Do you ever feel exhausted by the middle of the day?
If so, you could be suffering from decision fatigue.
Decision fatigue occurs when you have to repeatedly make decisions. Every decision you make takes effort and depletes some of your mental resources. By the end of the day – after making hundreds of decisions – you feel mentally drained.
You struggle to make simple decisions (e.g., “What will I have for dinner?”) and the quality of your decisions deteriorates too (“I’ll get Uber eats”).
In the book The Gap and The Gain, Dr Benjamin Hardy describes decision fatigue as follows:
“Decision fatigue happens when you’re not sure what you’re going to do. It’s when you’re torn between options and, due to your indecisiveness, you often cave to the tempting worse option.”
Instead of studying, you go on social media.
Instead of cooking a healthy meal for dinner, you order greasy fish and chips.
Instead of getting to bed at a reasonable hour, you watch another episode on Netflix.
Unless you have the self-discipline and mental clarity of a Zen master, decision fatigue is something we have all experienced.
Research has found even people who are expert decision makers (i.e., judges) suffer from decision fatigue.
In one study researchers examined 1,112 judicial parole decisions by eight experienced judges at different times throughout the day.
The researchers found if prisoners appeared before the judges at the very beginning of the day or after a food break (morning tea or lunch), they were more likely to get granted parole than prisoners who appeared later in the sequence of cases in a session.
In fact, they found the probability of a favourable decision dropped from 65% to almost 0% from the first ruling to the last ruling with each sitting session.
What was going on?
When the judges started their work day, they had a lot of mental resources available. One would assume these judges had slept well and had some breakfast.
But as each sitting session progressed, each decision they made depleted their mental resources and executive function. Just before morning tea or lunch, their mental resources would have been running low.
The researchers argued that when the judges had limited mental resources they became increasingly punitive. They simplified their judicial decisions and went with the status quo which was to deny parole requests.
This phenomenon is known as the Irrational hungry judge effect.
What do you do with a hangry judge?
Give them plenty of breaks and food.
In this study, the judges’ mental resources seemed to be replenished and their decision making ability restored after morning tea and lunch breaks.
Ways to replenish your mental resources
What does this research on hangry judges have to do with your studies and work?
Here’s how it relates . . .
For optimal brainpower, you have to schedule in rest breaks. If you don’t schedule in regular rest breaks, they often don’t happen. You also need to take care of yourself with healthy food and healthy lifestyle practices and eliminate trivial decisions wherever you can.
Here are some simple and practical things you can do to overcome decision fatigue and keep your mental resources topped up:
1. Carry a digital timer with you
I like to have a digital timer within arms reach at all times when I’m working. At the start of a work session, I’ll set the timer for 20-30 minutes. When the timer goes off that’s my cue to get up and move.
The timer reminds me that:
1) I’m not a robot; and
2) I need to take breaks to replenish my mental resources.
2. Stop mindlessly clicking and scrolling
Clicking and scrolling through your social media feed can rapidly deplete your mental resources. Jumping around the Internet from one random post or video to another can erode your attention and willpower. As the Center for Humane Technology states:
“When endless content creates an overwhelming amount of want, we can end up addicted to seeking satisfaction, clicking and scrolling, mindlessly consuming content, often with minimal oversight from cognitive control regions of the brain. Ultimately, this behavior drains our energy.”
Social media algorithms also promote content that provoke angry reactions over neutral and positive reactions. When you see posts that fill you with anger and other negative emotions (e.g., fear, envy, and anxiety), this can also leave you feeling drained.
So, be intentional about your social media use. Ask yourself, “Why am I going on here? What’s the point?” If it’s for fun and/or entertainment, that’s fine. But it’s a good idea to have your digital timer nearby and set a time limit. When the timer goes off, say out loud “That’s enough. I’m getting off!”.
3. Eat healthy snacks and food
Your brain needs energy to function at an optimal level. Where does it get that energy from?
Simple answer: food.
Author of The Willpower Instinct Dr Kelly McGonigal recommends fuelling your body with foods that give you lasting energy. She states:
“Most psychologists and nutritionists recommend a low-glycemic diet- that is, one that helps you keep your blood sugar steady. Low-glycemic foods include lean proteins, nuts and beans, high-fiber grains and cereals, and most fruits and vegetables-basically, food that looks like its natural state and doesn’t have a ton of added sugar, fat, and chemicals.”
4. Establish habits, plans, and/or check lists
Establishing habits, pre-planned responses, and checklists reduces the number of decisions you need to make, subsequently preventing decision fatigue.
I’m a big fan of tiny habits and implementation intentions to help streamline the day. I also have a folder of checklists to help me pack equipment for various trips, work jobs, and community events.
These checklists make all the difference, especially when packing for trips away. The night before I go away, I grab my packing list and start throwing items into my bag. Very little mental effort and/or decision making is required! I get to start my holiday full of energy rather than feeling mentally depleted and grumpy.
5. Spend time in nature
If you’re feeling overworked and mentally frazzled, head outside for a good dose of nature. Research by Hartig shows nature can restore deficits in attention and make people think and feel better.
6. Move your body
I understand when you’re feeling tired, the last thing you want to do is get up and move. But research shows a five minute walk can do your brain the world of good.
One study found taking six regular five minute walking breaks every hour left people feeling more energised and less fatigued than people who just took one 30 minute walking break and sat for the rest of the day.
7. Do trivial things the night before
Can you lay out your clothes the night before? Pack your lunch and bag before you go to bed? Write a short to-do list for the next day? If you can knock off a few trivial decisions the night before, this is going to lighten your mental load the next day.
8. Take a nap
I love the energising effect of taking a post-lunch/afternoon siesta. I started taking power naps when I was an exchange student in Italy. My Italian host mother insisted I take a nap after lunch (it’s what everyone in the village did). So, when in Rome . . .
I grew to love taking naps. In fact, I’ve continued the practice for the past 20 years.
I recommend limiting your naps to 15-30 minutes in duration (any longer and you risk waking up feeling groggy). To avoid messing with your sleep at night, make sure you take your nap before 5pm.
To sum up
We can all learn a thing or two from the example of the punitive behaviour of the hangry judges. To avoid the Irrational hungry judge effect you need to take care of yourself.
The good news is there’s a lot you can do to replenish your mental resources. If you take a few minutes here and there to engage in tiny self care practices, not only will you feel better but you’ll more likely make better decisions.