The New York Times online posted an article a few days ago that sparked my interest. It’s about something called Decision Fatigue. This is essentially when you’re burned out from making too many decisions and you start making poorer decisions because of it. Decision Fatigue is now a documented, experimentally verified phenomenon and these researchers believe they’ve now found out why it happens.
This type of burnout of the decision making ability isn’t a new discovery. It’s something I’ve recognized over the years and I’m sure most of you noticed the same thing. At the end of the workday, your brain feels numb and you don’t want to have to think about anything. You want to go home and have a beer and watch mindless television for a couple of hours. Or maybe you’ve been studying hard all day or all night and you get to a point where you just can’t seem to make sense of anything any more. You can’t pack any more into your head. You’re brain dead.
According to the Times article, the researchers believe that the actual cause of Decision Fatigue is that the brain’s glucose supplies are depleted. Glucose is a simple form of sugar that is the fuel for the brain’s electrical activity. When the brain does work by making decisions, weighing different options and exploring ideas, this uses a lot of energy, supplied by glucose. This, of course, is a very simplified definition, so forgive me if I gloss over the heavy science.
When the brain’s glucose supply is low, we tend to make poorer decisions. We don’t have as much fuel to power through the hard questions as we did when our brains were fresh. So, we either take a bye and avoid making the decision entirely, thinking, “I’ll worry about it tomorrow,” or, we hit the easy button and say, “Screw it. I’ll take the blue one.” These are apparently the most common ways to deal with decision making when the brain is tired and they sound awfully familiar.
It stands to reason that this phenomenon isn’t just about decision making, though. I would guess that it would apply to all strenuous mental activity. Any time you think hard about anything, whether it’s trying to figure out quadratic equations, memorize a poem for class, or make sense of US Tax Code, you’re burning mental energy in large amounts. After a while, your brain gets less and less able to deal with it and your performance slacks off.
Decision Fatigue might not affect everyone to the same degree, but it’s fair to say it’s a pretty common thing for most of us. Now that there’s some scientific research actually verifying that it does happen and that there may be definite causes, perhaps we can begin to find effective ways to either mitigate the effects or avoid it entirely.
The researchers suggest trying to make the most important decisions earlier in the day or after a meal or snack. They noted that sugary snacks provide a quick glucose boost that quickly improves decision making ability in most test subjects. While this may not be the answer for people trying to eat healthy or lose weight, it can help us understand how to deal with Decision Fatigue.
Ultimately, there may be no easy answer for the problem of making poor decisions. Life is so complicated now that it’s hard to avoid the constant deluge of information that flows into our brains. Perhaps trying the best answer is to simplify your life and slow down a bit. There are many things in life that we spend time and energy on that really aren’t that important. Maybe taking some time to evaluate what’s important will help us to limit the chronic overload that causes Decision Fatigue.