You might not realize it, but your days are actually filled with hundreds of choices from the second you wake up. Which shirt should you wear? What should you eat for breakfast? Should you drink your coffee before or after your workout? How should you tackle the new assignment from your boss?
Some days are more stressful than others and may require you to make more choices than usual. This can cause decision fatigue, a phenomenon that negatively impacts the quality of the decisions you make after you’ve reached that point.
Research shows making decisions is more mentally exhausting than contemplating without having to choose anything. Moreover, decision fatigue impairs self-control as the day wears on. All of the decisions you make — big or small — may lead to decision fatigue, regardless of what they were about. And any decisions you make from that moment on may be impacted, whether they’re related to work, family, relationships, exercise, food or something else.
“It doesn’t seem to matter what the decisions are,” says Roy Baumeister, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Queensland in Australia, and one of the study authors. “It all comes out of a common pot of willpower. [And if you make unhealthy food choices because of decision fatigue], this could lead to weight gain if it’s a frequent thing.”
Once you reach the point of decision fatigue, you’re more likely to make rash, impulsive decisions or put off making decisions. Thus, if you’re hungry, you’re more likely to choose impulsively and reach for more calorie-dense options.
“People may go for something easy and tasty,” says Kathleen Vohs, PhD, professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Minnesota, another of the study’s authors. This could be a pre-packaged food item, which tends to be high in calories and sugar. “It is more like giving in to the easy route.”
Because decision fatigue tends to occur later in the day, your eating habits are more likely to be affected when you’re making decisions about dinner, dessert or late-night snacks, even if you ate healthily earlier in the day. “It is harder to use self-control after many decisions have been made,” explains Vohs.
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Luckily, it is possible to prevent reaching the point of decision fatigue. Try these tactics:
1. Plan your meals.
Having a stable of go-to food choices may help limit your choices when you’re hungry. Meal prep can make your decision-making more automatic since you don’t have to think about what to eat multiple times a day. “When you wait until the end of the day to decide what’s for dinner, you’ll probably eat more fattening, caloric food than if you make a plan for the week,” says Baumeister.
2. Establish regular routines.
In addition to meal planning, creating regular routines for your non-food choices also helps minimize the number of decisions you’ll make daily, which may push off decision fatigue. It may be powerful to know in advance which days of the week you’ll exercise, what you’ll wear and how you’ll unwind before bed.
3. Strengthen your self-control via exercise.
“Research shows practicing self-control boosts can have a positive effect on the ability to resist temptations,” says Martin Hagger, PhD, professor of health psychology at the University of California, Merced, who studies decision fatigue. “Physical activity may help because it requires self-control [to commit to a routine] and also has appetite-suppressant effects.”
4. Create “if, then” strategies.
Eliminate the need to decide in the moment by creating “if, then” strategies for yourself. You can craft scenarios that apply to food choices or other situations, which normally arise 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’ll eat fruit, not candy.
“‘If, then’ thinking works. It’s been shown to help you make good decisions, even when you’re depleted,” says Baumeister.
5. Take periodic 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 go for a short walk. “Often, a break away from a workstation or the task at hand is likely to be replenishing,” says Hagger.
Another pro tip: When you’re feeling stressed, step outside for a few minutes. “Researchers have found taking a break can help reduce decision fatigue, especially if it involves getting out in nature,” says Vohs.
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