What is “decision fatigue”?
Surf the web and you’ll find many definitions, but my interpretation is this: As humans, we make thousands of decisions each day (and, in this fast-paced world, we make many, many more than our animal relatives and ancestors); because of this, we ultimately hit a point of mental exhaustion. Once this moment hits, we will do, say, and/or eat just about anything. This has been the case for humans for quite some time, but, in the advent of technology, the number of inputs we’re faced with each day continues to increase. Sure, there are now robots who do many menial tasks for us, but there are also graphics and images and advertisements and news flashes and text messages and emails and phone alerts bombarding us every moment. By the end of the day (or even the late morning or afternoon), even though robots may turn on our TVs or speakers, we are mentally tired; this overwhelming feeling of decision-induced exhaustion weakens our ability to make the healthiest, best choices.
What does this have to do with biohacking?
In my opinion, just knowing that decision fatigue is a “thing” is empowering. One evening last week, I was checking out at the grocery store and was nearly convinced that I needed a pack of gum staring at me from above the conveyor belt. However, I knew I was A) being cajoled by supermarket product placement tactics to buy something I didn’t truly want and/or need and B) suffering from decision fatigue, especially since that day was a particularly long one filled with multiple work and life stressors. The numerous candies, magazines, and other common impulse buys are not situated next to cash registers by accident. The people who place them there know exactly what they’re doing: they’re trying to catch us at our weak moments, and now, knowing we’re often decision fatigued, we don’t need to succumb to the temptation!
Avoiding impulse buys at the grocery store is one thing, but avoiding them in our homes or routines is another. This is where true biohacking comes in.
First of all, don’t keep junk food in your residence. Period.
When you come home at the end of a long day, you’ll likely reach for an easy snack. If you’re decision fatigued–and there’s a 99.9% probability that you will be on any given afternoon or evening–you probably won’t mull over the nutrient density of that snack before you eat it. Thus, just keep all junk—sugar-filled yogurts, protein bars, chips, candy, ice cream, crackers, pretzels, soda (diet and regular!), etc.–out of of your home. Save treats for special occasions like holiday gatherings, birthday parties, or Saturday night Netflix binge sessions. There is absolutely no reason to keep junk foods around 24/7 because even the most well-intentioned biohacker will grab a few chips here and/or a handful of M&Ms there. When junk foods are easily accessible, we may eat twenty–or more!–servings of crap we didn’t intend to eat in just one week. Each “harmless” handful truly adds up.
When I started to truly focus on cleaning up my diet and lifestyle, I kept treats around thinking I was mentally strong enough to save them for those special occasions. In reality, this never happened. It seemed so innocuous to snack on pretzels or candy while prepping dinner, but all of the extra empty calories, processed vegetable oils, and “natural” flavors were so unnecessary. I realized that I–like most of us–was not above mindless snacking, especially when I was decision-fatigued at the end of a work day.
Now, I eat my treats outside of my apartment. Walking through NYC, I may happen upon a new ice cream store and grab a scoop. Out to dinner with friends, I’ll indulge in a few spoonfuls of shared desserts. At happy hour, I’ll order the cheap and delicious $5 chicken fingers. I am not advocating the removal of all delicacies from one’s life, but I am definitely recommending the elimination of all unhealthy snacks from one’s residence. (And, it’s also important to remember that all treats–even ones outside the home–should be rare, not the norm!)
At first, it may feel bizarre and sad not to have pretzels, candy, and soda around, but I promise you it will pay off. Soon, you won’t even miss them! The delicacies you consume at special dinners and parties will seem that much saltier and/or sweeter, and the healthy snacks you keep at home and elect to eat after those long days will be nutrient-dense and energy-giving.
Secondly, make the healthiest habits the easiest to do.
Embarrassing admission: I work in New Jersey and live in NYC. That’s not the embarrassing part (I’m not a New Jersey hater!); this is it: In order to get myself to the gym after a long workday, I must lug my gym bag with me from NYC to New Jersey and back to NYC and walk home on a specific route on which I pass my gym. If this perfect storm doesn’t happen, I just won’t go to the gym. Instead, I’ll come up with every excuse and rationalization I can possibly think of and end up on my couch watching god knows what on TV. I’d like to think I’m the type of person who can go home first, change into gym clothes, and then go to the gym, but I’m just not. After years and years of attempting the latter routine, I’ve given up and accepted the gym bag schlep.
It truly all comes back to decision fatigue. No matter how great our intentions are, we will likely not make the best, most healthful choices when we’re mentally exhausted. When I walk by my gym with my exercise gear in tow, it’s so easy for me to walk right in. By removing just a few extra choices from my day, I set myself up for a healthier lifestyle.
Some people combat late-in-the-day decision fatigue by exercising in the morning before work. Others lay out their workout clothes so that it’s easy to slip right into them after work. There’s no right or wrong way to set yourself up for success when it comes to healthy lifestyle choices; you must figure out what works for you!
Food choices and exercise are just two realms that can be negatively impacted by decision fatigue; beyond these, I encourage you to consider all of the healthy lifestyle “shoulds” that you have been meaning to get around to and ask yourself, “How is decision fatigue holding me back?”
When you have figure out one or more ways to avoid decision fatigue in your own life, please share your success stories and tips in the comments!
In each blog post, I aim to bring you food for thought (pun intended. Note: my day job is teaching English), but don’t take my word for it! Click on and read all of the links above to become your own expert on this topic; knowledge is power. The more you know and understand the “why” behind each biohack, the easier it will be to stick to it and realize you can’t live without it!
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4 thoughts on “Don’t Let “Decision Fatigue” Dictate Your Choices”
Best post yet!! And there are some good ones. Going to make a list of ways that I get decision fatigue right now and how to make small changes to fight the urge to follow the past of least resistance! Thanks for this!!
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Not keeping snacks is definitely the best way to play it. I try making myself walk to get gelato instead of keeping gelato at home (there’s some exercise there, right?). Would like to know your thoughts about getting the train back on track after an undisciplined meal or day(s) of eating.
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Thanks for yet another comment, Kivan! I think it’s a great idea to make yourself walk to gelato. That’s similar to what Thomas and I do in NYC. It’s soooooo much easier to abstain when sweets are 500 meters–not 5 feet!–away.
I think the best way to get back on track after a bad meal/day is not to fall into the guilt trap. When I feel guilty about eating one bad thing, I’ll often eat another…and another…and another. Soon, I spiral out of control. If I eat a treat, I think of it as just that: a perfectly acceptable rare treat. Then, I move on and keep with my healthy eating protocol. If it’s the holiday season and I’m eating several treats each day, I remind myself of celebrity fitness trainer Vinnie Tortorich’s motto, which goes something like, “Don’t fret so much about what you eat between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. It’s what you eat between New Year’s Day and Thanksgiving that counts.” If it’s not the holiday season and I find that I’m eating a lot of junk, I get really honest with myself and remind myself that treats are meant to be few and far between. Still, I always aim to maintain a positive relationship with food. I never want to pigeon hole myself into a life that’s void of nachos and cookies! Stay tuned for a future post on “the bliss of 80-20”: eating as healthy as possible 80% of the time so that you can be more lax the other 20%!
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