5 Ways to Defeat Decision Fatigue

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Updated on Wednesday, August 28, 2019

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It happens to all of us at some point. Two (or more) roads diverge in the (metaphorical) wood, and you have no earthly idea which is the right one to take.

There’s the anxiety of major life decisions, of course, like deciding whether or not to accept that new job offer, or discerning whether your partner is “the one.” But even smaller decisions can become impossible when you’re faced with a slew of them: What are you going to wear today? What’s for breakfast? Will you hit the gym after work or attend that volunteer meeting? Should you or should you not buy that exciting (but unnecessary) new piece of technology?

Making decisions takes effort, and when we’re faced with too many decisions at once, we sometimes get just plain sick of it. And although having the freedom to choose is a privilege, it can also lead to significant headaches — and we don’t just mean the physical kind. Decision fatigue could spell trouble for your future and your finances.

What is decision fatigue?

What decision fatigue really boils down to, said Tess Brigham, a San Francisco-based psychotherapist and life coach (who sees a lot of it in her mostly-millennial client base), is having too many options to choose from, which can lead to a paralyzing fear of making the wrong choice.

The problem presents itself in a couple of ways, in her experience: people either find themselves going in circles, continually making decisions only to fail to stick to them, or they get stuck entirely, unable to make a move.

In bad cases, even minor, day-to-day decisions can become difficult to make — including something as simple as choosing what to eat for lunch. And along with leaving her clients in a life lurch, unable to move forward, decision fatigue can also lead to classic anxiety symptoms, like sleeplessness or lack of concentration.

Most importantly for our purposes here at MagnifyMoney, decision fatigue can cause its sufferers to make less-than-savvy financial decisions. When you’re already dealing with all that psychological weight, it’s easy to forget about your long-term financial goals, whether they include funding your savings account or tackling your overwhelming debt.

In fact, Brigham confirmed that I’d fallen victim to the problem in my own life: desperately in need of a car and sick of the full-time job it had become to shop for one, I ended up simply buying one off the lot at the sticker price. After a week of frantic test drives and back-and-forth conversations at dealerships, I signed the loan without even trying to negotiate, which could potentially have saved me hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars.

5 ways to conquer decision fatigue

We’ve established that decision fatigue can be costly — not to mention downright uncomfortable. So how can you go about conquering it in your own psyche?

Here are a few tactics.

1. Limit your choices.

We often think that having more choices is better. But as it turns out, having more choices makes decision-making even harder — and, in fact, may lead us to make no decision at all.

In an oft-cited 2000 study by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, shoppers at a high-end grocery store encountered a spread of gourmet jam to sample: either 24 flavors or six. Although the larger display drummed up more interest, when it came time to talk turkey, the smaller display won out. While almost 30% of shoppers who’d sampled from the smaller table bought a jar, only 3% who’d sampled from the large table did.

This research suggests that having too many options can paradoxically arrest our ability to make a choice in the first place. With so many available options, it’s hard to discern which one is best.

Thus, intentionally limiting your choices can go a long way toward fending off decision fatigue. To extend my personal example, I test-drove many cars I knew didn’t quite fit my requirements, which wasted both my time and energy. I might have been better equipped to negotiate at the end if I’d simply said “no thank you” to the ones I knew weren’t going to work.

2. Know your values.

According to Brigham, one of the main reasons people encounter decision fatigue is a lack of clarity about their own values. They may know what they really want to do, but the pressure of what they’re “supposed to” do gets in the way of following their gut.

So when you’re facing a big choice, it’s helpful to sit down and think about what really matters to you personally. Would you rather have an adventure today or security later? Do you prefer things or experiences? One way to solidify your priorities is to make a budget, including allowances for the things that you care about, whether that means traveling as often as possible or keeping yourself decked out with all the latest gadgets.

“You can only make choices and decisions based on what’s important to you,” Brigham said. It’s when you make choices based on outside influences that you run the risk of being regretful later.

3. Automate the day-to-day.

Steve Jobs famously wore the exact same uniform every single day: a black turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers. Casting aside the fact that that seemingly-simple turtleneck cost almost $300, there’s an important lesson to learn here with regard to decision fatigue.

We make countless decisions a day (some experts estimate it in the tens of thousands), so automating the basics can leave you more energy to expend on the stuff that matters — and you won’t find yourself tapped out by lunchtime. Speaking of which, many people also eat the exact same lunch every day, which might also dial down your decision fatigue, so long as you can stomach the idea (pun intended0.)

4. Make a “not-yet” pile.

If there’s an option that’s especially hard to let go of psychologically but is not feasible right now (financially or otherwise), Brigham suggests putting it in your “not-yet pile,” which can be a list of life choices that are still on the table for someday, but that you’re not going to make just yet.

For example, maybe it’s on your bucket list to move to New York City, but you need to stay in your current job to create an emergency fund first. Or maybe you dream about driving a Ferrari, but know a Honda Civic makes more sense for now.

Either way, just because something isn’t going to happen right now doesn’t mean it never will. Remembering that you likely still have plenty of time to get there can make decision-making a lot less psychologically fraught — and maybe keep you from a costly bought of emotional spending you’ll likely regret within a week or so.

5. Try not to take it so seriously.

Here’s the thing: although every decision seems like a major deal as it’s happening, chances are, most of them won’t make a huge difference in a year or two. Even big life decisions can usually be reversed. (After all, the American divorce rate hovers around 50%.)

“It’s fear that gets in our way of making decisions,” Brigham said. “At some point, you just have to pull the trigger.” Remembering that almost nothing in life is permanent can make it a little bit easier to take the big leap, especially if you’ve also followed the rest of the advice on this list.

The bottom line

Decision fatigue can make us feel powerless to choose among the options that face us, especially when we have too many alternatives or have to make too many decisions in a short period of time. In some cases, that can lead us to make moves that are unwise financially.

Fortunately, assessing our values, limiting our options, and remembering that very few things are permanent can help us get past our analysis paralysis, and maybe even save us a few dollars in the process.

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