“What’s for Dinner Tonight?” Overload – With a Side of Decision Fatigue!

By: City Bible Forum

3pm on a Thursday afternoon. I needed to write an article but I just couldn’t decide on what to write. The low blood sugar didn’t help. But the indecision was due to more than that.

There were simply too many choices when it comes to what I could write on. Research has shown that the sweet spot for brain function when making choices, is to have 12 to choose from. With this article I could write about almost anything.

It also didn’t help that I’d already made a lot of decisions by 3pm that day. Can I sleep in for an extra 10 minutes? Should I have overnight oats or make porridge for breakfast? What is the best solution to the problem my manager raised in our morning meeting? Should I respond to that abrupt email a colleague sent me or leave it for later when I’m in a better frame of mind? And that’s just to identify a few.

Decision fatigue is a state of mental overload brought about by too many options and too many choices to make. When it kicks in, we may feel like we don’t have the mental bandwidth to deal with more decisions. It’s why choosing what to have for dinner on any given night can be the ‘yet-another-choice’ tipping point that sets us off after a difficult day of making decisions.

Decision Fatigue is More than a Feeling

Decision fatigue happens to the best of us. Decision fatigue is more than just a feeling – it stems in part from changes in brain function.

The more choices we make through the day, the harder each one becomes for our brains, and eventually we look for shortcuts. Generally this is either in reckless decision-making (exercising self-control and thinking through consequences requires too much energy) or doing nothing (decision paralysis is the ultimate short term energy saver).

Exacerbating Factors

The COVID pandemic has exacerbated decision fatigue. We are in a new world with more decisions to make, with information that is constantly changing, and with more risks involved (I’ve got a sniffle and the RAT test is negative – should I get a PCR? Should I see my immuno-compromised dad on the weekend?)

There are also other factors that exacerbate brain fatigue. Psychologist Lynn Bufka (from the article linked earlier) says:

“Having insufficient information about the choices at hand may influence people’s susceptibility to decision fatigue. Experiencing high levels of stress and general fatigue can, too. And if you believe that the choices you make say something about who you are as a person, then that can ratchet up the pressure, increasing your chances of being vulnerable to decision fatigue.”

So here’s another reason why I couldn’t decide what to write: I put a lot of pressure on myself to make a good decision. I wanted what I wrote to be useful and helpful for people. So my self-worth was tied up in the mix and I was also trying to make a decision based on something that is outside of my control (how it will be received by others).

Practical Steps

So what can we do about it?

Sleep on it. Decision fatigue accumulates during the day, whereas sleep restores energy. It is not that things are better in the morning but that we are better.

Make some choices automatic. This will mean less overall decisions to make in a day. I could for example decide to get out of bed when the alarm beeps and make May my ‘porridge month’. Talk to a trusted friend. It helps to not be alone when making important or particularly challenging decisions. A trusted friend can check our thinking and provide another perspective.

Take a reality check. Remind our selves that good enough is almost always good enough. Most decisions are not going to be 100% irrevocable or going to determine the path of our lives.

Pace our selves. Give our selves “brain breaks” so our brains aren’t mentally “on” all the time. Take a lunch break, grab a coffee, go for a walk or listen to some music.

Tune into our feelings. We may not realise we are experiencing decision fatigue, but the fact that something is starting to faze us that normally wouldn’t – that could be a sign.

I found those practical steps useful for making progress on my article. I slept on it. I talked to a trusted friend about what they would find helpful. I took a reality check: good enough is almost always good enough.

And I also reminded myself that this decision didn’t define me as a person.

Rest for the weary

Since I’m a follower of Jesus I’ve been thinking about the difference my faith makes to my decision fatigue.

My faith enables me to embrace my humanity: I’m not in control, I don’t always know the best decisions to make, and I get weary making them. Many a time I have leaned into this promise that Jesus makes:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” [Matt 11:28]

I can rest knowing that Jesus has everything in hand. He is in control and he has my back. And that does lighten the load of the burden of decision fatigue.

When Jesus walked this earth, he was always inviting people to “come to him”. Whatever people decided about Jesus he said had eternal ramifications.

What if Jesus is right and the one decision in life that really matters is whether or not we “come to him”? And where might our decision fatigue be kicking in here: in rash dismissal or in decision paralysis?

So, what’s for dinner?

I got over the decision fatigue. I wrote the article. You’ve been reading it. And I’m hoping it’s helped you understand why: “What’s for dinner?” became the hardest choice you made today.

Article supplied with thanks to City Bible Forum.

About the author: Caroline Spencer is an experienced speaker, writer, mentor and trainer with City Bible Forum.

Feature image: Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash