Every day, we make a huge number of decisions, many of which we may not even notice. From choosing what to eat for dinner to opting to read this article – or even deciding subconsciously to cross your legs – it’s been estimated that we make around 35,000 decisions a day. Having so many choices to make can exhaust us, leading to a phenomenon called ‘decision fatigue’.
What is decision fatigue?
Decision-making depletes cognitive energy, so at the end of a particularly taxing day, we’re more inclined to make a snap decision or to put it off entirely. This explains why we might respond to a tricky email negatively or keep procrastinating over answering it.
"Decision fatigue happens to us all but, if unchecked, it can zap our motivation, focus and willpower," says Antoinette Dale Henderson, women’s leadership expert and the author of Power Up: the smart woman's guide to unleashing her potential.
Technology and modern life means we’re constantly distracted by electronic notifications, shopping deals, FOMO and more, forcing us to decide where to place our attention. The sheer volume of options can be overwhelming. "There are thousands of choices, from which shade of nail varnish to which programme to watch on TV, and these micro-decisions affect our ability to pay attention," says Antoinette.
A Microsoft study found that, since 2013, our attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to eight – a second shorter than that of a goldfish.
Does decision fatigue affect women more?
"Women are notoriously prone to juggling, navigating multiple decisions per day," says Antoinette. "We put pressure on ourselves to be decisive and strong, yet we are often bound up by a fear of getting it wrong."
Couple this with hormonal changes in the run-up to the menopause, and it doesn’t get easier. "Because levels of sex hormones (particularly oestrogen and progesterone) begin dropping as early as age 30, even young women can experience moments of indecision," say Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton, authors of Physical Intelligence.
However, there are ways to harness your decisiveness.
How to tackle decision fatigue and make quick decisions
Make big decisions in the morning
The more choices you make throughout the day, the more fatigued you become, and the harder decisions are to make. American writer Mark Twain once said, "If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first."
Making a hard decision first thing will free you from procrastination for the day. "The brain doesn’t like to be in a state of dissonance, which is why it will keep calling you back to make a decision that you’ve left – it’s the reason why we wake at 4am fixated on a problem,’ explains Dr Georgina Barnett, Lead Psychologist at Seventy Thirty dating agency.
"The accumulation of unmade decisions leaves us de-energised and overwhelmed, which is why it’s better to get good at making fast and efficient decisions," she says. So make that to-do list and do the hardest task first thing.
Go with your gut
If you’ve ever "had a feeling" about something, you’ll know that your gut is often tied to intuition. "What’s really happening when we go with our gut and get it right is that it’s usually a decision or experience we’ve been through many times, so we are essentially experts at decision-making in that area," says Dr Georgina.
There’s a reason why our gut is often referred to as our “second brain”. "We absolutely do have a 'gut brain' – a highly sophisticated neural network transmitting billions of messages from the gut to the brain and back again every second," says Claire.
You should also avoid making decisions when you’re hungry. Research has shown that making a choice on an empty stomach negatively affects our decision-making ability, leaving us more inclined to go for the easier rather than the best decision.
Sleep on it
"While we sleep, our memories are re-organised, clearing out less relevant content and giving us clarity and insight," says Dr Georgina. If you’re angry or sad, it may also be better to rest before making an emotionally-charged decision. "It is always better to allow emotions to subside before deciding on a course of action," adds Dr Georgina.
However, watch that you’re not just putting the decision off for another day. "There is a danger with 'sleeping on it', and that’s if it is really an avoidance strategy", she warns. "In this case, it is no different from procrastination, giving us the temporary relief of not having to engage with a potentially frustrating decision-making process."
Deploy the ‘dump it, delegate it, do it’ method
If you’ve been agonising over a decision, adopt this approach:
- Dump it: "Often we make a list of our priorities, but we add more and more items which are less important and wonder why we suddenly feel overwhelmed," says Dr Georgina. "Continually adding unimportant things that don’t get done means we feel we have underachieved, which leads to disempowering feelings of guilt and shame," she says. Look at your list – does it need to be done right away? If not, dump it and focus on your priorities.
- Delegate it: Appoint some help. "Two things interfere with delegation," says Dr Georgina. "The first is the belief that we can do it better ourselves, and the second is guilt about burdening someone else." But, if someone else can help, don’t be afraid to ask.
- Do it: "What’s left are the important tasks we need to execute," says Dr Georgina. "Do these when they need to be done, whether you feel like it or not. If it’s uninspiring, focus on the sense of relief and achievement you’ll feel when it’s done."