Decision Fatigue

I recently read an article on Slate (one of my favorite places to read) about “decision fatigue” called Drowning in Jam.  This reminded me of my post about the Illusion of Choice.  In that post I talked about some of the problems I have with having too many choices in eating:


At the same time, I find that having to make too many choices, too often robs me of my freedom. Last summer, I started buying these store brand cookies at the grocery store. They were small and usually 5 of them were around 110 to 120 calories. So, I would have 5 and that was fine. I planned to do this 2 or 3 times a week. But, I soon found myself having a serving every day. Then, every time I walked by the pantry I would have to make a choice on whether to eat them or not.

Now, from a Weight Watchers standpoint, it was fine to eat them. I was recording my food and I could choose to eat them. So, I had that choice. But, really that choice was an illusion. It got to a point that every time I went by the pantry I would have to make that choice each time. Eventually I was having several servings in a day. And, over that summer I gained 10 pounds.

The point is that having those cookies right there forced me to make that choice every time I got near them. I could certainly choose not to eat them. And, maybe if I was a better me, I would have made that choice. But, in reality, this was for me a choice that didn’t give me freedom. I would “choose” to eat the cookies and then would feel awful that I ate them. I felt imprisoned by my choice.

It turns out that this is something which has been researched and I’m not alone in my feelings about being exhausted by too many choices.  In the article this is described as decision fatigue:

The name is self-explanatory; constant decision-making can be overwhelming. Think about something as simple as grocery shopping after work. Do you get the organic berries at $7 or the nonorganic at $4? Which style of pasta? Which brand of juice? If you’re like me, you only manage to pick out a few things before you get cranky.

It may seem liberating to live in a land of infinite choices, but research in decision-making suggests otherwise.

The article then described a study that found that 3% of people who visited a sampling booth with 24 jams to choose from bought jam, while 30% of people who visited a booth with 6 jams bought some.  The article also mentions my issue: “Still more research has found that repeated decision-making also leads to decreased self-control.”

The article goes on to talk about how maintaining self control is exhausting:

Maintaining self-control takes subconscious thought and effort—the box of donuts in the break room you’re resisting is a low-level distraction throughout your day. As one group of researchers put it: “Just as a muscle gets tired from exertion, acts of self-control cause short-term impairments in subsequent self-control.” Researchers call this ego depletion, referring to Freud’s “ego”: the moderate, socially acceptable version of ourselves that mediates between the superego and the id.

The article goes on to give some ideas about how to deal with these issues.  For example, setting up a time limit to make decisions or, for less important things, let a randomizer decide for you.




  1. Michele says

    I was an older teen when the VCR became a popular household appliance. A year or two into the craze, I remember going to a big chain video store on many Friday nights and walking out 30 minutes later, empty handed, having been unable to choose from the thousands of movies or unable to agree with my brother, friend, or whomever was going to watch with me.

    This concept is why I believe programs like Weight Watchers (“you can have anything!”) are BS and why most people fail on them (well, they have short-term success but eventually they allow themselves a little more here, a special treat there; in two months they regain the 20 it look them four months to lose and then they’re discouraged and they give up and go back to old habits and gain 10 on top of that but then they think “WW works!” and they do the cycle again…from where I sit I can point to the homes of a large handful of women whom I’ve watched lose and regain the same 20-30 pounds six or seven times each in the past ten years, and they’re all still 50-75lbs overweight).

    If you’ve ever been in the position of “can’t stop eating this” — whether it’s cake or chips or peanut butter — if you’ve had that compulsion to keep eating when you’re at a party with a spread of food or a buffet style event, even if the food’s not very good but it’s THERE and everyone is shoveling it down — a “moderation” lifestyle full of “choices” isn’t going to lead to long-term success.

    As the adage goes, one bite is too many and the entire thing is not enough. I don’t know any successful long-term (5 years and longer) maintainers of significant weight loss (40 pounds and more) who eat “a little of everything.” We all have removed the easily-overeaten , nutritionally-devoid crap foods (cereal…pasta…snack/crunchy things…soda and juice) from our lives and have achieved health, happiness, and control of our emotions in the process.

    Every Sunday, I cook and package five identical breakfasts and lunches for myself to take to work. Each one is protein (usually baked chicken breast) and a mix of raw and cooked veggies. Each morning I pack half an avocado and 2oz. nuts for snack. A young intern noticed me doing this after a while & asked me about it, saying, “What if it gets to be lunch time and you don’t want what you brought?” You can’t explain it to a stick-thin 19 year old who lives on Pop Tarts and diet Coke. I keep my food environment in control. When muffins or donuts or candy show up at the workplace (it’s a medical place and various reps/vendors send or bring stuff in) I never touch it. I don’t give myself that choice. My choice is eat what I bring and nothing else.

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