Mental Health

Decision fatigue: the psychology behind why you’re finding it so hard to make decisions right now

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Lauren Geall
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Have you found yourself avoiding big decisions, or being impulsive with your spending? You could be dealing with decision fatigue – here’s how to handle it.

Making decisions is part and parcel of everyday life. From the clothes you wear to the foods you eat, your daily routine likely contains hundreds of small decisions – many of which you probably make without even realising you’re doing so.

It’s one of those parts of life that’s easy to forget about, but the ability to make quick (and well-informed) decisions can actually play a big role in our overall wellbeing and happiness.

However, for many people, the last two years have thrown a spanner in the decision-making works.  

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If you’ve found yourself making impulsive purchases, putting off key decisions and struggling to choose between the most basic of options, you’ll know what we’re talking about – after the chaos and uncertainty of the pandemic, cost of living crisis and the switch to working from home, many of us have had our decision-making abilities turned on their head.

Why? According to psychologists, the answer lies in a condition called ‘decision fatigue’.

Triggered when the number of choices you have to make in a day outweighs the brainpower you have to make them, decision fatigue has risen during the last two years due to all the extra decisions we’ve all had to make about important matters like our personal safety, financial plans and career trajectories.  

A woman looking at a signpost with lots of directions
The number of decisions we've had to make has increased over the last two years.

Indeed, as the psychologist, author and speaker Doreen Dodgen-Magee explains in Psychology Today: “The pandemic has added myriads of decisions to everyone’s lives. Whether these have been major (eg, Do I stay in a secure job but cost my wellbeing? Do I cancel the non-refundable trip I’ve been planning/saving for years?) or relatively minor (eg, Should I go to the outing or not?), they have been constant. 

“We’ve been forced to make them from a place of exhaustion. The kind of brain fog inherent to this pandemic-related tiredness can intensify these symptoms of fatigue.”

There are four main symptoms of decision fatigue – procrastination, impulsivity, avoidance and indecision – all of which can place massive strain on your mental health and wellbeing. 

For example, if you procrastinate making a decision or avoid it altogether, you still haven’t dealt with the stress and psychological weight of the decision in front of you, which can add to the amount of pressure you feel throughout the day.

So, what can you do to combat decision fatigue? According to Dodgen-Magee, the answer lies in making a plan – and sticking to it.

“To relieve some of the psychological weight of decision fatigue, reduce the choices to be made in a day and work to make most of them in the morning,” she suggests. “Planning what you will wear and eat and how you’ll manage your schedule for the day, and sticking with the plan, will leave more brainpower for the bigger decisions.” 

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On top of sticking to a plan, she also recommends setting boundaries when it comes to what you will and won’t be doing going forward (this can be in regards to the pandemic, but also in regards to how much you can afford etc), as this will help to reduce the number of decisions you have to make.

From emotional exhaustion to dealing with the disappointment of changing plans, the last two years have presented a whirlwind of psychological challenges. 

However, while things have been tricky, there are steps we can take to make things a little easier – and dealing with any decision fatigue you’re experiencing is a great place to start. 

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.