“No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.” – John Tierny

“I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. […] You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” – Barack Obama in Vanity Fair

Making any decision involves a complex combination of trade offs between different wants, needs, preferences, and times. Doing this mental work takes a significant amount of energy, and we only have a limited amount available. As that mental energy gets used up it becomes more difficult to make good decisions, often with performance suffering as a result.

This phenomenon is formally known decision fatigue. In their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, authors Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney explain:

“The problem of decision fatigue affects everything from the careers of CEOs to the prison sentences of felons appearing before weary judges. It influences the behavior of everyone, executive and nonexecutive, every day. Yet few people are even aware of it. … They don’t realize that decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at their colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket, and can’t resist the car dealer’s offer to rustproof their new sedan.”

The problem of weary judges mentioned above is based on research conducted by Columbia with the help of Daniel Kahneman.1  They found that in the beginning of a session a judge is likely to give a favorable ruling 65% of the time. As the session progresses, the chance of a favorable decision drops down to 0%. This happens whether the session begins in the morning, or just after lunch when the judges have had a chance to relax and recharge.

Judges late in the day, quarterbacks late in the game, people in the checkout lane at the end of a shopping trip; decision fatigue impacts us all. It doesn’t have to be a losing battle though! There are strategies you can employ to help fight the fatigue and make better decisions more consistently.

How to beat decision fatigue:

  1. Recharge when tired.
  2. Reduce and automate trivial decisions.
  3. Eliminate decisions.
  4. Apply Pareto’s principal (the 80/20 rule) to decision making.
  5. Make an action plan.
  6. Make important decisions when your tank is still full.

1. Recharge when tired.

The biggest way to combat decision fatigue is to notice when we are feeling tired and take time to recharge. Just like the judges in the study, a mid-day refuel can fill up our decision tank and improve performance. Eat. Take a power nap. Meditate. Breathe. Exercise.

2. Reduce and automate trivial decisions.

Regardless of your opinion about his politics, we should all follow Barack Obama’s advice above and stop using valuable energy on decisions that aren’t that important! This can include:

  • What to eat. Neil Strauss, author of The Game, recommends maintaining your reserve of decision making power by automating lunch. He has 5 places he likes to eat, and gets it delivered like clockwork so he doesn’t have to think about it.
  • What to wear. Besides Obama, Steve Jobs famously wore his signature black turtleneck and jeans, and Mark Zukerberg wears the same t-shirt every day. When asked why Zuckerberg responded that he’s busy and it makes for one less thing to think about in the morning.2 “I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything, except how to best serve this community.”
  • Finances. If you get a paycheck, have it be direct deposited into your checking account. Set up scheduled transfers directly from checking to savings, and autopay for any service provider that offers it (cable, energy, etc.).
  • What to do in the morning. Develop a morning routine so you can get through the first part of the day without using valuable decision fuel.

3. Eliminate decisions.

If you commit 100% to actions and choices ahead of time, you no longer have to decide! “Once you make a 100% commitment to something, there are no exceptions.” writes Jack Canfield in The Success Principles. “It’s a done deal. Nonnegotiable. Case closed! Over and out.” This is one of en*Theos CEO Brian Johnson’s favorites, and is extremely helpful for developing healthy habits.

4. Apply Pareto’s principal (the 80/20 rule) to decision making.

Don’t worry about making the absolute best choice, just get to one that works and move on. For example, when at a restaurant don’t analyze every single food option on the menu. After you find something that you like, order it and move on.

5. Make an action plan.

Rather than deciding what to do next in the moment, make an action plan ahead of time. I’ve found this strategy to be particularly effective on a weekly basis. Every Sunday I look at the week ahead then plan out what I want to accomplish. Then, I go day by day and schedule the necessary action items on the calendar. As each day comes around I don’t have to think about what to do, I just look at the calendar and do it. The same thing could be done on a daily, monthly, or yearly basis, or all of the above.

6. Make important decisions when your tank is still full.

Tackle your most important decisions early in the day or right after lunch when you can give them the energy and attention they deserve. As New York Times writer John Tierney shares, “The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain.”

These tips can benefit everyone. Whether you are the CEO of a major corporation, the leader of a country, an athlete training for competition, a person trying to lose weight, or an entrepreneur trying to change the world, being more conscious of when and how you make decisions can help you live a healthier, happier, and more productive life.

If you are interested in books related to this topic, I recommend:
Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney


UPDATE: This article was re-published in Issue 36 of Switched On Leadership, a digital magazine with the mission “to help leaders and teams step up to a new level of thinking, knowing and performing.” More info at switchedonleaderhip.com


  1. http://www.pnas.org/content/108/17/6889.full.pdf []
  2. http://www.quora.com/Why-does-Mark-Zuckerberg-always-wear-the-same-shirt []