Grace Hauck | USA TODAY | 08.30.2020
Is it safe to go to the grocery store? Can my kids have a play date? Will the other child wear a mask? Can I send them back to school? When my boss asks me to come back to the office, should I?
Shayla Bell lies awake at night racking her brain for answers and preparing for another day of unprecedented choices.
“There’s all these little, small decisions all the time,” said Bell, a suburban Chicago retail professional with two kids. “I find myself being my own devil’s advocate so often to try to reach the best conclusion. And I’m tired.”
Six months since the United States declared the coronavirus pandemic a state of emergency, millions of isolated Americans are at their wits’ end, exhausted from making a seemingly endless series of health and safety decisions for themselves and their loved ones. There’s a name for this phenomenon, and researchers call it decision fatigue.
“It’s a state of low willpower that results from having invested effort into making choices,” said Roy Baumeister, a psychology professor at Florida State University who coined the term in 2010. “It leads to putting less effort into making further choices, so either choices are avoided or they are made in a very superficial way.”
Like a mental gas tank, the human brain has a limited capacity of energy, and as you make decisions throughout the day, you deplete that resource. As you become fatigued, you may be inclined to avoid additional decisions, stick to the status quo or base a decision on a single criteria, Baumeister said.
When we’re able to maintain daily routines, the brain can automate decisions and rely on heuristics – or mental shortcuts – to avoid fatigue. But the pandemic has disrupted many of our routines, forcing us to allocate more mental energy to decision-making.
The effects of decision fatigue have serious implications for people in positions of authority. Jonathan Levav, who studies behavioral decision theory at Stanford University, found that judges serving on parole boards in Israel were more likely to give favorable rulings at the very beginning of the workday or after a food break than later in a sequence of cases, after the judges had made more decisions.
“If you make a lot of decisions repeatedly, that has an effect on subsequent decisions,” Levav said. “As people make more decisions, they’re more likely to simplify whatever subsequent decisions they’re dealing with.”
Similar studies have found that people making decisions on behalf of loved ones in intensive care units or nurses working telemedicine shifts, experience decision fatigue over time, which can impair their ability to make informed decisions for the patient or provide efficient recommendations, respectively.
We’re not just making a greater number of daily decisions. We’re also making high-stakes, moral decisions, said Elizabeth Yuko, a writer and staff member at the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education.
“It’s fatigue with making decisions that have consequences we’ve never had to deal with before,” Yuko said. “These things come with such a moral weight on them, it comes with even more stress.”
For parents and guardians, in particular, the stakes are high. Erin Scarpa, a mother of two who works at a bank in New Jersey, said she temporarily relocated her family to North Carolina specifically to avoid making decisions about socializing with neighbors. Scarpa said she’s particularly concerned about reports of patients suffering lasting damage from COVID-19.
“You’re talking about decisions that could limit your child’s life forever,” Scarpa said. “That’s a whole other concept.”
Sneha Dave, a recent college graduate living with an inflammatory bowel disease and unidentified respiratory condition, said she struggled with crippling decision fatigue at the beginning of the pandemic.
“There’s been so many times where I go to the grocery store where I turn around because there are too many cars there. I spend a lot of time deciding what the right time to go to the grocery store is or whether I should go in,” she said.
Dave said she’s still grappling with a big decision – whether or not to pursue a round of treatment for her bowel disease, which would severely weaken her immune system – but she’s slowly learned how to cope with her decision fatigue.
“The chronic illness community has been able to adapt significantly better and make these decisions a little easier because these are decisions we’ve made our whole lives,” Dave said.
How statewide COVID-19 policies affect decision fatigue
Streamlined state and nationwide policies on COVID-19 have the potential to alleviate decision fatigue, some researchers said, but the notion of greater regulation carries contentious political implications.
“The more that requirements are in place, such as mask mandates, the less it’s a personal choice about what to do. And it makes it easier to make other, related decisions,” said Kathleen Vohs, a professor at the University of Minnesota who studies self-control. “You don’t have to agonize about whether it’s safe to go to the grocery store when you know that others will have masks on.”
Mandates may also cause people to feel depleted if they find it difficult to comply with a policy, researchers said. Others may be making such specific, preferential decisions that statewide policies wouldn’t be enough to alleviate decision fatigue.
Sheena Iyengar, a Columbia Business School professor and author studying the psychology and economics of choice, is gathering data on how Americans feel about statewide COVID-19 policies.
Contrary to classical economic theory, Iyengar’s work has found that, in some contexts, people may prefer to have their choices limited or entirely removed. For example, people are more likely to purchase jams or chocolates – or to undertake optional class essay assignments – when offered a limited rather than extensive array of choices. Study participants reported greater satisfaction with their selections when their options had been limited.
A similar trend may be playing out when it comes to COVID-19 policies, Iyengar said. Her preliminary findings suggest that people living in states with face mask policies reported being “happier” than those in states without mask mandates. The findings may simply be driven by political preferences, Iyengar said.
“There’s a naturally occurring experiment, although that experiment falls along political lines,” she said.
Tips for avoiding decision fatigue
There are some simple strategies for avoiding decision fatigue, researchers said. Many center on general health and well-being, such as maintaining a nutritious diet, getting a full night’s sleep and exercising regularly. Others focus on timing your decisions and developing routines to cut out unnecessary choices.
“Willpower diminishes and decision fatigue increases over the course of the day, so if you have important decisions to make, make them in the morning after a full night’s sleep and a good breakfast,” Baumeister said. “Be aware this is affecting you.”
Plan out tomorrow’s schedule the day before, said Dovid Spinka, a staff clinician at the Center for Anxiety in New York City. Prep or plan your meals for the week. Lay out your clothes in the evening, or – like Steve Jobs – develop a uniform.
If you begin to fade during the day, take a short break, go for a walk or practice mindfulness or breathing exercises, Spinka said. Prioritize your decisions, and try to focus on one at a time. If you’re facing a big decision but feel drained, take a nap or grab a snack. Write down your initial thoughts, but don’t make the decision yet. Come back to it when you’re feeling refreshed, or proactively delay the decision to a set date.
Especially in highly emotional times, people who tend to suppress their emotions may be more prone to experience decision fatigue, said Grant Pignatiello, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University. It’s important to be aware of how you’re feeling and talk to others about it.
“We are all going through a collective trauma of this pandemic, so it’s important that we cut ourselves a little slack. If we need to take a nap at the end of the day, watch Netflix or go for a walk, it’s OK,” Pignatiello said.
For Bell, that means granting herself some grace.
“I feel like we’re all – even the coolest cucumbers – we’re all at a higher stress level now,” she said. “So try to have some grace for yourself and others, and understand that we’re all doing the best we think we can.”