No, you decide: why we're exhausted by choice

My brain is generally spent by the time I arrive at work. By 8am I’ve already made some 150 odd micro-decisions, many of which I never knew my brain was computing while making the mad dash for the trains. Do I cross the road on the flashing red man or wait until it goes green again? Which ticket turnstile should I head through? Without an inkling of self-awareness my brain is framing the thriving mass of commuters as they disembark from the train, calculating the path of least resistance up the stairs.

There are two escalators leading from my train station and each morning I take the one that suits me most. Each morning before I even know it my brain has analysed the flow on each and decided ahead of time which one I should head up.

If I don’t make the decision then I’ll just end up head-butting a wall or something for eternity. There’s no ducking it.

No wonder I’m tired.


That’s how many decisions the average person makes every day. It might be as innocuous as deciding which pair of shoes flatters your outfit or it might be a decision to invade another country. If you’re the leader of a nation, it could well be both. In the same day. Think about every decision you make every day. Really think. Because most of them will take place in the fascinating periphery of your consciousness. And they wear you down.

Decision fatigue is not a fancy name for a fancy story. It exists and it’s been documented. A study of Israeli parole judges found that prisoners were more likely to get paroled early in the day and far, far less likely at the end. Only morning teas and lunches helped stem the tide of tiredness that these decision-makers must have been feeling.

John Tierney wrote about the phenomenon in the New York Times Magazine:

Should I wear clogs today?

“Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. You start to resist any change, any potentially risky move — like releasing a prisoner who might commit a crime. So the fatigued judge on a parole board takes the easy way out, and the prisoner keeps doing time.”

Marketers and advertisers know this. That’s why the chocolate is at the supermarket check-out and not when you walk in. You can gird your budgeted loins as much as you want at the beginning of the shop but the myriad little decisions between entry and exit erode your defences. And all the research tells us that it probably helps to get a sugar hit.

Honestly, who could resist? Not many.

There are other theories – they are interesting but still just theories – that blame decision fatigue for keeping the poor, poor. They make so many more decisions just to budget food every week that their brains are too tired to commit wholeheartedly to further education or jobs that may lift them out of poverty.

A micro-example: if you had all the money you wanted, the only decisions in a supermarket shop would be what you wanted to buy and eat. But those who are on strict budgets must decide what they want, what they can afford, what they need and which versions they can shuffle in and out. High quality, low quality. For every item. It’s exhausting.

Is choice tiring you? Where to eat, what to do, what to say?

What decisions do you hate making?