How to beat “decision fatigue”

Caring for an ill family member often requires taking on the role of “decision maker.” Sometimes it’s multiple mundane decisions (Should you ask your sister to do the shopping? Is this a good day to shower Mom? Now or after lunch?). And sometimes it’s several important health decisions, all in a short period of time.

Every decision is brain work
Decision making involves considering options and looking at tradeoffs, and then making a choice. Research has found these are particularly demanding mental tasks. So when you have a lot of decisions to make over the course of a day, your brain gets weary. That is called “decision fatigue.”

Decision fatigue affects our behavior
You are unlikely to feel your brain’s fatigue; it’s not like physical fatigue. But weary brains, like weary bodies, get lazy. In fact, a weary brain resists expending all the energy that is required to make a careful decision. Instead, researchers report, when we are mentally fatigued we resort to shortcuts: we make choices quickly and impulsively or we make no choice at all.

With that kind of decision making, we’re likely to have regrets later (even “no choice” has consequences).

Set the stage for good decision making
We can all make sound decisions. It isn’t about how smart you are. It’s about ensuring your brain is primed for the task.

  • Early is better. Make important decisions before fatigue sets in. For example, try to schedule important meetings or doctor appointments early in the day.
  • Food is fuel. Food sends glucose to the brain, and that helps restore quality thinking any time of day. Aim to make decisions after a meal or a nutritious snack.
  • Routine is wise. Establish a schedule for as many routine tasks as possible. That saves your brainpower for decisions that are truly important.