In several experiments published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that self-control was subsequently worse after someone had made a series of both consequential and inconsequential decisions compared to those who hadn’t had to make many choices that day. This mental drain not only affects nutritional choices but also fitness-related ones: Swiss researchers found that athletes suffering from decision fatigue don't push themselves as hard and perform worse under pressure.
Here, seven tricks to help combat the issue.
While research hasn’t yet determined the timeline of exhaustion, "we do know if you make more decisions and more challenging decisions, the hangover effect will arise later that day," says Brandon Schmeichel, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology at Texas A&M University who studies willpower and emotion regulation. Thus, he advises making your most important decisions first thing in the day when you are freshest. Relaxing and resting can both reset your decision endurance, he adds.
Meal prepping is great for your physical health and your brain. “Following a plan or routine means you don’t have to make a decision every time you need to eat,” Schmeichel says. Spend Sunday (a day where you're probably not making as many decisions) planning out your meals for the week. Place extra emphasis on deciding lunches and dinners, since you're more likely to opt for unhealthy choices later on in the day when you're feeling fatigued.
“If something is important to you and you're committed to it, it’s easier to make decisions around that topic,” explains Schmeichel. Quickening your mile time might not seem all that important when your day is packed with work meetings, but keeping your energy up and mind clear probably is. Both of those can lead to the same end of consuming a clean and nutritious meal, but the latter may make reaching for a grain bowl over a slice of pizza less taxing.
If you think of yourself as a strong athlete, it’ll feel like less effort to eat well. Research shows it’s easier to make choices that are aligned with your core beliefs and commitments rather than ideas imposed on you by someone else, Schmeichel says. Identifying as a healthy human rather than someone who should be healthy helps limit your choices; your brain skips the pasta, fried food, vegetable-less menu sections and helps you have confidence that the performance payoff of a cleaner decision is worth more than the temporary taste bud satisfaction of heavier foods.
“The more options you have to weigh, the more taxing the decision will be,” Schmeichel says. Have two or three go-to snacks, lunch spots, and dinner options that you can cycle through.
It’s important to develop a skill Schmeichel calls “judicious use of decision making," which is learning that not everything has to be a decision. For example, seek out a nutritionist who can outline a meal plan. Or use a delivery service to have a healthy dinner delivered to your door with no effort.
One of the easiest ways to circumvent choosing: Let someone else decide for you. Go out to eat with a likeminded friend and get whatever they do. Or, better yet, choose for one another. A study in Social Psychological and Personality Science found that when we make decisions for other people, we make less risky choices and fatigue less quickly.
“There’s some interesting evidence to suggest it can be easier to forgo pleasurable decisions if you think you'll indulge in it again in the future,” Schmeichel says. It’s the difference between saying “I won’t drink tonight,” and “I won’t drink tonight, but I will enjoy a glass of wine this weekend.”