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Decision fatigue: Why DOES your brain just feel so tired?

By March 19, 2021March 20th, 2021No Comments

What was once a fun perusal of online offerings has now become a decision too many for worn-out minds, says Gillian Roddie


Credit where credit is due, our brains are amazing. Every day we make between 10,000 and 40,000 decisions, everything from choosing what to have for breakfast and what to wear each day to the significantly more complex choices we make regarding our current and future selves in the diverse settings that make up our life tapestry.

But for the last year many of those decisions, even the smallest ones, have become weighted with uncertainty and fear. Where to get the milk for our seventh cup of tea of the day is no longer a straightforward transaction, and even the very anticipation of leaving the confines of our homes and safe spaces can involve a decision tree exercise.

Do we have a clean face mask and what time is best to visit the shop to minimise exposure risk? How many people are we likely to come into contact with during the outing? Is it safe to make this trip if we’re planning on visiting a support-bubble contact in a few days? Do we really feel up to leaving the house at all right now? [My current go-to answer for most of these questions is to procrastinate via TikTok until such a time that the decision is no longer relevant just in case you needed to know where my head is at right now.]

Damned if we do, damned if we don’t

In the year 2021 we are making choices against a relentless backdrop of fear, frustration, grief and exhaustion. Even when the options for more positive decision making have been offered to us during restriction easing, providing opportunities to live and move a step closer to “normality” within the rules we’ve collectively pledged to abide by, subsequent waves of infection have punished us for doing what we were told was the right thing to do. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

Work, family, and personal decisions melt into a hot pot of overwhelming risk assessments without the delineation that normally frames them as we conduct every facet of our lives from our sitting rooms. Many of us are likely to be trying to decide what to have for dinner, how to compose a tricky work email, and weighing up whether the no-return deposit for an overpriced Airbnb in the height of August is worth taking a punt on all at the same time, and all from the same kitchen table.

And while none of these things is ordinarily an extraordinary choice, these unprecedented times have led to dangerously low capacity levels for executing decisions. During Lockdown 1 I got to know our new postman, Chris, pretty well thanks to his almost daily trips to the front door to deliver whatever new distraction I’d gifted myself courtesy of another online shopping spree. I realised recently I haven’t seen Chris in ages as the deliveries have trickled to a complete halt. What was once a fun perusal of online offerings has now become a decision too many for my worn-out mind. Like many of us I’m likely experiencing something called decision fatigue.

Mental depletion

Decision fatigue was first described as a concept in the late 1990’s, and was based on the theory that we humans have a limited capacity to regulate our behaviour. Just as our muscles get tired after being worked, so too can our mental resources, and once we’ve depleted our energy reserves while making complex decisions, we need to rest and recharge before starting over. This was famously demonstrated in a study examining the decision making of sitting judges in a series of parole hearings.

Favourable rulings dropped from around 65% to almost zero as the morning wore on, then back up to 65% again after a break. It has been shown to affect medical workers during long shifts, journal editors reviewing manuscripts and air traffic control workers. The more decisions you need to make, and the more weight the consequences those decisions hold, the greater the impact it will have.

The Covid-19 pandemic has democratised risk. Decision fatigue is no longer solely the purview of those with literal life-changing responsibilities in their employment contract, it’s now our collective responsibility to stay at home to save real lives. I don’t recall filling out a CAO application for this particular role, but I know that it’s in my remit to go outside as little as possible if I want to be a decent human being and prevent people from dying.

It is relentless and exhausting. The breaks we were afforded between the first two lockdowns are unlikely to be repeated anytime soon, we know startlingly well the risk they bring and we’re unwilling to go down that path again. Experience has been teaching us that making decisions in a Covid landscape carries significant weight. What if we decide to meet a friend and it turns out they have asymptomatic Covid? What if we have it and we pass it on? What if we unwittingly send Covid to the creche, but what if we don’t use the creche and our work performance continues to nosedive? It’s all so much, perhaps I’ll decide later, after the Google hangout that’s scheduled before the Zoom call and between the back-to-back Teams meetings.

Making it meaningful

We really didn’t know what we had until it was gone, those few minutes between meetings as we moved from one room to another, perhaps with a quick wee in between, to help us quietly process what had just been discussed. Or the processing power of “just the one” drink after work on a Friday, an altogether less quiet affair, to help us to navigate the social structures of the people, the gossip, the all of it. The quick coffee with another parent after school drop-off, or the chats before or after a class in the gym, or the dozens of other casual interactions we engaged in without a second thought but which so meaningfully parsed our days and helped it all make sense.

Decisions, now, tend to be made in isolation, and the weight of them lie solely on our shoulders. Our depleted mental resources are squeezed well beyond the point of usefulness, and it’s quite exhausting. A seemingly simple decision, what to watch, or wear or eat, can now feel like a herculean task in the context of the endless other choices our frazzled brains need to compute.

The good(ish) news is that decision fatigue is relatively straightforward to “cure”, although not simple to execute in the current climate. Things that help include reducing the number of decisions you need to make, dividing your working day into manageable chunks of time, spreading the decision load with others equally invested in the outcome and finding strategies to push decision making to a better time of day or date.

I believe “lol nah, amirite” would be appropriate vernacular at these suggestions. But there are still options, perhaps not ones that will fill our capacity cups to the brim, but enough to keep us going. Scheduling a meeting to finish five minutes before the next one to walk around the room or grab a glass of water, committing to linking in with someone you know can help diffuse the brain melt over a coffee and a walk, and the simple act of acknowledging and accepting that this is hard, and it’s real, and it’s not you, it’s Covid.


Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash