Decision fatigue can clog your brain

Here’s how you can overcome the thief of good decisions

Before you lift your head off the pillow in the morning and plant your feet on the floor, how many decisions have you made? Internet sources estimate that an adult makes about 35,000 remotely conscious decisions each day. Cornell University researchers estimate that individuals make 226.7 decisions each day just on food alone. Are you tired just thinking about it?

Science indicates these small decisions clog your brain’s neural synapses, slow down the transfer of information and limit the brain’s ability to make important decisions later in the day. That’s decision fatigue. It’s a silent thief that embezzles your decision-making capabilities as the day wears on. Decision fatigue is the notion that people tend to make worse decisions after having tended to a large number of small, inconsequential decisions. Much like muscle fatigue, if you over-flex your decision muscle, you get stressed out and fail. 

In 2011 researchers investigated the decisions of parole board judges at four major prisons in Israel. They confirmed that legal formalism holds that judges apply legal reasons to the facts of a case in a rational, mechanical, and deliberative manner. By analyzing more than 1,100 of the judges’ decisions over the course of a year, the researchers discovered that decision making was all about time of day. Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70% of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10% of the time.

Eliminate unnecessary deliberation 

And that’s not all decision fatigue might explain. Perhaps sales reps who insist on an afternoon appointment might be hedging their bets that the boss will be more receptive to their sales pitch. Decision fatigue may be the answer to why leaders and managers make disastrous late-night decisions. Are you rethinking how you implement longer work shifts?  

Decision fatigue doesn’t discriminate. It warps the judgment of everyone: executive and nonexecutive, rich and poor.  No matter how rational you are, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. Decision fatigue silently pilfers your capacity to make good decisions. 

When the brain’s processing powers weaken, so does its inhibition and frustration levels. Tired brains get into needless fights over inconsequential decisions, make illogical shortcuts appear worthwhile and, when compounded with high frustration levels, tend to favour short-term gains and quick decisions over selecting the best option. 

Psychologist Roy F. Baumeister noted that decision fatigue fluctuates. Anyone is prone to making poor decisions if they have low glucose levels or are mentally fatigued. Others concur that executive function can be restored and mental fatigue overcome, in part, by viewing scenes of nature (take a walk); taking short rests (power naps); experiencing a positive mood (mindfulness); and increasing one’s blood glucose levels (eat foods with natural sugars, like oranges).

My mother, and maybe yours too, was ahead of her time. She stymied decision fatigue without even knowing. She routinized small decisions and led by example. She showed me how to pack my school books the night before and place my bag at the door. Select tomorrow’s wardrobe today and place it on the chair for tomorrow. She did everything she could to make sure that when I left home my brain synapses were firing along uncluttered pathways and were ready to face the academic challenges of math and chemistry. 

So what’s the bottom line? It’s wise to routinize small decisions into habits that eliminate unnecessary deliberation. Make important decisions earlier in the day and on a full stomach.

Hacks to deal with decision fatigue  


Get plenty of it

It’s essential for staying energized, mentally sharp, and healthy 

Sleep flushes harmful toxins from the brain 

Schedule important decisions early in the day 

Front-load your day with the important decisions 


Push decisions to the lowest competent person

Hire the best person for the money you have 

Provide training and development 

Keep then happy 

Limit your options

Do your research and limit your options to two or three choices

Go minimalist 

Routinize simple decisions

Implement what your mother taught you 

Routinize simple decisions into habits 

Before bedtime pack your lunch, lay out your breakfast, choose your clothes and turn off your electronic devices