The Simple Move That's Helped Me Beat Daily 'Decision Fatigue'
November 7, 2018
There’s a reason we repeat that word in that phrase—it’s because make a ton of decisions every single day. Some estimate about 35,000 decisions a day.
Think: You’ve probably already made at least 15 decisions this morning.
Will I snooze or turn my alarm off?
Will I put my right foot or left foot on the ground first?
Will I wear a dress or those pants that are as comfy as sweatpants but look like real pants?
And all this decision-making takes a toll on our energy. Experts say the more decisions we make, the more mental energy we spend, and the harder it gets to make the next decision. It’s a vicious cycle called "decision fatigue."
We can’t avoid making decisions—they’re what literally get us out of bed and guide us through our day. But what we can do to avoid decision fatigue is plan our decisions.
“For most of us, the decisions that drain us are the ones that we make over and over and over again,” explains author and habit expert James Clear. “Wasting precious willpower these decisions—which could be automated or planned in advance—is one reason why many people feel so drained at the end of the day.”
That’s where routines can help.
Some people swear by their morning routines. A little bit of yoga or meditation, a trip to the gym, a healthy smoothie, checking their organized to-do list, sipping a contemplative cup of coffee—all before 8 a.m.
And while it might just seem like a way to unwind or stay motivated, a routine actually helps us avoid wasting energy on daily decisions, too.
Motivational speaker and author Mel Robbins swears by her evening routine, and I was fully onboard after watching her video describing her own evening rituals.
Here are her important steps: She packs lunches for her kids, puts their backpacks by the door; cleans the kitchen and clears off the counters; sets out stuff for breakfast; and prints out her calendar for the day. Robbins also sets her alarm and plugs in her phone in her closet. She does this so when she wakes up in the morning, everything’s been set. “There’s no thinking involved, it’s amazing,” she says.
Routines pack other benefits beyond fighting decision fatigue. Research shows that routines have incredibly powerful brain benefits. Two recent studies found that people who agreed with routine-oriented statements like “I find that a well-ordered mode of life with regular hours is the one for me” and “I do pretty much the same things every day” experience a higher sense of meaning in their lives.
Feeling overwhelmed by my own decision-making, I decided to take a page out of Robbins’ book and see if routines could help me automate some of my decisions. To start: I took a look at the decisions I make every day—and I…learned a lot.
Here’s what I learned, as well as steps you can take to plan your daily decisions.
Locate Your Biggest Daily TSDs: Time-Sucking Decisions
You probably have at least one (or a dozen) decisions you make every. single. day. I tracked one recent morning to see where my time went, and I was surprised by the results.
I realized every morning, I forced myself to make four time-sucking decisions:
●︎ Decide what to wear (and look up the weather)
●︎ Figure out what to eat (and, you know, make it)
●︎ Debate whether to wash my hair (that’s a 30-minute time difference in my routine, my friends)
●︎ Grab my laptop and pack my purse for my commute
It’s a lot of decision fatigue before I even head out the door.
Take stock of your daily TSDs—write 'em down if it helps. Then, ask yourself: Is this something I can automate or plan for in advance to save myself some mental energy? Just like I did, you'll probably notice a few TSDs that deserve some shaking up.
Plan Your Afternoons in the Morning
Ah, yes, the midday slump: 3 p.m. is a notoriously drowsy time that signals a dip in productivity and interesting decision-making. Recently, I was in the habit of getting a cup of M&Ms and pretzels with my afternoon coffee. I needed those M&Ms. But you can transform your afternoons by applying the same positive rituals.
●︎ Plan out your goals for the afternoon in the morning: It’s key to do this before the craziness of the day sets in. I write on my to-do notecard “Afternoon Goals” to keep my focus.
●︎ Give yourself a deadline: If you’re not productive during the afternoon, tasks can take even longer and make you stay later at work, creating a cycle of inefficiency. Pick a deadline for your afternoon goals, and stick to it.
●︎ Rope in a friend: To give myself accountability to stay on task and finish my work, I started asking my coworker what time he was planning on leaving, and telling him when I wanted to leave, too. The small act of choosing a time and saying it out loud kept me to it—and on task.
Plan Your Evenings in the Afternoon
Confession time: Sometimes, after a really exhausting work day, I accidentally fall asleep on the couch. Makeup still on. Teeth unbrushed. No alarm set. It’s not pretty. I’m not proud. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night—fracturing my sleep and leaving me feeling unrested all day—or jolt awake long past when my alarm would have woken me up.
The reason: I’m so spent from making decisions all day, my brain can’t even fathom deciding if I should crawl to the bed or just stay put. So, stay put is my typical move.
I realized I was dozing off because getting ready for bed after dinner felt too monumental and like so many steps (again, not proud.)
Now, when I get home and I’m in for the night, I immediately take off my makeup, wash my face, and put on pajamas, before dinner. Then, after I’m done eating, it doesn’t feel like I have a million tasks to do. I can pretty much just jump into bed.
Plan Your Mornings in the Evening
Keeping decision-making light in the morning is key. Think of your energy like a phone battery: If you're at 100 percent when you wake up, you don't want to dip down to 80 percent before you even open up your email inbox. You still have the whole day—and many, many more decisions—to get through.
Like Robbins explained, planning morning decisions in the evening can help.
Instead of making all those decisions in the morning, I started pushing some to the evening. At night, I started checking the weather for the next day, figuring out what to wear, and laying it out. Is this what I wanted to be doing with my precious nighttime hours? Nah. But knowing I had one less decision to make in the morning made it worth it.
I’m also one of those people who needs to eat something immediately upon waking up or I literally can’t function. Again, too many choices: in the morning, when I don’t have time to spare, I’d spend precious minutes debating between making oatmeal or a smoothie or hey, why don’t I walk over to Dunkin’ and treat myself to a donut? Doh.
The solution: In my evening ritual, I make that decision the night before and put my oatmeal and bowl out on the counter. I even started grinding my coffee beans the night before, saving me another minute. Also, like Robbins, if there are dirty dishes in the sink, my brain has a mental fit and throws off the whole breakfast routine, so cleaning up at night became a priority.
Planning your decisions ahead of time doesn’t have to be challenging or onerous—all it takes is often minor tweaks or additions to what you already do. Think of it more like a reshuffling of your day. And from my own experience dabbling with routines—they work.
As evidence, I’ll admit that last night I didn’t do my evening routine, crashed on the couch, overslept, and whaddya know? I woke up to chaos. You better believe I’m making more decisions in advance from now on.
Read next: The Importance of a Daily Routine