End Decision Drain: 6 Ways to Manage Choices to Ease Stress and Boost Energy

One recent Wednesday, my husband and I evaluated three bids and decided on a roofing company to fix our leaking shakes. Then, I chose a mortgage company for our refinance, picked a topic for my next work assignment, decided on ballet classes over soccer for my toddler, and picked out products while grocery shopping.

Later that day, when it was time to pay a few bills, I suddenly felt overwhelmed. Like most people, I’m used to making dozens of decisions each day but, by the end of it, I often feel frustrated, impatient and worn out by even the easy choices.

I’m not alone. People inundated by decisions, both big and small — which is, well, everyone, these days — often have a hard time staying focused enough to complete even the most basic tasks, according to a 2008 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“We saw a depletion of mental resources,” says Noelle Nelson, one of the researchers and a doctoral candidate in marketing at the University of Minnesota. “The mental muscle gets tired.”

As a result, our self-control takes a hit. Drained by the mental pressure of making multiple choices, we’re more likely to cut corners and make snap decisions that aren’t healthy or smart. We’ll choose fast food over a home-cooked meal to avoid deciding what to cook for dinner. We’ll turn on the television instead of taking that walk, or we’ll make impulse buys at the checkout stand.

In fact, too much “cognitive processing,” such as decision making, actually depletes “your self-regulatory capacity to exercise,” according to another study led by Kathleen Martin Ginis, associate professor of kinesiology at McMaster University.

Clearly then, if our goal is to get fit and lose weight, numerous decisions during the day could thwart our efforts to exercise. And, self-control is essential to accomplishing any other goal. If our self-control — our ability to focus and see things through — suffers, so does our ability to achieve our dreams.

Why decisions drain us

“We under-appreciate the stress involved in making a good decision,” says Michael Useem, Ph.D., author of The Go Point: When It’s Time to Decide and a professor at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

Usually, easier decisions are made early on in the chain of command. The toughest decisions, those with a lot at stake, are left for us as leaders of the household or business. These are the choices that not only impact the end result, but they can also cost us money and affect the people around us. With the pressure on, the choices get tougher and begin tugging on our emotions and our intellect.

When we finally do make a decision — yes, we’re buying the car or having broccoli for dinner — it’s likely someone will be unhappy. It doesn’t matter if it’s a multimillion dollar business choice, or deciding what to feed your kids; the process is never easy.

“Decision-making is just like running a marathon,” Useem says. “It is just an exhausting activity. The things that you need to get through a marathon are also needed in decision-making. Like conditioning. It helps to make choices frequently. That doesn’t make them easier, but it makes the process less vexing.”

6 ways to make decision-making easier

There are a few other strategies we can use to ease the stress, at least a little, and salvage some of our self-control while still making good decisions. Useem and Nelson offer these tips:

  1. Get enough good information. If you are mostly confident in the data and analysis you have — such as three comprehensive bids from three good roofing companies — stop researching and make a decision.
  2. Listen to your inner voice. Intuition combined with information provides powerful insight into the right choice.
  3. Wait awhile. If a decision does not have to be made immediately, you’ll do better if you sit back for a day or two and clarify your thinking, Useem says. Don’t avoid making tough choices; at some point, you do have to decide. But when it comes to the big decisions such as buying a house or opening a business, take some time to let your thoughts jell and your intuition kick in.
  4. Limit your choices for non-essential items. Buy the same kind of milk every week. Limit your clothes shopping to two department stores. Make some decisions routine and you’ll have greater stamina and a little more self-control at the end of the day.
  5. Spend a little time on fun things. In one study, people who spent a few minutes deciding what to put on a gift registry actually did better than those who spent a lot of time on the same thing, Nelson says. So a few minutes spent on fun choices might actually deplete your self-control at a slower rate.
  6. Replenish self-control. Take a break. Get a good night’s sleep. Get quiet. Set aside some time where you have no choices to make and refuel so that you have plenty of self-control for the next day.

“Self-control is so many things,” Nelson says. “If you make a lot of choices in a day, your self-control resources are depleted, and that affects so many areas of our lives. Everything from relationships — you might not be able to keep your cool in an argument — to health, to spending. So, if you know what affects self-control resources, you can take action to conserve them. Then you’ll have sufficient resources when you need them.

“There will always be a lot of options out there,” he adds, “but it doesn’t mean that we have to be making a lot of choices.”

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