You decided what to wear this morning. You made important decisions at work today. You made a decision for what you and the family were going to have for dinner.
It has been a day full of active participation and self-control. And now…you’re exhausted.
Welcome to decision fatigue, also known as ego depletion.
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Ego depletion is why you eat that late-night snack when you’re not hungry, or buy that pair of shoes when you have so many at home. It’s a lack of self-control that sets in when you’ve exhausted your good decision-making capabilities. And when you have decision fatigue, you make passive decisions because you just can’t bring yourself to make a choice.
But what exactly is ego depletion, and what causes it? Are there ways to fight it so you aren’t ending every day totally drained?
The History of Ego Depletion
Twenty-three years ago, in 1998, social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister released a scientific study coining the term “ego depletion.”
The four experiments within the study were simple:
Experiment 1 tested subjects’ patience to finish unsolvable puzzles when they ate radishes instead of chocolate.
Experiment 2 had participants make personal decisions with topics that mattered to them, then tested their frustration with unsolvable puzzles.
Experiment 3 examined subjects’ success at solving anagrams following suppression of their emotions.
Experiment 4 tested if high self-regulation led to more passive responses in response to two options.
What Baumeister found: “Whatever is involved in choice and self-control is both an important and very limited resource.”
Basically, exert too much mental energy too early, and you’ve lost the majority of your self-control for the day. Your body also has a physical response – sort of like when you run a mile at full speed, then have to jog for the final four. While decision-making may not seem as strenuous, we can only handle so much at one time.
Baumeister references a 1989 scientific article from Jerry M. Burger, who expected people to exert self-control in everyday, ordinary life. Instead, many avoided taking control and remained fairly passive. Baumeister used this as support for his study, writing, “Exerting control uses a scarce and precious resource.… Avoiding control under some circumstances may be a strategy for conservation.” For example, those who were forced to eat radishes in Experiment 1 did not have enough self-control to “finish” the unsolvable puzzle.
Modern-Day Decision Fatigue
Okay, so that was 23 years ago, with a string of experiments that probably wouldn’t be replicated in real life (very few companies sell unsolvable puzzles — that’s just rude). How does decision fatigue apply to life today?
Marketing professor Jonathan Levav, a faculty director at Stanford, experienced ego depletion when preparing for his wedding. When visiting a tailor to have his bespoke suit created, he eventually relied on the tailor to make decisions for him. “By the time I got through the third pile of fabric swatches, I wanted to kill myself,” Levav said. It inspired more sales experiments, with bespoke suits and cars. The result: decision fatigue is real in these situations.
Another example: you’ve had a loooong day at work without any fun. When you get in bed, you pull out your phone, planning on browsing social media for 30 minutes.
But then you tell yourself another five minutes, because you’re in the middle of a video. And then 10 more minutes. Then…it’s two hours later, and you have to wake up for work in five hours. Your day at work, so long and full of decision-making, ruined self-control when it came to pleasure.
Or what about those with diabetes, like me? We start off the day denying the icing-covered donuts and eat low-carb greens for lunch to avoid spiking blood sugars. But after dinnertime, that ice cream looks so good, so we justify it – after all, we made good, low-carb decisions throughout that day.
An explanation: one study that found those with Type 2 diabetes were less likely to exercise observed participants’ decision-making was spent on tasks such as changing their diets to accommodate glucose levels. (I could have told you this, tbh.)
How To Avoid Ego Depletion
The first way to avoid decision fatigue: recognizing when you’re nearing it. Generally, you’ll begin to feel more passive when it comes to choices – and it’s especially noticeable when it comes to options you’re passionate about.
“Recognizing it can be tricky because it will often feel like a deep sense of weariness,” explains licensed counselor Joe Martino.
This weariness may result in the four pillars of decision fatigue: procrastination, avoidance, indecisiveness, and impulsivity. You usually don’t feel these pillars when you’re not making decisions, or are at least making smaller decisions, throughout the day.
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However, when you exert all of your decision-making energy, these pillars can lead to depression and anxiety. And then it snowballs – your depression and anxiety lead to passive decision-making, or zero decision-making at all. (For example: you don’t decide on that bespoke suit, and you end up choosing your standard suit from Men’s Warehouse for your big, special wedding.)
So, when you need to make a decision, “The best question to ask is: How much impact on my life will this decision have?” says Martino. That bespoke suit will have a major impact on your wedding day; the phone call back to your cousin can wait 12 hours, and it won’t have a major impact on your relationship.
If you do have to make decisions multiple times throughout the day prior to a major-impact decision, “make them in the morning after a full night’s sleep and a good breakfast,” Baumeister suggests.
Conserve Decision-Making Energy As Best You Can
For days when you need to make major decisions, it might be best to follow Burger’s lead. You can be more passive on smaller decisions with less impact on a big day; save up the major ego energy for that huge-impact decision you’re making later.
Lecturer at King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry, Dr. Tiago Reis Marques, has many suggestions to combat ego depletion. Like Dr. Martino, he, too, says that recognizing your fatigue is important. He also recommends opening up to others and asking for help if you’re really struggling; speaking with a therapist can lift a weight off of your shoulders.
Finally: give yourself a break. “… It’s important that we cut ourselves a little slack,” Grant Pignatiello, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University, stresses, especially in the time of COVID-19. It’s a fact: we can’t be perfect all of the time. We’ll make mistakes and incorrect decisions, and that’s okay. Practice self-care and self-love, especially in times of high stress and low decision-making capabilities.
Many people feel this way right now. For example, a retail professional expressed her ego depletion and the exhaustion it causes. But she, too, advises others that you should “… Try to have some grace for yourself and others, and understand that we’re all doing the best we think we can.”
And personally? I’ve learned to rest. I’ve stopped pulling two-hour nights fueled by coffee and Benadryl. I’ve let myself take breaks during articles (I’ve taken two while writing this). And I’m allowing myself to let go when decisions are too much. Is it scary and unnatural? Absolutely – I’m all about control. But right now? Right now, I’m coasting.
Do you suffer from ego depletion? What are your suggestions for managing decision fatigue? Share your tips with us in the comments.
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