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Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?

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Do you ever find yourself in a situation when you are making a bad decision but just can’t do anything to stop it? Like grabbing a bar of chocolate at the till at the end of a long supermarket shop? Or opting for the all-you-can-eat buffet instead of trying one of the many local restaurants? Desire yelling ‘YES!’ with your rational mind taking a backseat?

Everyone’s been there, but what is it that separates the good choices from the bad? Is it knowledge, willpower, habit, ease? Or could it be decision fatigue? Has your brain simply run out of the ability to make any more good decisions for that day?

Decision fatigue is an area of social psychology popularised by Roy Baumeister (see ‘Willpower: Why Self-Control is the Secret of Success (2012) for full details). It is the notion that you can only make a finite number of decisions within a given time (a day for example) and that with each decision you pay a biological price. Make too many decisions and your brain begins to fatigue causing the quality of your decision making to deteriorate. For example, flicking through hundreds of channels on the television to find something to watch then plumping for a repeat of a show you have seen dozens of times! Your brain was overcome by the choice of shows and opted for an easy and safe decision.

Food decision fatigue is concept which highlights our deteriorating quality of food decisions throughout the day. You make hundreds of food decisions everyday (what to eat, when to eat, how much to eat….) and it’s clear these decisions are compromised by decision fatigue. One of the most common food fatigue decisions that I see is the early-evening snack. Back home from work, tired and a little hungry, you go straight to the fridge to see what you can snack on. In the fridge is a range of foods which can be pulled together to meet your taste and nutritional goals but instead you opt for the quick and simple option – a bowl of cereal or toast perhaps. You know it doesn’t fall in line with your wider nutrition goals but you eat it anyway. You make an illogical shortcut which favours short-term gain but with delayed cost.

Decision fatigue can impact a number of your nutritional choices and tends to have one (or a combination) of the following effects:

Reluctance to make trade-offs:
You try and conserve your mental energy instead of processing the various connotations of your decision, especially when you have to compare two choices which both have positive and negative outcomes and ‘trade these off’ against each other. This can leave you vulnerable to clever marketing or advertising campaigns.
For example comparing two like-for-like items in the supermarket then opting for neither or making a rash decision based on a single variable (e.g. colour of the packaging)

Do Nothing:
The easiest way to conserve decision making energy is to do nothing – make no decision. This often means sticking with the default option and maintaining the status quo.
For example, a change in training routine should bring about a change in diet but when faced with numerous different diet strategies you stick with the same old diet and compromise your training response.

Reckless Purchases:
You act impulsively instead of expending the energy to process the various options and consequences.
For example, buying an expensive juicer or smoothie maker as part of a new "health kick" which
invariably lasts less than a week before being stored in the cupboard for months.
Food decision fatigue can leave us vulnerable to poor choices in a number of situations, so how do you go about addressing it?

Knowledge is Power:
Although you may not be overtly aware that you are suffering from decision fatigue, knowing that the concept exists is the first step to identifying when it may impact your decisions. Reflect on the recent times when you have made poor nutrition choices. What time of day was it? When did you last eat? How were you feeling? Build a picture of the times when you are most vulnerable to poor decisions and identify small changes that may help you avoid or manage these situations.

Make decisions that free you from making more decisions. Investing 10-minutes on a relaxed Sunday evening to plan your meals for the following week is an incredibly simple way to avoid having to make decisions on shopping and meal selection at the end of a mentally exhausting day.

Create Positive Habits:
Habits are your default option; they are what you fall back on in periods of stress. By creating positive habits around shopping, meal selection and planning you eliminate the need for decisions in times of anxiety or in novel environments. This is especially important for competitive sportspeople who should try and avoid introducing new nutrition strategies on competition day. If you know what your optimal pre-event meal is and how to make it then all you need to do is execute it. (For some great information on habit formation check out James Clear at

Create a good default setting:
If you are a fridge-raider at the end of the day then make sure your default setting is a good nutritional choice. Instead of the bowl of cereal then how about an omelette or some Greek yoghurt with berries? If you have a good ‘Go-to’ meal then you are less likely to compromise your long-term goals with decision fatigue induced choices.
Don't make big decisions on empty:
Glucose has a strong ability to minimise the impact of decision fatigue. Willpower has been shown to be strengthened when the individual is in the fed-state in comparison to the un-fed state. So try and avoid making key decisions on an empty stomach. This is especially important when supermarket shopping – never shop when you are hungry as your choices will inevitably suffer as a result of your short-term desires.

So the next time your find yourself making a poor nutrition choice, don’t beat yourself up about it. Reflect on the situation and ask yourself if decision fatigue could have contributed to your actions. If you feel it did, employing some of the simple strategies could help you avoid making the same mistakes again. Freed from decision fatigue you are able to stay on track to achieve your long-term goals. Variety is still the spice of life but it tastes a lot better when you are in control.



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