Do You Have Decision Fatigue?

by Krantcents · 47 comments

Post image for Do You Have Decision Fatigue?

Do you have decision fatigue?  What is that?  In MIT Sloan Management Review, I learned that parole boards approved paroles 70% of the time in the morning versus 10% of the time in late afternoon.  What is the lesson?

The problem

Don’t go to the parole board in the afternoon!  Most of us will never appear in front of a parole board, but there is something to learn from this.  Whether you are a high powered executive, parent, rich or poor, you may not make your best decisions near the end of the day.  Unfortunately, we have to make decisions all day long.  We do not get to pick and choose when we make decisions or do we?  I recently wrote an article about successful vs. unsuccessful people that illustrate at least 50 decisions we make in our lives!

Most surgical operations occur first thing in the morning.  I do not think we want the surgeon who will operate on you tired and suffering from decision fatigue!  Surgeons and doctors are trained in such away to deal effectively with fatigue, although I rather have them well rested.  Most professions do not undergo training in the same way.  What do you do?

How your brain works

I think it would help to understand how your brain works.  We make small and big decisions all day long.  When our brain can longer handle the difficulty of the decision, it takes shortcuts.  As you understand this, you should try to defer big decisions, if you can.  Why?  The first shortcut is not thinking about the consequences.  Big decisions such as buying a car, home, money or career change should probably have more time and avoid the end of the day.

If you missed that clue, the next shortcut is avoiding the decision entirely.  Instead of thinking through the decision, you avoid any choice.  Remember, this is not what you are having for dinner; it is when you are fatigued to the point where you do not feel you can make a choice.  Have you ever felt that way?  Do you avoid making decisions at the end of the day?  Have you ever felt overwhelmed making choices?


Car dealers always seem to have long negotiations with customers.  I think it is to wear you down so your resistance is low.  How do handle decision fatigue?  I teach six classes a day, I find that my fatigue factor affects me near the end of the day.  Can I defer my choices until the next day?  No, I have to deal with circumstances as they come up!  It is similar to parenting; you cannot defer many decisions to the next day either.  What do you do?

This is where your experience, training and skills come into play.  You go to your bag of tricks and pull out that magic bullet that has worked in the past.  You give your child a time out so you have the time to deal with the issue.  In my class, I remove the problem temporarily so I have the time to deal with it too.  Recognizing that you have fatigue helps you make a better choice.

Final thoughts

Now that you understand how your brain works, you can set your priorities.  You know, arrange your day as much as you can where you handle the important or difficult decisions in the morning.  If you cannot, take the time to mull it over when your brain is not fatigued with making difficult decisions.  You probably do this naturally, but now you know why.  Big decisions about money should always require more though, but what do we do?  We go shopping for things after work!  Grocery shopping should always have a list and stick to it!  Hopefully, you made your choices when you were not fatigued!  Do you have decision fatigue?

Photo by:  Mike Licht

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Miss T September 15, 2011 at 2:34 pm

My hubby and I have this all the time. We have to think so much in our day jobs and make so many decisions that when we need to make decisions at home in the evening, we are really indecisive. Both of us are too tired to want to decide. Plus we have this bad habit of always wanting to make the other person happy which just makes us go around in circles and waste time. This is definitely something we need to work on. 

Jeff @ Sustainable Life Blog September 15, 2011 at 11:44 am

Miss T – The awesome thing about decision fatigue is that you can have a candy bar and replenish some of your decision making skills!

krantcents September 16, 2011 at 12:15 am

Understanding how the process works should tell you not to make big decisions late in the day. Although even trivial things like what to have for dinner can be a challenge!:)

Maggie@SquarePennies September 15, 2011 at 7:00 am

I can’t make good decisions in the morning because I’m not a morning person.  I need at least  2 cups of coffee to get my brain working.  For most people it’s better to make important decisions on the weekends when you have more time to give to it and less fatigue from work.  Also there’s nothing wrong with postponing a decision if you can.  Sometimes it takes a while to filter through all the information and see what’s important.  The bigger the decision the more time you should take.

Suba September 15, 2011 at 9:41 am

I was going to write about that research too :) I think me & my husband have it all the time. We make a list and important decisions we don’t take within just one discussion. We generally don’t buy much impulsively so that helps. I am a procrastinator to the fault. So that affects my decision too. I will have to work on it.

Evan@MyJourneytoMillions September 15, 2011 at 7:11 pm

I can’t say I consciously know if I have decision fatigue or just write it off as being tired…is that in it of itself decision fatigue?

krantcents September 16, 2011 at 12:20 am

It sounds like it!:) If I had a hard or tiring day, I know I have trouble making decisions. Sometimes it is just making too many decisions.

Hunter September 15, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Yes, I can see this. I rely more on my routine in the afternoon to get things done, rather than try to be too creative. Interesting article.

krantcents September 16, 2011 at 12:22 am

I think I peak around 2 PM then it is down hill. I seem to get a second wind later, but it is not the same as my morning energy and focus.

Jeff @ Sustainable Life Blog September 15, 2011 at 11:43 am

I read a whole book about this sort of thing and it was very interesting.  I can definitely say that If I havent eaten much, I have trouble making some decisions and find any reason to put the things off.

MoneyCone September 15, 2011 at 7:55 pm

That is some fascinating trivia!  I wonder if this depends upon the person making the decision.  I find mornings work best for me.  My wife’s a night owl!  

The car dealer technique is also used by interrogators!  

krantcents September 16, 2011 at 12:30 am

My wife and I are morning people. I generally take a couple days on any big decisions. Interrogators use sleep deprivation as well as playing music and keeping the lights on to upset you sleeping patterns.

Shannyn September 15, 2011 at 10:21 pm

I seem to have decision fatigue as of late.  It seems there are a lot of choices out there (maybe not always opportunities but choices none the less) for me who is about to graduate with my MA degree and also blogging as much as I do.  It gets to the point where you’re really not sure if your decisions are moving you forward or just distracting you from more important things or at least better uses of your time.  How much networking is enough?  How many hours of free work do you put in before you expect to see returns on your investments?  How do you know if you’re working for a long term goal or if you’re making poor use of your day?  Sometimes it’s hard to tell and I totally get tired from it!

krantcents September 16, 2011 at 12:37 am

Along with long term goals, you need to develop a plan to help you meet your goals. My plans include daily and weekly tasks. I hold myself accountable when I measure my progress.It keeps me on task.

krantcents September 16, 2011 at 12:17 am

Personal circumstance does enter into this, but sometimes you do not have a choice. I usually take more time with big decisions too.

krantcents September 16, 2011 at 12:19 am

I like to say it is a work in progress!:) I am a list person so I tend to like to check things off. It is one way to avoid procrastination.

Tim September 15, 2011 at 4:23 pm

“Do you have decision fatigue?”  Sounds like the perfect tag line for 5 Hour Energy Drink.  :)

Yes, I can relate.  After a long day at work, I’ll often just want to sit and read or watch a mind numbing show on TV.  Lesson for me: wake up a little earlier so I have more ‘good decision making time’ in the morning. 

krantcents September 16, 2011 at 12:25 am

I agree food does affect your energy level and lucidity! In the evening, I try to avoid too many decisions.

krantcents September 16, 2011 at 12:27 am

I think I saw that commercial on TV! Some people were playing touch football and one of the players was acting out of sorts like Betty White. Any food even candy can help although short lived.

krantcents September 16, 2011 at 12:39 am

Knowing yourself helps you make better choices. I do my best thinking when I am riding my bicycle in the outdoors. I think it is because I can do little else.

Andrea @MoneyMastered September 16, 2011 at 12:47 am

I think I actually suffer from worse decision fatigue in the morning than in the afternoon. If my body had its way, I’d sleep til about 9 every morning. Instead I have to get up around 6 to get ready for work, and by the time I get there I’m still half asleep. Then again, I’m also bad at the end of the day… Maybe I should only be allowed to do important things between the hours of 10 and 2. :)

krantcents September 16, 2011 at 1:02 am

Understanding your personal situation is helpful particularly for big decisions. I am better in the morning and peak about 2 PM. I sort of rebound after dinner.

Thefrugaltoad September 16, 2011 at 3:13 am

I teach also and I agree the afternoons are more difficult especially for my students. I usually put off big decisions if I feel fatigued.

krantcents September 16, 2011 at 12:38 pm

I find I am better in the mornings, however everything depends on the mix of children in the class. Some days I am worn out, and experience decision fatigue.:)

Maggie@SquarePennies September 17, 2011 at 3:13 pm

As a former elementary teacher, I can identity with that.  When I had my own class it was best.  When I did subbing work later it was really draining!  I couldn’t do much at all after those days!

Untemplater September 16, 2011 at 6:25 am

I’m most productive from about 10am – 3pm and then 8pm – 11pm at least during the weekdays.  Weekends I get a lot more done earlier in the morning b/c I get an extra hour of sleep than during the week.  -Sydney

krantcents September 16, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Sleeping or some form of rest certainly changes the equation. I am most effective in the morning till 2PM in the afternoon. Sometimes I get a second wind after dinner too.

Freddie @ How to save money September 16, 2011 at 10:02 am

I definitely fall off after lunch for sure. But I usually take a nap to recharge my batteries and keep things moving after that. The reason is I tend to get up early to work, then workout (training for a marathon), back to work, so by lunch time I am whipped and need that nap. After the nap, I am ready to go again!

Marie at FamilyMoneyValues September 16, 2011 at 4:35 pm

 That car sales person is not only creating decision fatigue for you – he is getting you to invest more time in the negotiation – and that is one of the ways a good negotiator gets a deal.

I have the same issue Miss T has – when two people or  a group try to make a decision, everyone is trying to please the other guy so no one will decide.  Sometimes it just takes a leader to step up and get the consensus.

Barbara Friedberg September 17, 2011 at 1:21 am

All I can say is this, I’m a morning person-so I do my most important work in the morning!!! Also, there’s research that states, fewer choices create easier decisionmaking. I agree with that!

krantcents September 17, 2011 at 1:39 am

There are restaurants I avoid because the menus are too big and only confuse me with too many choices. I like to have choices, but usually three is enough.

Roshawn Watson September 17, 2011 at 1:35 am

 I have read to never make an important decision while tired. I agree wholeheartedly. Interesting study!

krantcents September 17, 2011 at 1:41 am

I always avoid making serious or important decisions when I am tired. I usually give those decisions a few days to think it over.

Shaun Fowler September 17, 2011 at 3:13 am

Thanks for introducing me to MIT’s Sloan school blog. That was an excellent article; no longer will HBR be the only academic blog that I read.

krantcents September 17, 2011 at 3:33 am

I read all of them for ideas. Ever since I started my blog, I find I read everything I can get my hands on and read online. I hope you enjoyed the article.

Darwin's Money September 19, 2011 at 3:01 am

I really like that stat – and great point on car dealer negotiations, totally true!  I never thought about it until now, but it does take absurdly long to wrap up a deal.

krantcents September 19, 2011 at 3:45 am

Personally, I think it is intended to wear you down. For the last nearly forty years, I use fllet managers to buy cars. It takes about fifteen minutes. Why is that?

Timothy Artisan September 17, 2011 at 5:17 pm

Making decisions when tired is a huge mistake. People don’t give the tired state of mind the respect it deserves. It’s normal to drive while tired, work while tired, operate other heavy machinery while tired, and even make decisions while tired. I’m not saying that the whole world should stop moving if someone doesn’t get their 8, but it also shouldn’t be as common as it is.


krantcents September 17, 2011 at 5:38 pm

Whenever I think of people working while tired, I visualize a medical intern or resident working in their 35th or 47th hour. They have to perform and make life and death decisions when tired, most of us don’t. I usually take a few days to make big decisions and discuss it with my wife. She helps me see clearly.

krantcents September 18, 2011 at 8:47 pm

My son goes to the health club during lunch as a way to recharge the batteries. It is funny how physical activity can help you mentally.

krantcents September 18, 2011 at 8:51 pm

My wife and i discuss any big decisions and help each other see all sides of the issue. In that way, we support each other. Really important decisions deserve a little extra time and discussion.

krantcents September 18, 2011 at 8:57 pm

My new teaching assignment is middle school! The children are bright and well behaved, but they are constantly asking questions which I do not want to discourage. It is tiring though.

Jen @ Master the Art of Saving September 19, 2011 at 9:35 pm

This really makes sense to me. The later in the day it is, the worst decisions I end up making—especially with dinner. I’ve never really paid much attention to it before but now I’m going to try to make most (if not all) of my decisions way earlier in the day. Great post!

krantcents September 19, 2011 at 11:22 pm

Either earlier or defer to the next day. Any big decisions I spend at least a few days thinking about the solution.

Buck Inspire September 29, 2011 at 1:51 am

You’re right, if you recognize the issue, you have a better chance of handling it better.  Interesting tidbit about the parole board.  Perhaps we should also shift our tougher tasks to the morning for more efficient outcomes?  Thanks!

krantcents September 29, 2011 at 3:06 am

How about all those people who say they are not morning people? I am better in the morning, although under stress, I have my difficulties.

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