9 Signs You Have Decision Fatigue—and Tips to Help Manage It

Does every little decision feel insurmountable? There's a name for that.

You've just finished a long day at work, and somehow end up in the supermarket (although you don't remember driving or walking there). It's almost dinnertime and you need food, but are overwhelmed with so many options. Now you're aimlessly wandering up and down the aisles without the slightest clue what you need or want. No, nothing's wrong with you; you're probably exhausted and, on top of everything else, are dealing with decision fatigue.

We're constantly making decisions throughout the day. They're not all necessarily major decisions, but having to make a series of minor choices can weigh on us. Let's take a closer look at decision fatigue, including what causes it, the signs you're dealing with it, and how to manage it.

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What is decision fatigue and what causes it?

Having to make too many decisions in a row.

Simply put, decision fatigue is the mental exhaustion someone experiences after making a lot of decisions. "That means, the more decisions you make, the harder it becomes to make additional decisions," ​​says Rashmi Parmar, MD, a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry + MindPath Care Centers. "More often than not, it leads to one of two endpoints: You either give up and stop making decisions completely, or you'll make impulsive or irrational choices."

Or being overwhelmed by too many options.

In addition to facing periods of making decisions one after the other, decision fatigue can also set in when you have an abundance of options, explains Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Sonoma County, California, and author of Joy From Fear and Date Smart. "Although humans tend to enjoy having a variety of choices, too many choices can lead to mental and emotional exhaustion," says Manly. "For example, having too many options—whether in the grocery store, catalog, or online retailer—can lead to feelings of confusion and dissatisfaction."

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Is there a difference between decision fatigue and indecisiveness?

In short, yes. "While decision fatigue is mental energy depletion that sets in after making a series of decisions in a fixed time, indecisiveness can be a character trait that results from chronic inability to make decisions, usually stemming from low self-confidence," explains Dr. Parmar. "Indecisiveness is usually evident right from the beginning, whereas decision fatigue usually sets in after a series of decisions are made without any issues."

More specifically, someone who is habitually indecisive often fears making the wrong decision, Manly noted, adding that their ongoing avoidance of decision-making often leads to routine procrastination. "Although a person who is characteristically indecisive may also suffer from decision fatigue, fearful avoidance is generally at the root of most decision-making issues for the chronically indecisive person," she says. "On the other hand, decision fatigue can affect anyone, even those who tend to be extremely decisive."

The good news, according to Dr. Parmar, is that it's possible to recover from both decision fatigue and indecisiveness. "However, decision fatigue can autocorrect itself within a span of a few hours to a few days, whereas indecisiveness can take longer and significantly more effort to recover [from]," she adds.

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Is decision fatigue associated with any particular mental health conditions?

Yes, but remember that decision fatigue can impact anyone, regardless of their mental wellness. Having said that, those who live with conditions like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can find it especially difficult to make decisions, Manly says. "A decision that might be easy for someone in good mental health may be excruciatingly difficult for someone who is struggling with getting out of bed or 'just making it through the day,'" she adds.

Why does this happen? According to Dr. Parmar, conditions like depression and anxiety can cause significant mental strain and impair one's ability to fully focus on something, which can contribute to decision-making fatigue over time. "A depressed person is often overwhelmed with negative thoughts, low self-esteem, and low motivation; which makes decision fatigue set in faster than usual," she explains. "An anxious person tends to worry about every decision they make—even smaller decisions get exaggerated into bigger issues, which induces decision fatigue."

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Common Signs of Decision Fatigue

Unsure if you or someone you know is experiencing decision fatigue? Here are nine signs to look for, courtesy of Manly and Dr. Paramar:

  1. Inability to think clearly or focus
  2. Frequent procrastination
  3. Avoidance of decision-making tasks
  4. Irritability and a short temper caused—at least in part—by frustration with themselves
  5. Impulsivity
  6. Feeling overwhelmed and possibly even hopeless
  7. Spending a lot of time making decisions
  8. Physical symptoms like fatigue, poor sleep, headaches, and upset stomach
  9. A sense of dissatisfaction with any choice that is ultimately made
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Tips and Strategies for Managing Decision Fatigue

If several of those signs sound familiar, you may be dealing with decision fatigue. For a way to handle it effectively (and ideally, move past it), Manly and Dr. Paramar offer these coping strategies:

  1. Limit yourself to making no more than a few (three or four) big choices per day.
  2. Make most of your important decisions early in the day—when you're relatively charged with mental energy—leaving lighter decisions for later in the day, and schedule important meetings in the morning.
  3. Plan your agenda a day in advance, so you'll be better prepared with an early start the next day.
  4. Take regular work breaks to replenish your brain, and arrange timely and adequate meals and snacks, along with proper hydration, throughout the day.
  5. If helpful, ask a supportive friend or partner to weigh in on your most difficult choices.
  6. When facing too many options, narrow down your selection to three—don't question yourself—and then, from the final three, pick one.
  7. Avoid questioning your final decision; simply embrace your selection and move forward.
  8. If you get stuck, draft a simple pros-cons list, which can help facilitate objective and sound decision-making.
  9. Prioritize a list of tasks and create deadlines for yourself.
  10. Follow a set routine or a structure, which helps to save time and bring a sense of consistency in your life. It also eliminates decision-making for your routine tasks—like what time to get up, what to eat, and when to exercise. Set reminders on your phone if you need to.
  11. Avoid impulsive decision-making. Postpone decisions if you must, rather than make a wrong move you'll regret later.

There's a good chance that if you're managing decision fatigue, you're already pretty stressed. Reducing the anxiety and frustration caused by your inability to make decisions—starting with identifying the signs of decision fatigue—can go a long way toward improving your mental well-being.

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