Opinion: Decisions, decisions, decisions and navigating the perils of choice

Making decisions is something we face on a daily basis. But the process of doing so can be stressful, as the act of selection takes a toll on one’s mental resources. In this piece, our writer explores whether the availability of more choices helps or hampers individuals, its influence on the process of decision-making, and the effects of decision fatigue on our lives.

Picture this: you’re running late for work, and have to decide whether to take a cab or public transport – all the while weighing a multitude of factors, such as how often you are late for work, your boss’ attitude towards punctuality, and the speed of a cab ride relative to public transport. At the office, you ponder over what to have for lunch. While an afternoon meeting finds you having to make more decisions that could determine the success or failure of a project. After work, you still have to determine how to spend the rest of your day; where to go for dinner, what to watch/read before bed – you get the idea. 

Then, hit ‘repeat’ the next day, and the day after…

Making decisions is an essential part of our lives, from prosaic everyday concerns like our fashion choices, to weightier ones at work that have far-reaching consequences.

While some might thrive on a diet rich with options, the process of decision-making can be deeply stressful, one that could lead to decision fatigue – when one’s ability to decide diminishes with the more decisions one makes, which could lead to difficulties in making the right decisions.  

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister’s strength model of self control suggests that people have a limited capacity to regulate their behaviour. He posits that self-regulation, such as when weighing one’s choices to make a decision, can exhaust one’s mental resources, leading to ego depletion, further negating one’s ability and willpower to make well-considered decisions.

Decision fatigue
Having more options can make the decision-making process extremely stressful. (Photo source: Warchi / Canva)

Having to constantly work towards a resolution can also lead to analysis paralysis, where overanalysing a situation prevents one from making choices. This cycle of overthinking impedes productivity, as more time is spent trying to determine an outcome. Feelings of anxiety, fear and dissatisfaction could also arise at the thought of committing to one’s choices, due to the risk of making the wrong ones. 

To tackle this, managing the process of decision-making is key – and looking at why this phenomenon is happening might show us how to tackle decision fatigue. 

What causes decision fatigue

As a very indecisive person, even answering the perennial question of what to have for lunch frequently turns into a long-drawn process. I consult mall directories and restaurant menus, and cross-reference multiple sources for more information, from visual references to blog reviews. I have spent half my lunch break walking aimlessly around a mall, despite knowing all the available food options. In questioning why I take so long to decide, I have surmised that what hinders me is having too many options.  

The rise of the internet has led to an abundance of accessible information. But with this comes the risk of information overload, as we deal with the onslaught of factors that determine the most/least favourable and advantageous outcome.

Is it any surprise then that many have developed an anxiety about making the wrong choice, while FOMO (fear of missing out) further intensifies indecision? 

How decision fatigue affects us

Decision fatigue has extensive consequences. 

A study conducted in 2020 suggested that it could lead to behavioural, cognitive, and psychological effects. These include avoidant behaviours, where individuals modify their actions to prevent themselves from draining their internal resources. 

Procrastination, passivity, and even decision avoidance (choosing not to arrive at a conclusion at all) are just some of the side effects of this phenomenon. The study observed that fatigued individuals were less persistent, and tended to choose the easiest option available. This could also lead to impulsive decision-making, which journalist John Tierney suggests stems from a desire to avoid “expending the energy to first think through the consequences” of one’s choices. 

Decision fatigue
Decision fatigue can cause procrastination, greater passivity and avoidance in making decisions. (Photo source: Prostock-Studio / Canva)

Within the workplace, this can be especially paralysing for those in senior management positions, where balancing priorities and making choices are crucial to handling responsibilities. Making impulsive choices or selecting the most readily available option might not be in the best interests of the company, and could have long-lasting consequences. 

Ways to simplify and alleviate the decision-making process

Establish a primary goal 

Figuring out what ranks highest in your list of priorities is key to mitigating this issue. Think of it as a compass – and use this to weigh how the outcome you choose contributes to it. Is the choice you are considering aligned with your main goal? If not, perhaps it is time to toss it out. 

Reduce the number of decisions

Take late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who was well-known for maintaining uniformity in his sartorial choices (a plain black turtleneck, blue jeans and sneakers). Similarly, in a profile with Vanity Fair, former US President Barack Obama mentions that he wears only grey or blue suits to reduce the number of choices he has to make, and to channel internal resources towards more important ones. Adopting routines removes the need to make quotidian decisions, in turn preserving and freeing up mental capacity for situations with a higher priority and greater ramifications. 

Strategise when to make decisions

A study conducted in 2016 examined the decision-making patterns of chess players, and found that individuals made fewer errors in the morning compared to the evening. This was attributed to the tendency to adopt a strategy founded on safety at the start of the day, which creates slower and more accurate decision-making, thus increasing the efficacy of one’s decisions, as opposed to a riskier approach taken later in the day. 

Trust one’s intuition 

In his book Blink, writer Malcolm Gladwell examines the notion of snap judgements; how decisions made in the span of seconds reflect our unconscious knowledge and expertise. He makes the case for accepting the “mysterious nature” of snap judgments, and respecting that these are as valid as rational analyses conducted over a longer period of time. Gladwell posits that it is possible to train one’s snap judgements, and that successful decision-making requires a balance between “deliberate and instinctive thinking”. 

Establish a clear decision-making system

Aside from incorporating new changes into your routine, why not rely on tools designed to help you make decisions? 

Websites like Decisionize are dedicated to simplifying this process, by breaking it down into three steps: Stating the choices one is considering, weighing the pros and cons of each choice, and determining the impact of each choice. 

Closer to home, EatWhatSia, a Telegram bot, was created to assist users in deciding what to eat, by suggesting places based on one’s location and preferred cuisine.

While I have yet to try these sites, reframing the choices available to me through the use of pro/con lists has been immensely helpful in speeding up my decision-making process.  Doing so allows me to rationalise my choices, which alleviates any worries I have about making the wrong decision. 

Still, it is important to recognise how decision fatigue influences our choices, and what we can do to manage it. Whether it’s adopting mechanisms to cope, or better allocating our internal resources, being mindful of how to optimise the decision-making process is vital to improving our everyday lives. 

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