We live in such a busy world that is full of different ways to get work done, a huge number of options for communicating with one another and a near endless stream of incoming data, news and information.

It’s perhaps no wonder, therefore, that many of us suffer from a bit of decision fatigue every once in a while.

But what is decision fatigue? Is it really a ‘thing’, or just an excuse for inaction? And, if it is real, how does it affect one’s productivity?

The definition of decision fatigue

The best way to explain decision fatigue is to start by thinking about muscle fatigue. If you go to the gym or regularly perform physical exercise, you’ll probably be familiar with the feeling of being unable to push your body any further.

It’s at this point that you’ve normally reached muscle fatigue; your muscles simply can’t do any more work because you’ve depleted all of your energy. Decision fatigue is just like this, but relates to your inability to make any further decisions due to the fact you have exhausted your mental resources.

We’re only human, and we only have so much brain power to expend in a given period. When the energy reserves reach the bottom of the tank, decision fatigue is thought to kick in and your brain begins giving you clear signals that you’ve made more than enough decisions in a row.

Is decision fatigue a real thing?

We should probably start by highlighting that there are no mathematics involved in measuring decision fatigue – it’s more of a theory than anything set in stone or based on hard scientific fact.

It’s a good one, though, and as far as psychology goes, decision fatigue is a great way of putting substance around something we all experience pretty regularly during our busy lives.

It’s comforting, too. Just like any ailment or challenge encountered in life, when you hear that you’re not alone and that, actually, the thing from which you’re suffering is part and parcel of being human, you start to realise there’s probably nothing to worry about. Decision fatigue – just like muscle fatigue – always passes, and you’ll be back to your decision-making best in no time.

Whether or not you believe in decision fatigue is up to you, but you’ll arguably have experienced the effects it refers to on your productivity.

Decision fatigue in retail

One of the most common areas of life in which we experience decision fatigue is retail. It’s what presents retailers with challenges but also unexpected wins; some people will take forever to make a purchasing decision if their mind has packed its bags for the day, while others will make impulse, expensive purchases.

Think about the last time you visited the supermarket – this is where decision fatigue often makes its presence felt. After spending twenty or thirty minutes heading around each isle buying your weekly groceries and life’s other essentials, you reach the toothpaste section. You know you need toothpaste, but you’re presented with about fifty different types.

Each one has its own purported benefits, and each brand appears to have a slightly different variation on what should be a simple theme. What do you pick?

The sheer number of choices and the fact that your brain has already had to make countless choices on other items leading up to this moment leaves your decision-making capabilities in tatters. And that’s obvious, because if you’d headed to this isle first, you’d probably have chosen the right toothpaste relatively quickly, regardless of the quantity of options.

Effects of decision fatigue

Decision fatigue comes in a number of forms, but each one is a result of the stress and intensive brain work you have to undertake when making multiple decisions within a short space of time.

decision fatigue

Here’s some of the most common effects of decision fatigue:

Decision avoidance. You’ve got a decision that needs to be made, but no matter how big or small it is, you simply can’t make it. In fact, you’ll do everything you can do avoid making it any time soon – if ever.

Impulse decisions. If your brain has given up on making considered, sensible decisions, you may resort to throwing caution to the wind and choosing, buying or selecting on impulse. This is often what happens when you’ve spent all day shopping for items and leave the most important purchase until last when you’ve really had enough.

Sitting on the fence. If decision fatigue hits while you’re trying to pick between two products, you may end up choosing neither and instead sitting on the fence, despite the fact you genuinely need to buy something.

Poor performance. Decision fatigue can negatively affect your performance at work or on a particular task, mainly because there’ll likely be plenty of decisions you need to make as you go along. A combination of the three decision fatigue side effects above will probably ensue and your performance will drop considerably as a result.

You’re only human, and if you haven’t experience at least one of the above at some point regularly during your life, you’re very lucky indeed!

How to avoid decision fatigue

So, how do you avoid the perils of decision fatigue? It’s probably worth bearing in mind at this point that decision fatigue is unfortunately inevitable at some stage; it’s something to be tamed and guarded against rather than eradicated entirely.

With that in mind, here’s a few simple ways to avoid decision fatigue:

1) Simplify your choices

Steve Jobs famously wore the same outfit virtually every day of the week (black turtleneck, blue jeans and white trainers). But this wasn’t to ‘brand’ himself or because he was lazy – it was a conscious choice to remove one decision he’d need to make each morning.

Simplify and limit the choices you need to make as you go about your life, and you’re less likely to reach decision fatigue.

2) Set your priorities

Use a to-do list to set yourself achievable tasks each day, and make sure you review it before you get started.

Be honest with yourself; if you’re trying to take too much on, you’ll be lining up far too many decisions that will need to be made – and we know what will happen as a result!

3) Identify when you can make big decisions

We all have to make big decisions once in a while, but if you can identify when you’re at your decision-making best, you can ensure you do so without feeling fatigued.

When you’re highly motivated and have plenty of willpower, your decision making abilities will be at their peak. Only you can know when that moment is, but it’ll be when you feel the most invigorated each day – seize that moment!


Decision fatigue isn’t scientific, nor can it be calculated, but it really is a brilliant way of defining one of the most frustrating elements of being human.

Our tips above should help you overcome decision fatigue when it takes place and prevent it from happening too often, but when your mind screams out “stop!”, it really is time to listen!