the reason why every Tuesday is taco Tuesday in my house. Making one choice that you can reapply over and over again can reduce your cognitive load. 
  • Create templates: On a related note, templates can also help you avoid feeling daunted and drained by decisions. These repeatable systems and workflows help you and your team understand what to do or what happens next, without having to make any conscious decisions about it. 

Not only do these steps reduce the number of choices you have to make, but they also provide some much-needed comfort. Science says that predictable routines and rituals actually reduce anxiety

2. Follow a structure or framework

This is how effective teams navigate the decision-making process

Using a decision-making framework is another way to make decisions feel more manageable and approachable. Even if you’re already feeling tapped out and tired, having a defined structure to follow can help you and your team stay diligent and methodical. Popular options include:

  • Decision-making process: These seven steps will guide you and your team as you define the problem, explore your options, and make your choice.
  • DACI: This acronym stands for “driver, approver, contributor, informed” which describes the various roles in the group. Designating these responsibilities can help your team collaborate on decisions with less conflict (and, as a result, less exhaustion). 

Whether you use one of those frameworks or a different divergent thinking exercise, having a blueprint makes decision-making feel more like a step-by-step task and less like an internal wrestling match. 

3. Consider your team’s strengths and expertise

What’s more taxing than having to make a decision? Having to make a decision that you don’t feel equipped or qualified to make. 

That’s why delegation can be another effective way to manage decision fatigue. When you’re working as part of a team, people naturally have different strengths and interest areas. That means you can delegate decisions to match those.

For example, maybe the team member who loves event planning can decide where to host your next team off-site. And perhaps the three early-adopter, tech-savvy members of your team want to collaborate and decide on what project management software you’ll use. 

To be clear, this isn’t about shirking responsibilities and pushing things off your own plate. Rather, it’s about maximizing the expertise of your team and giving people ownership over decisions that are the most suitable and meaningful to them. 

If your team does need to make a decision together, an exercise like Six Thinking Hats can help you explore the decision from all sides and ensure decision-making is a collaborative effort rather than a zero-sum game. 

4. Manage stress

Having to make too many decisions increases stress levels. Just think about the thick of the pandemic, when even everyday decisions that used to be simple (should you go to the grocery store?) felt risky and high-stakes.

That constant uncertainty skyrocketed stress, which in turn made it increasingly tough to navigate all of the choices we had to face. Stress alters our decision-making abilities, which is why you want to try to keep your team’s sense of anxiety and overwhelm to a minimum.

Ensuring reasonable workloads, limiting the amount of decisions you need to make under the wire, and providing adequate resources and guidance can make everybody on your team feel supported, less stressed, and more equipped to make solid choices. 

5. Prioritize accordingly

Some decisions are weightier than others. And, when decision fatigue means that you’ll lose steam with each additional decision you make, it’s smart to prioritize your choices accordingly.

The ones that are really complex or consequential? It’s probably best to tackle those early in the day when you still feel focused and recharged. Then you can handle any easier or more insignificant choices later when you don’t need to be firing on all cylinders.

It’s similar to the 80/20 rule, which posits that 80% of your results come from only 20% of your efforts. Your goal here is to identify your most impactful decisions and get to those upfront when your energy bucket is full. 

Of course, that’s not always doable – big and small decisions come up throughout your workday. But for the ones that you do have a heads up about, it’s smart to be strategic about when you make those choices. 

6. Take a break (even a short one)

Irritability, procrastination, exhaustion, and impulsivity are all signs of decision fatigue. If and when you notice them within yourself or on your team, pumping the brakes might be the best thing you can do.

If you have the wiggle room, come back to the decision tomorrow. If not, research shows that a quick break (even a few minutes to take a walk and grab a snack) can be enough time to recharge, shake the cobwebs off, and come back to decisions with some more clarity. 

Trade fatigue for fortitude

Whether you realize it or not, you make thousands of decisions on a daily basis, and that relentless game of “this or that” can take its toll on your focus, energy, and ambition.

Fortunately, decision fatigue doesn’t have to be chronic, and there are several steps you can take to ease the burden of endless choices. As far as what ones you should implement? Well, for better or for worse, that’s for you to decide. 

Decision fatigue: what to do when endless choices are sapping your energy