Choices, Choices, Choices: Is Decision Fatigue Stressing You Out?

What’s one thing you have to do over and over, day after day? No, we’re not talking about explaining to your child why they have to wear pants, or reminding your coworkers to unmute themselves. We’re talking about what seems to be the defining feature of adulthood: making an endless stream of decisions. This includes everything from minor things like what to make for dinner to more complicated decisions about your finances, emotional life, and physical health. And now, experts are telling us what we’ve all suspected all along: all of these decisions that need to be made, no matter how small, can really start to weigh on us, and lead to what’s called “decision fatigue.” So is decision fatigue stressing you out, and what can you do about it?

What Is Decision Fatigue?

Roy F. Baumeister, a social psychologist who coined the term “decision fatigue,” used it to refer to the mental exhaustion that comes from having to make a lot of decisions throughout your day, as well as the decline in the quality of decisions that you make after being faced with this multitude of choices. person with their hands on their head and stress written across their face and behind them over and overDecision fatigue is different from physical fatigue – you probably don’t even recognize that you’re “tired,” it’s more that you’re low on mental energy. According to Joe Martino, a licensed counselor, “Recognizing it can be tricky because it will often feel like a deep sense of weariness.” But it could be that all the decisions you have to make during the day are dragging you down, whether you’re:

  • Overwhelmed with too many choices at once
  • Faced with too many decisions in a row during the day

And, as you might have guessed, and as Baumeister recognized, your reaction to these scenarios is probably going to end up being less than ideal. The first scenario might not seem like such a bad thing – after all, why would restaurants have menus if humans didn’t like to have options? But according to Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist in California, “Although humans tend to enjoy having a variety of choices, too many choices can lead to mental and emotional exhaustion. For example, having too many options—whether in the grocery store, catalog, or online retailer—can lead to feelings of confusion and dissatisfaction.” 

Hey, we get that, and so should anyone who’s ever even seen the cereal aisle at the grocery store, or the books that pass as menus in some restaurants. Being faced with all of those choices at once can easily lead to what’s known as “choice paralysis,” which can be incredibly frustrating.

And the second scenario can be even worse: being faced with too many decisions all throughout your day can lead to two outcomes:

  • You give up and stop making decisions at all
  • You start making impulsive, irrational decisions

Both of these outcomes are problematic. You’ll again either be struck with choice paralysis and will be unable to move forward, the frustration of which could lead you to lash out at the people in your life. Or you could end up acting recklessly and impulsively instead of using the energy needed to think things through and consider the consequences. This can result in you doing things like splurging on things you don’t need, tweeting things you should keep to yourself, or sending out an angry email response to someone. 

Sound familiar? It’s likely that you’re being bombarded with decisions at work and at home, and are suffering from decision fatigue by the end of the day. So before you throw up your hands and eat ice cream for dinner, let’s talk about how to recognize the signs of it!

Is Decision Fatigue Burning You Out?

Again, as many psychologists have pointed out, decision fatigue can actually be fairly difficult to recognize, especially if it’s not something that’s on your radar as a cause for why you’re feeling and acting the way you are. But being aware of the following signs that you might be headed toward burnout is the first step towards avoiding the worst consequences of decision fatigue. According to Rashmi Parmar, MD, a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry + MindPath Care Centers and Carla Manly, you should look out for things like:caucasian woman in a black shirt throwing papers up in the air

  • Having trouble focusing
  • Procrastinating
  • Avoiding being in situations where you have to make decisions
  • Frustration, irritability, and a short temper
  • Being impulsive
  • Feeling overwhelmed and possibly even hopeless
  • Spending a lot of time making decisions
  • Physical symptoms like fatigue, poor sleep, headaches, upset stomach, etc.
  • A sense of dissatisfaction with the choices you make

If you see yourself in the signs above, it’s time to find some strategies for coping with decision fatigue.

How Can You Cope with Decision Fatigue?

Unfortunately, all of those decisions you have to make every day aren’t just going to go away. But you can be proactive and work on ways to limit the decision fatigue that often weighs on all of us. Try the following:

Stick to a routine 

Don’t get us wrong, being spontaneous is great, but you can actually help to reduce decision fatigue by sticking to a set routine each day. This will help eliminate the need to make decisions for at least some of your routine tasks, like what time you go to bed and get up, what food to eat, days you’ll exercise, and when you go grocery shopping.

Plan ahead 

illustration of a clock
For impactful decisions, try your best to schedule them for the morning, before decision fatigue sets in.

To minimize the amount of little decisions you have to make each day, try planning ahead for the next day. In fact, you can make this planning a part of your routine before going to bed: for example, lay out your clothes, make some overnight oats, and pack a healthy lunch. According to Martino, “What people don’t realize is that things that have very little impact on our lives can actually take a lot of decision energy. Try to limit those by choosing them the night before.” And you know what else? When it comes to small decisions, it’s ok to simply choose the thing that makes you feel less overwhelmed, or that is the easiest choice right now.

Make specific times for big decisions 

But what about those big, necessary decisions in your life? For those, it’s all about timing. For everyday impactful decisions, try your best to schedule them for the morning, before decision fatigue has a chance to set in. You might even want to make a list of your priorities for the day to make sure you tackle your top ones first. 

For other big decisions, Martino suggests that you stop and question yourself before making them: “I think the best question to ask is: How much impact on my life will this decision have?” If it’ll have a big impact, only make it if you’re feeling refreshed. Or even better, have time each week or month when you deal with these big life decisions. 

Simplify your choices 

Overwhelmed with choices? Try this: narrow your options down to three – and, most importantly, don’t question yourself! Evaluate your final three options and choose one, remembering again NOT to question your final choice. Embrace your selection and move forward, and always try to avoid impulsive decisions.

Have a little help from your friends 

If a decision is feeling like too much for you, try sharing the burden! If it feels like it will be helpful, try talking to a supportive friend, partner, or coworker and getting their input. It might even be good for you to do some delegating to take some of the mental load off of you. For example, if meal planning is stressing you out, ask your partner or roommate to take over for a bit, and offer to do the shopping for ingredients in return.

Practice self-care 

Finally, as with all problems that can start to overwhelm us in life, it’s important to take care of yourself. Remember to:

  • Eat healthy snacks (and never make decisions while hungry!): Baumeister’s research found that low glucose levels made a big difference in decision making. 
  • Take regular breaks in your day to replenish your brain and energy levels.
  • Get enough sleep
  • Celebrate yourself when you make good decisions

So now you know: if you’re feeling irritable, unfocused, stuck, or overwhelmed it could be that all the decisions of the modern world are just piling up on you and causing decision fatigue. Those negative feelings are signs that it’s time to work at conserving your energy, and you can start by making a few simple changes to lift the load of some of those decisions. Let us know: is decision fatigue burning you out? 

How the “Mental Load” Is Dragging You Down and What You Can Do

We’ve all heard the jokes and seen the memes: adulting is hard. Yes, yes it is: getting yourself to work every day so you can pay your bills, doing taxes, grocery shopping – none of it is exactly fun. Maybe it all makes you long for the days when someone took care of all the important stuff for you, someone who not only helped you with what you needed to do, but kept everything organized, remembered where everything was, and did the worrying for both of you. 

So what kind of magical being could possibly do all of that? Well, in many families, that burden falls on the mother of the house, who can often end up feeling burnt out, not just because of all the actual tasks she has to do (and there are a lot of them!), but because of what’s known as the “mental load” (also known as cognitive labor, worry work, or invisible labor) that goes along with having all of those responsibilities. All of this keeping on top of things can lead to mental and even physical issues for (usually) moms, so what can you do to keep yourself from drowning under the weight of the mental load? 

What Is the Mental Load?woman laying in bed awake with her hands behind her head

What runs through your mind as you try to fall asleep at night? If it’s fluffy sheep leaping through a meadow as you peacefully count them, we’re not talking to you – but if it’s things like taking mental inventory of how much toilet paper is left in the house, making a list of appointments to make for your kids, and trying to remember if you defrosted dinner for the next day, then you know exactly what the mental load is. 

It’s the behind-the-scenes work of managing a household full of people; it’s the overseeing of everything; it’s being burdened with never-ending to-do lists constantly running through your mind – and it’s making you feel overwhelmed. You help with the homework, keep the kitchen stocked (while remembering what everyone likes, at least for that week), schedule everything (and somehow keep those schedules straight in your head), take those few extra minutes to check all the coupon apps to stay on budget, do the laundry, make any and all travel prep, know everything that’s going on your kids’ lives, and basically keep a running list of everything that needs to be done. 

And, more than likely, if you’re nodding along to all of this, you’re a woman and a mother in a heterosexual partnership. For example, here are some eye-opening statistics: 

  • A 2019 study found that women in heterosexual relationships tend to take on more of the cognitive labor. They found this particularly true when it came to anticipating the needs of others and monitoring progress.
  • Another 2019 study found that 65% of the moms who participated had a job, but 88% reported they were still the ones that primarily managed routines at home, and 76% said they were mostly responsible for maintaining regular household standards and order. And, according to a New York Times survey, 66% of women say they’re responsible for child care and 70% say they’re in charge of housework. 
  • In one study, nearly 9 in 10 partnered mothers said they felt solely responsible for managing their families’ schedules; another study found that 72% of working moms feel that it’s their responsibility to keep on top of their kids’ schedules. 
  • 52% of working moms say they feel burnt out from staying on top of everything. 
  • Roughly 3 in 5 working women say they think about household tasks while at work.
  • 69% of working moms agree that household responsibilities create a mental load.
illustration of a woman on the phone, feeding a baby, while ironing a shirt.
Studies show that about 69% of working moms agree that household responsibilities create a mental load.

And just because division of labor has become more equitable in many households over the past few decades, doesn’t mean that the mental load has gotten any lighter; if anything, women are recognizing it more. In fact, according to Lucia Ciciolla, PhD, a psychologist at Oklahoma State University who has researched the impacts of invisible labor on mothers, “even though women may be physically doing fewer loads of laundry, women are realizing that they continue to hold the responsibility for making sure it gets done – that the detergent doesn’t run out, that all of the dirty clothes make it into the wash, that there are always clean towels available, and that the kids have clean socks. Women are recognizing that they still hold the mental burden of the household even if others share in the physical work, and that mental burden takes a toll.”

Taking Its Toll

So, no, you’re not imagining things. You not only have a huge amount to do, but you also have a huge amount to think about, and it’s dragging you down and burning you out. And when we say “burning you out,” it’s might be having noticeable mental and physical effects, like:

  • Anxiety and depression – Being overwhelmed is taking its toll on women: according to the CDC, 1 in 10 women, mothers included, experience symptoms of depression, and women are almost twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders. Feeling like you’re never able to step away from everything you’re juggling can cause symptoms of these psychological issues, or heighten them in people who are already prone to experiencing them.
  • Sleep deprivation – Sure, when you’re a new mom you’re going to be kept up at night by your baby, but for many women, problems sleeping can continue long past the newborn phase; in fact, 74% of moms have experienced symptoms of insomnia. The physical and mental demands of motherhood might end up keeping you up at night – add onto that the “mom guilt” that is might be playing on your mind, and you have a recipe for serious sleep deprivation, which can in turn lead to irritability, a weakened immune system, and feeling disconnected from your family.silhouette of a head with white puzzle pieces missing, and the black pieces outside of the head.
  • Memory problems – If you’re a mom, you’ve probably made a joke about “mom brain” at some point, maybe after you’ve misplaced your keys for the tenth time, or forgotten that your glasses are on your head…but you know what? It’s actually a real thing, and taking on the mental load of motherhood certainly doesn’t help improve it. The term for it is “postnatal depletion,” defined as a “physical and mental deterioration” that can occur from losing nutrients like iron, zinc, and B12 following childbirth – but because of the stresses of parenthood, this “depletion” can last for years. According to Suzie Welsh, R.N., MSN, “What happens over time is that mothers take on more of the mental work when raising children, thus leading to ‘mommy brain’ and easily turning into a more serious issue of postpartum depletion.” Women who experience this prolonged depleted state can end up with fatigue that sleep doesn’t help relieve, difficulty concentrating, and memory issues.
  • HeadachesHow often have you said the words, “Mommy has a headache”? Probably three times more often than your male partner, unfortunately. Why are women three times more likely to experience headaches? Hormones, stress levels, anxiety, lack of sleep, and burnout all contribute to frequent headaches: according to Jaclyn Fulop, board licensed physical therapist, “Stress and the mental load of a mother can wreak havoc on the body, releasing chemicals causing the body to react, going into a state of fight or flight. The body cannot distinguish between an actual threat or the stresses of daily life. If this cycle repeats itself, it will affect the central nervous system and the brain causing pain signals in the body, which can ultimately lead to triggers in the body.”

Is There Anything You Can Do?

The mental load takes up space in your head, is a drag on your physical and mental health,  and keeps you from doing things just for you – and we don’t just mean stuff you have to do, but stuff you – gasp – want to do. The only real solution is to take on less, but that can be far more easily said than done, especially for moms, who often have trouble asking for help. But remember, saying you need help is NOT admitting defeat, and taking time for yourself or letting go of certain worries is NOT selfish. 

So, while there’s no one solution to this problem, there are some things you can consider to help lighten the load:

  • Set boundaries – What’s one of the first words your children learned? No! Now that you’re a mom, you might have to relearn that word, as well as learn to recognize and accept your limitations: you can’t take on everything. the back of a woman walking on a bridge
  • Make time for yourself – As with all of these ideas, this one can also be tough; after all, you don’t want to make carving out “me time” just another source of stress. So, start small, with say 5 or 10 minutes a day during which you take a walk, meditate, read, or just breathe – anything that grounds you. That, plus adding in 20-minute power naps whenever you can, will also help to reduce headaches and feelings of fatigue. 
  • Make technology your friend – Whenever you can automate something, do it! For example, put things like diapers or toilet paper on subscription, use grocery delivery services (yes, you’ll still have to order your groceries, but at least you’ll have that extra hour when you’d normally be at the store!), and set up automatic bill pay. 
  • Talk to your partner – Notice we didn’t use the word “delegate” here. Having to delegate tasks is actually part of the mental load; as the artist EMMA explains in a viral comic explaining the mental load, “When a man expects his partner to ask him to do things, he’s viewing her as the manager of household chores. So it’s up to her to know what needs to be done and when. What our partners are really saying, when they ask us to tell them what needs to be done, is that they refuse to take on their share of the mental load.” So how do you approach this? Well, that could be a whole article in itself! But think about this: 
      • Start the conversation by finding common ground; for example, you can say something like, “I know you value contributing equally to our relationship, and I think you may not realize I have more responsibilities that go unnoticed.”
      • Use “I” statements instead of “you” accusations.
      • Offer concrete examples of your mental load, including pointing out that delegating itself is part of the load.
      • When dividing up tasks, account for the tasks themselves and the invisible labor, and explain that you want to share the management of tasks, not just the tasks themselves.
      • Be careful of “gatekeeping,” or monitoring, criticizing, and worrying about the way another person does the things you normally do; trust your partner to get things done, and if it’s truly important to you that something gets done a certain way, explain why. Remember, you’ve probably internalized a lot of expectations about how your house should be run, so letting go can be hard – but can also be very freeing!handing sticking out of water with the word help written on it
  • Ask for help in other ways – It’s ok to go outside of your own headspace and let other people in, and we’re not just talking about your partner. Talk with your friends who are moms; they’re probably feeling the same, and would most likely welcome a “me time” exchange, in which one day you let all the kids play at your house while your friend does something she wants to do, and vice versa. And remember, if symptoms of anxiety and depression are creeping in, don’t hesitate to speak to a mental health professional.

Do you recognize yourself in all of this? Trust us, we get it, and we know that the weight of the mental load can be overwhelming, and lead to burn out. That’s why it’s important to carve out time for yourself, as well as reach out to others to let them know that you just need some space to breathe. Being a mom (or a dad!) is a great joy, and also a lot of work, but you don’t need to lose yourself along the way.