You may not realize it, but your day is actually filled with hundreds of choices from the second you wake up. Which shirt should you wear? What should I eat for breakfast? Should you drink coffee before or after your workout? How should you respond to the new assignment your boss gives you?
Some days are more stressful than others and may require you to make more choices than usual. This can lead to decision fatigue, a phenomenon that can negatively affect the quality of the decisions you make once you reach that point.
Studies have shown that making decisions is more mentally exhausting than contemplating what you don’t have to choose. Furthermore, decision fatigue can impair self-control over time. All the decisions you make – whether big or small – can lead to decision fatigue, no matter what they’re about. And from that moment on, any decisions you make can be affected, whether they’re related to work, family, relationships, exercise, food or something else.
Dr. Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at the University of Queensland in Australia and one of the study’s authors, says, “These decisions don’t seem to matter.” It all comes from a common pot of willpower. And if you’re making unhealthy food choices because of decision fatigue], it can lead to weight gain if you do it often enough.”
Once you reach decision fatigue, you’re more likely to make rash, impulsive decisions, or postpone making them. So if you’re hungry, you’re more likely to make impulsive choices and reach for more calorie-dense options.
“People may go for something simple and tasty,” says Dr. Kathleen Vohs, a professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Minnesota and another of the study’s authors. This could be a prepackaged food that tends to be high in calories and sugar.” It’s more like giving in to the easy route.”
Because decision fatigue tends to happen later in the day, when you’re making decisions about dinner, dessert, or a midnight snack, your eating habits are more likely to be affected, even if you ate healthily earlier in the day.” It’s hard to use self-control after you’ve made a lot of decisions,” explains Voss.
Fortunately, it’s possible to prevent reaching a point of decision fatigue. Try these strategies.
1. plan your meals.
Having a steady diet of common food choices may help limit the choices you make when you’re hungry. Meal prep can make your decision making more automatic because you don’t have to think about what you’re going to eat multiple times a day.” When you wait until the end of the day to decide what to have for dinner, you may be eating more fatty, calorie-dense foods than if you make a plan for the week,” says Baumeister.
If you like to eat the same thing for breakfast, lunch or dinner, great. If you don’t, you can make meal prep more exciting by trying new recipes.
2 Establish a regular routine.
In addition to meal planning, establishing regular routines for your non-food choices can also help minimize the number of decisions you make each day, which can push off decision fatigue. Knowing ahead of time which days of the week you’ll exercise, what you’ll wear, and how you’ll relax before bed can be powerful.
3 Strengthen your self-control through exercise.
“Research has shown that practicing self-control has a positive impact on the ability to resist temptation,” says Dr. Martin Hager, a professor of health psychology at the University of California, Mercy, who studies decision fatigue.” Physical activity may be helpful because it requires self-control [commitment to daily tasks] and also has an appetite suppressant effect.”
4 Create an “if, then” strategy.
Eliminate the need for in-the-moment decisions by creating “if, then” strategies for yourself. You can create scenarios that apply to food choices or other situations that typically occur in your work or personal life, such as. If it’s Monday, Wednesday or Friday then you’re going for a run after work, even if you’re not in the mood. If you’re hungry for a snack, then you’re going to eat fruit instead of candy.
“The ‘if, then’ mindset works. It’s proven to help you make the right decisions, even when you’re exhausted,” Baumeister says.
5 Take regular breaks.
When you’re making cognitively demanding decisions, taking a break may help you avoid decision fatigue. Call a friend for a quick conversation, or take a short walk.” Often, a break from your workstation or the task at hand is likely to be replenished,” says Hagger.
Another pro tip: When you’re feeling stressed, go outside for a few minutes.” Researchers have found that taking a break can help reduce decision fatigue, especially when it involves getting out in nature,” says Vohs.