Decisions, Decisions

Decisions, Decisions

Posted on September 9, 2023

Decision Fatigue:

Your brain may be plotting against your New Year’s resolutions

Good intentions fly out of the window

You’ve just finished up a full day’s work. As you wearily slide into the driver’s seat, readying yourself to face traffic on the way home, you realize you should eat something. You’re on a quest to be healthier and stick to a budget for the new year, and you know you have a stocked fridge at home to make a week’s work of healthy meals. Then you suddenly remember that trendy new bistro you have been dying to try, known for its decadent (and expensive) menu! That sounds FAR better, so you text a friend to meet you there in five.

Is having too much choice a bad thing?

What happened? Welcome to a phenomenon known as decision fatigue. It is estimated that an average American adult makes about 35,000 decisions every day (Pignatiello, Martin, & Hickman, 2020). These decisions can be as simple as taking a lunch break or making judgment calls that can impact someone’s life if you are a healthcare worker. Making so many decisions for an extended period eventually takes a toll. Have you ever been to a large grocery store and can’t figure out why you are irritated at the fifteen varieties of the same product on display? Does it feel excessive? It’s not just you. We make thousands of decisions at work every day, and the load increases as technology advances and more brands flood the market. Our brains become fatigued with decision-making, and the more we need to make, the more likely it is that we will make impulsive decisions instead of logical ones as the day wears on. More decisions = tired brain = pie for dinner. This concept is based on the idea that we only have a certain amount of ability to regulate our behavior. The more we have to use our mental and emotional resources to make decisions throughout the day, the more we “deplete our ego,” and the less likely we are to exhibit self-control and make “good” decisions later on (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998).

What in the brain is to blame?

We can look deeper inside the brain at a chemical involved in decision-making called dopamine (DA). DA is associated with our brain’s reward system, which is also involved in the cost-benefit analysis our brain undergoes when we make decisions. Our DA balance in an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens (Nac) is at an average level when we are not mentally fatigued. We can make decisions that are more mentally “costly” at first but have a rewarding effect later because we have enough DA hanging around in the NAc. When we’re not mentally depleted, we have the self-control and insight to see the benefits of waiting for that pleasurable DA boost. But have we been riding this cost-benefit DA trade-off train all day? Game over, as the DA levels in the NAc plummet. Now, if we face a decision that is more work at first but will pay off later, our NAc doesn’t “see” it that way. It CRAVES its DA! Our brains are essentially highjacked. The NAc will “convince” us to choose the easiest option and promise the biggest, juiciest reward to get its DA fix ASAP (Boksem & Tops, 2008). An exhausted brain is not a logical brain, so at the end of the day, the spendy calorie-buster wins out over the thrifty veggie bowl.

Am I doomed?

Fortunately, there are ways that you can streamline your life. That way, you don’t become overwhelmed, and you regain control over your pesky dopamine reward system. Give your neurotransmitters a rest by cutting out the excess on-the-fly decision-making. In other words, practice planning and organization to prepare for your days and weeks. Some examples include using a web-based or physical productivity planner, and as soon as you receive a project, plan it out, day by day. Prepare for all work presentations well beforehand, or at least make the plan for what you will do, and when. Write out your goals for the next day the night before. Choose your work outfits on Sunday and hang them in the closet in order, by day of the week. Plan weekly meals, make a list, and shop for each day of the week. Figure out your favorite brands and don’t think too much about making choices at the supermarket unless something special catches your eye. You can even plan your lunches either home-cooked or premade, and pre-package them for each day so you can grab and go. The more you can plan, the less your brain must agonize, and the more effective you will become.


Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: is the active self a limited resource? J Pers Soc Psychol, 74(5), 1252-1265. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.74.5.1252

Boksem, M. A., & Tops, M. (2008). Mental fatigue: costs and benefits. Brain Res Rev, 59(1), 125-139. doi:10.1016/j.brainresrev.2008.07.001

Pignatiello, G. A., Martin, R. J., & Hickman, R. L., Jr. (2020). Decision fatigue: A conceptual analysis. J Health Psychol, 25(1), 123-135. doi:10.1177/1359105318763510

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