Mental Fatigue

What should I wear? What’s for breakfast? What’s on the radio? Where should I park? What do I have to do today? Where should I start? Where should I go for lunch? What’s for dinner? What are we doing tonight? What should we watch on TV? Which movie should we see? Which bill should I pay? What should I get at the grocery store? Should I see a doctor for this? Which workout should I do? Should I go to the gym or exercise at home?

Imagine you’re at the gym and you’ve just finished a grueling workout. A personal trainer, your friend, and others in the gym have been shouting at you for the last two hours. You are lying on the floor covered in sweat, nauseous. Every breath makes your lungs feel like they are on fire. Gradually, your heart rate returns to normal. Your breathing gets easier, and you’ve stopped sweating, but you just can’t get up from the floor. Your body is weak. Your physical energy is depleted. Your paralyzed on the floor unable to move. You fall asleep. When you wake you find that you are able to get up from the floor but you’re moving slowly. Your energy level is still low. You begin a new workout but this one doesn’t go as well as the last. This time you only make it an hour before you find yourself on the floor. You sleep it off again and upon waking you’re moving just a bit slower. You begin your next workout but this one is worse than the last. Thirty minutes into your workout you pull a muscle. You’re angry, frustrated, and resentful. Why are people crowding around the machines? You rest again, but it’s futile. This time when you try to work out you fall down. You injure your knee and now you can’t exercise for a couple of months. It’s easy to see the problem here, right? You worked to hard, didn’t get enough rest, and the quality of each workout declined while the risk of injury increased. Now, what if I told you that the same thing happens to our brains with decision making?

What is Decision Fatigue?

Research tells us that on average most people make 35,000 decisions a day. This is around 2,000 decisions per hour or one decision every two seconds. Does your job require you to make decisions? What kind of decisions? Some decisions are important but not life or death. Teachers make hundreds of important decisions every day. Some decisions have life or death consequences. Doctors and engineers make decisions that impact the health and safety of other people’s lives and families. Some people have time to think through their decisions and what the potential impact and consequences might be. Researchers can spend weeks or months making their next decisions. Teachers very often have very short notice, if any at all, to make very important decisions. Firefighters and emergency room physicians often only have seconds to make life or death decisions.

All these decisions require a certain amount of energy in our brain. Our brain, like our muscles, has a finite amount of energy available for decision making. We deplete it quickly. Factors in our life that drive the number of decisions we have to make determine how quickly we use up the energy we have. When that energy is used up our mind, like our body, becomes fatigued. This is decision fatigue. The consequence of decision fatigue is that the quality of our decisions deteriorates the more fatigued our brain becomes.

What Are the Signs of Decision Fatigue?

  1. Difficulty concentrating on tasks
  2. Lapses in attention
  3. Difficulty remembering what you were doing
  4. Failure to communicate important information
  5. Unintentionally doing the wrong thing
  6. Unintentionally failing to do the right thing
  7. Feeling overly emotional

Do you feel exhausted all the time? Do you find yourself mindlessly scrolling through your phone while your list of chores grows longer? Are you irritable? These are signs you’re in a state of mental fatigue.

How Do We Fix Decision Fatigue?

Unfortunately a good night’s sleep isn’t enough to refresh our ability to make good decisions. We live in an age where information and choices come at us very fast. Our smartphones and tablets contribute to the problem. There are two strategies that I have found to be the most helpful.

First, reduce the number of decisions you have to make by automating them. For example, meal planning eliminates the choice of what to eat thereby eliminating the need to make a decision. The movie Dear John featured a man whose father was autistic. His father made the same weekly dinner menu his entire life. Every Monday night was meatloaf. There is genius in this. The character had devised a strategy to reduce the overwhelming task of deciding what to cook for dinner by sticking to the same menu. But in doing this he also eliminated the need to decide what to put on the grocery list. These decisions were already made freeing space in his mind. I’ve employed a similar strategy by agreeing on a weekly menu with my daughter. I’m not as rigid as the character in the movie. I easily adapt to a change of plan and I rotate menus as I don’t want to do the same menu for the rest of my life. But I do love not having to think about dinner or grocery shopping. All those decisions are made. Another decision you can automate is what to wear. When I put away my laundry I arrange all of my outfits for work. When I get up in the morning I just put on the next outfit. I never stand in my closet staring at my clothes wondering what to wear. It’s another decision I don’t miss having to make. What decisions in your life do you think you can automate?

The second strategy I use can be summed up in one word – unplug. I am addicted to my phone. I check it constantly. This is a steady stream of information going to my brain and depleting my mental energy. My solution is to unplug for at least 30 minutes every night. If the weather permits I like to take my dog for a walk. My phone goes in my pocket and stays there. No earbuds. No headphones. I listen to the wind in the trees, the cars going by, kids playing ball, and the sound of my dog happily panting as we walk. It’s my favorite way to recharge.

My advice, focus on setting habits that automate as many decisions as possible. This frees up space in your mind for creativity, critical thinking, and increases your energy. Take some time every night to unplug. Make your mental health as much of a priority as your physical health.

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