Electric or gasoline-powered vehicle? SUV, sedan, van, truck?
HMO or PPO?
Cable or one of the dozens of streaming services?
We’ve never had more options from which to choose. This is supposed to be a good thing. It’s supposed to be liberating. More options means there’s a better chance of finding one that suits your exact needs, right?
In reality, this is where decision fatigue rears its ugly head.
What is Decision Fatigue?
Decision fatigue is the exhaustion or overwhelm that comes from having to sort through too many choices.
You can’t face another night of deciding what to eat for dinner, so you end up eating a bowl of cereal despite having a fridge full of food.
You scroll Netflix for way too long before finally giving up and going to bed because there are too many available shows.
You put off doing anything on your to-do list because you can’t figure out where to start.
By the time we decide which route to take for the dog’smorning walk, whether to eat breakfast or fast, whether to bike or drive to the office, whether to dive right into work email or mess around on Facebook, we’ve already sapped a ton of brainpower and precious energy—and the day’s only just begun.
By the end of the day, we’re making poorer choices. The cookies at the checkout line are harder to resist. Vegging out in front of the TV beats going to the gym (and if we do work out, we probably won’t go as hard or last as long). The infinite freedom of endless options has degraded our ability to make good decisions and exercise self-control.
Signs and consequences of decision fatigue
Poor decision making isn’t the only repercussion, though. Decision fatigue can lead to brain fog, irritability, and not just mental but also physical exhaustion. All those choices can also be paralyzing, causing us to procrastinate, or preventing us from making a decision altogether.
This is illustrated in a classic study in which researchers gave upscale grocery store customers the opportunity to sample gourmet jams from one of two rotating displays: a booth featuring 24 different jams and one featuring just 6.1 The larger display was more enticing, attracting 60% of passers-by, while the smaller booth brought in 40%. On average, customers who stopped sampled two jams, regardless of the size of the display. But when the time came to make a purchase, just 3% of the customers at the booth with 24 jams actually bought one, while 30% of the customers who’d visited the smaller display bought jam. Having two dozen jams to choose from might have looked and sounded great, but all those options were debilitating. The more options they had, the less likely they were to choose any.
And this can have other, more serious real-world consequences. Take the oft-cited study examining the factors determining the outcome of parole hearings.2 All the things you’d expect to determine a parole decision—the nature of the crime, history of the criminal—had little to no impact on the outcome of the hearing. The likelihood that a criminal received parole depended primarily on one variable: the time of day the hearing was held. The reason, according to the researchers, was that the judges were burning through their “decision capacity.” As the judges accumulated decision fatigue, the easy, safe decision grew more and more attractive.
Why Does Decision Fatigue Happen… Or Not?
From the second we wake up, we’re faced with a seemingly unlimited number of decisions. Many are relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but others are weightier. Some require you to flex your willpower, choosing between what you want and what’s prudent. Decision fatigue occurs because making decisions is like using a muscle, supposedly; you get worn out after too many reps or with too heavy a load.
This probably feels all too familiar, obvious even, but not all psychologists agree with this explanation. They point out that the judges in the aforementioned study, for example, might simply have been grouchy at the end of the day. Or maybe decision fatigue is really just an example of self-fulfilling prophecy, and people who suffer most from decision fatigue are the ones who believe in mental energy being a limited resource.3
Even more controversial is the notion that decision-making saps self-control and willpower for making good decisions in the future, a concept known as “ego depletion” (ego in the Freudian sense, not the self-inflated egomaniac sense). There’s some evidence in favor of ego depletion, such as one study in which subjects were asked to make a series of minor decisions about consumer goods (“Do you prefer the red shirt or the black shirt?”).4 In a subsequent classic test of self-control—holding your hand in ice water for as long as possible—they only lasted 28 seconds. Subjects who made no decisions lasted over a minute. However, while you might agree that it’s harder to say no to dessert after ordering a mocktail instead of the cocktail, large-scale analyses have found the scientific evidence for ego depletion to be lacking.5
Regardless, though, we’ve all experienced the feeling of, “I’m going to snap if I have to make one more choice today.” So what can you do to avoid it?
How to Combat Decision Fatigue
Make rules for yourself. Make them non-negotiable.
Rules like “I do 20 minutes of movement every day before my morning coffee” or “I eat 40 grams of protein every meal” are effective because they take decision-making and willpower out of the equation. They aren’t optional, so you don’t need to decide whether or not to do them.
Along the same lines, put as many things as possible on autopilot. This is why lots of fairly successful people wear a personal uniform. Steve Jobs and his black turtlenecks. Barack Obama and his suit(s). Mark Zuckerberg’s T-shirt and hoodie. Deciding what color of sock to wear in the morning when you’re rushed and you have a full day of momentous decisions ahead of you is a waste of time and valuable mental resources.
Don’t want to wear the same thing every day? No problem. You can also automate other parts of your life. Eat the same thing for breakfast every morning. Establish a morning routine or bedtime ritual.
Plan meals for the week.
Instead of deciding what to cook every single day, get it over with in one fell swoop. Every Sunday (or whatever day you prefer), plan out your meals for the whole week. Even better, do all your grocery shopping and cook whatever can be prepped ahead of time to reduce the amount of brain power you devote to food during the week.
If you want to workout more often but have trouble actually deciding to do it, hire a trainer or get a workout buddy. When you have a responsibility to someone else, or your hard-earned money is at stake, you’ll be obligated to attend, and the decision will be made for you.
Make the most important decisions early in the day.
Those decisions you’ve been failing at lately? Handle them earlier, when your decision muscles are well-rested. This could mean grocery shopping or hitting the gym in the morning instead of after work.
Flip a coin.
You know those agonizing decisions that don’t even really matter, like whether to buy collard greens or kale for dinner tonight? Those decisions where you fully admit that either choice would be perfectly adequate, yet you still can’t pull the trigger? When you find yourself in this situation, deliberating over errata, just flip a coin. Literally: take a coin out, assign values, and flip it.
The perfect choice doesn’t exist. The idea that it does, and that you need to be as close to perfect as possible, is probably keeping you stuck. Good is good enough.
Where the Primal Blueprint Comes In
Avoiding decision fatigue and paralysis isn’t just important for making better choices, being more productive, and “winning” at life. It’s also crucial for simply being happy, reducing stress, and removing mental clutter. One of the sharpest double-edged blades of being human is our ability to think about thinking, to analyze and overanalyze, to weigh the pros and cons and be weighed down by them. If we can eliminate any extraneous decision-making and analysis by planning, routine, automation, and maybe even relinquishing a little control, I think it’s a good idea to do so.
That’s one reason people find the Primal Blueprint to be so powerful: it automates certain aspects of your life. It’s a framework for making decisions, so the deliberation time is reduced or even eliminated. You no longer have to waste time and cognitive capacity on daily decisions about health, lifestyle, sleep, training, and food. The Primal Blueprint provides a frame of reference.
Instead of agonizing over that package of cookies by the register, you don’t even consider buying them because they’re made of grains, refined sugar, and processed seed oils. You don’t even have to really think about it. There’s wiggle room for personal variability, of course, and you’re free to geek out on the minutiae, but the big picture items are covered.
What about you? Does this post resonate with you? Do you suffer from decision fatigue? How are you currently handling it? Let me know down below!
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending more than three decades educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates flavorful and delicious kitchen staples crafted with premium ingredients like avocado oil. With over 70 condiments, sauces, oils, and dressings in their lineup, Primal Kitchen makes it easy to prep mouthwatering meals that fit into your lifestyle.