Conquer decision fatigue 12 rules I use

01/30/2023 0 Comments

What is decision fatigue? Also called decision-making fatigue, it’s being tired and overwhelmed by choices. This problem comes from having too many decisions to make, especially right in a row.

According to some experts, the average American makes 35,000 decisions a day. Nearly 300 of those are just on food! Imagine.

When you’re writing your book, you have to make a large number of choices, too.

Decision fatigue is real. It’s just one reason an author shouldn’t write all day every day.

Decision fatigue can be deadly

Medical personnel can make bad decisions that result in permanent injury or death of patients. The chances of that happening increase the later in their shift it is. You can’t exactly time your ER visits to line up with shift change, though.

Judges in court have been shown to make poorer decisions as their day progresses. If you appear in front of a judge at the end of their morning or the end of their afternoon, there is almost zero chance of a decision being in your favor.

In his book When, Daniel Pink addresses this and many other things related to the time we do things, and when the best time is to do which things. The “when” that you want in these cases is when the doctor or judge is refreshed. That means you want your case to be on the docket for the first thing in the morning or right after lunch. Earlier in the week is better than a Friday, too.

Regarding writing your book, the “when” that you want is the time that you are refreshed. You don’t want to sit down to write at a time that you’re exhausted and feel like you couldn’t stir together a boxed cake mix let alone bake your book properly.

Ways to reduce decision fatigue

Many successful people reduce their clothing to one or two outfits or eat the same thing every day in order to limit the number of decisions they make. Others make certain decisions once and for all (watching movies only on DVD or Netflix, never in theaters, for example).

I once read of a successful man who had a rule for himself to only eat ice cream once a month—only on the full moon. When people asked him at a big celebration—his 75th birthday party—if he would please have some ice cream with his cake, he declined the treat because there was not a full moon that night. He made that decision for himself once and for all, and he remained 100% committed to it. That’s a great way of avoiding decision fatigue.

Just as having to make too many choices can wear a person out, too many options can be overwhelming as well. This is true even if we only have a few or even just one decision to make.

Tammy Foster stood in the towel section of a department store. She had one choice to make: which towels to buy for her home. She wanted to select towels that were of a good quality and of a reasonable price. You might say that’s a challenge right there.

Tammy also wanted to choose towels that her family members would like.





What seemed like one decision to make was really a stack (no apologies for puns!) of decisions she needed to make. Not having any input from those family members made it harder. She was there in the store alone.

It seemed like it should be simple, but it wasn’t. She “went tharn” like a rabbit in Watership Down and froze. Tammy grappled with that decision and went home empty handed. She jokes about it now, but something good has come of it. The experience helped her recognize decision fatigue in herself and others.

An American woman who had been overseas for a few years returned to the US for a visit and stayed with a different friend of mine.

My friend took her to the store. The visitor became so overwhelmed with all of the options that she had to leave the store. She said where she was living, there was one or maybe two options for any given item. Here, she saw nearly 50 options just for toothpaste!

She told my friend the type of item she wanted (such as toothpaste, a toothbrush, cheese, and bread), and my friend went back in and made the purchases.

Combine too many choices to make and too many options for each decision. That’s a recipe for disaster. Now add in trade-offs.

When the options have both positive and negative elements, that’s called a trade-off. When there are trade-offs, deciding takes a lot of energy. A person who is mentally depleted becomes reluctant to make trade-offs, or else makes terrible decisions.

Dean Spears of Princeton University says decision fatigue caused by the constant need to make financial trade-offs is a major factor in trapping people in poverty.

The poor have to make so many trade-offs that they are left with less mental energy for other activities. A trip to the store causes more decision fatigue in the poor than in others.

Self-regulation problems

Making choices drains precious mental resources, leaving the executive function less capable of carrying out its other activities. Decision fatigue impairs self-regulation. At the core of ADHD and BPD (and possibly other conditions) is a lack of self-regulation. People who have these conditions might benefit greatly from reducing the number of decisions they must make. Better self-regulation improves patient outcomes and quality of life.

Decision fatigue causes some people to avoid decisions entirely. While I don’t recommend decision avoidance, I do recommend reducing the number of decisions you have to make.

Putting rules in place to reduce decision fatigue

As an editor and a homeschooling mom, I experience decision fatigue on a daily basis. Guarding and managing my energy (reducing decision fatigue is part of that) is important and why I gave myself rules such as these:

  • Buy only solid-colored clothing in classic colors I look good in and that fall within a certain price range.
  • Buy and wear only black socks that are no-show.
  • Keep only three pairs of shoes: sneakers/tennis shoes, sandals, and dress flats.

Those three reduce my decision fatigue around what to wear.

  • Drink only water, coffee, and diet soda.
  • Organize my refrigerator and batch cook (I made 16 meals’ worth of breakfast burritos in the time it would take me to make and clean up one meal’s worth).
  • Follow the weekly menu (Taco Tuesday is the perfect example).

Those three reduce the number of decisions I have to make about what to eat or drink.

  • Make no more than three decisions per day regarding friend requests or suggested groups.
  • Leave the phone on Do Not Disturb mode (family members still ring through), have the message say to email or text me, and never check voicemail. This eliminates the “Should I answer that?” decision that could arise from three to ten times every day.
  • Set my Calendly availability to afternoons only (I later reduced the number of days for that availability, too).

Those three cut the number of decisions I have to make about interactions with people. These three help me reduce the decision fatigue that comes with editing books:

  • Go with Chicago‘s rule unless I have a good reason not to.
  • Use a style sheet (the decisions have already been made).
  • Stop editing for the day after a set number of hours or words.

How do (or how could) you reduce your decision fatigue?

Make a list of choices you could make once and for all. Here are some I’ve heard from other people (and some I’ve made myself):

  • I stay sober. No alcohol or intoxicating medications pass my lips no matter how much pain I’m in. (Out of respect for their privacy, I’m not listing the people who have told me this one.)
  • Sugar is out of my diet for a whole year (from Vincent Pugliese, who rocked it).
  • My blood sugar levels must stay in tight control, so I do whatever it takes to make that happen.
  • I brush my teeth before bed and upon rising every day.
  • When it comes to my family members, I am Steve McGarrett, meaning I am the one who drives (I no longer put my life in their hands).
  • I exercise every day, rain or shine (hat tip to Ken Hannaman and Ken Hoops for having more dedication here than most people I know).


To find out why it’s important to do certain things at certain times (and possibly save your own life), check out Daniel Pink’s book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.

Decision fatigue is just one thing addressed in Daniel Pink's book When, pictured here.