Decisions, decisions

 Decision-making is never easy, especially at the end of a tough day. Photo: Getty Images
Decision-making is never easy, especially at the end of a tough day. Photo: Getty Images

The tyranny of choice only seems to get more oppressive as the hours pass. Sound familiar? Could be a reason for that, life coach Jan Aitken writes.

Ever get home at the end of the day feeling like your brain is mush, empty, not quite running on full speed?

Someone in the household will ask a perfectly simple question, such as "What's for tea?'' or "Which movie do you want to see tonight?'', and you're stumped.

Don't panic if that's the norm for you at the end of a busy day.

You're not necessarily losing your marbles or your memory.

It turns out we have only a finite amount of mental energy for decision-making during a day.

We're all familiar with the idea that physical exertion makes you physically tired.

Now it's known that complex thinking, decision-making and processing emotions takes brain energy and that is a finite resource.

As the day wears on "decision fatigue'' can set in, our ability to make good decisions deteriorates and our willpower diminishes.

Unlike physical tiredness, which we've learned to recognise, diminishing mental energy may not be as obvious to us.

Research carried out at Stanford and Ben Gurion (Israel) universities highlighted just how much impact decision fatigue can have.

When reviewing an Israeli parole board's decisions they found those up for parole were more likely to have it granted if they had their reviews earlier in the day, after lunch or after a break.

This was true even if the crimes and sentences originally given were identical.

A prisoner's chance of getting parole plummeted the later in the day their case was reviewed.

The parole board simply got worn down making complex decisions all day.

The most likely decision fatigue most of us can relate to is the classic supermarket shop at the end of a busy day.

In the supermarket we continue to make decision after decision.

What do we need, how much, does the larger packet work out cheaper, where can I find the ...

Having finally negotiated the aisles, we get to the checkout.

By now our mental energy and willpower are sapping, so yes I'll throw three chocolate bars and a packet of pork scratchings into the trolley.

On the grand scale of things these sorts of slip ups and hitches may not seem earth shattering.

However, let's take a closer look at how decision fatigue affects us and how we could minimise its impact.

The brain, like the rest of the body, needs energy to function.

It derives that energy from glucose, a simple sugar extracted from all kinds of foods and drinks.

Thankfully, our brain does not stop working when our glucose levels are low, but it does stop doing some things and starts doing others.

It responds more strongly to immediate needs (survival) and pays less attention to long-term problems (making complex decisions).

When the brain is low in glucose one of several outcomes is more likely:

• We are unable to weigh up pros and cons and evaluate trade-offs when making decisions. Someone who is mentally depleted becomes unable or reluctant to make trade-offs and can end up making very poor choices. Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people can't resist the dealer's offer to rustproof their new car or just give in and buy the item with all the bells and whistles, half of which will never be used.

• Decision fatigue can lead people to decision avoidance. Research has found that people who had more choices and were mentally depleted often settled for either default or status quo options.

• Decision fatigue can result in impulse buying. Remember the chocolate bars or perhaps the pair of shoes that don't quite fit?


To help us make the best decisions possible there are some things we can do:

• Make important decisions at the start of the day.

• Feed the brain. Eat well and keep hydrated. A healthy diet is good for the body and the mind and helps keep the energy levels consistent.

• Get regular good quality sleep. Tired decision-making is never advisable.

• Get regular exercise. It can help the body and clear the mind.

• Simplify your life. If something isn't important to you, eliminate it.

• Create routines and patterns that make some of the decision-making easier.

For example, make a menu for the week's evening meals and shop for it at the weekend.

Have a wardrobe that allows you to mix and match your clothes.

Sort out what you'll have for breakfast, what jobs need to be done and what the children are taking to school for lunch the night before.

As the old saying goes, variety is the spice of life, but sometimes we're faced with a little too much variety and the avalanche of decisions we face daily can be overwhelming and wear us down.

If you're making important decisions, take your time and seek advice if you need to.

- Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

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