What You Need to Know About Decision Fatigue & How It's Probably Impacting You Right. This. Second.

I Can’t Decide and I Don’t Care

It’s Thursday afternoon. My wife and I can’t figure out what is for dinner. We talk through a few options, but we either don’t have all the ingredients or there isn’t enough time.

Our restaurants category is well funded though, so we decide* (don’t scroll down to see what the asterisk means, just keep tabs) to go out to dinner.

But where to go? We discuss a few options and decide* to go to a local place that has paleo specials on Thursday nights. As a bonus, the kids actually like this place.

We realize we need to pick up our daughter at gymnastics, which is 10 miles in the other direction, so we decide* to drive separately. We figure out* which one of us will do that (she will) while the other heads to the restaurant with the boys (that’s me) to grab a table. That’s after, of course, deciding who is going to take which car.*

Once we settle in at the restaurant, there are nine choices* on the menu for appetizers, five salads*, and thirteen entrees.* If you only count the paleo specials, there’s still five.*

Then there’s the kids’ menu. Do you think I should get chicken fingers, Dad? Or a sandwich? Can I get fries on the side? What about chocolate milk?****

Wow, this is complicated. All those asterisks? Each one a decision. We just wanted an easy dinner.

And then it happens. The waiter asks what kind of dressing I want on my salad. Vinaigrette, strawberry vinaigrette, blue cheese, parmesan peppercorn, ranch, light ranch… I glaze over. Suddenly, I don’t care. Those dressings are probably all full of things I try not to eat, but I just.don’t.care.

Cannot compute any more choices. I just pick the last one he said (I don’t even remember what it was) so that I can stop making decisions.

Sound familiar?

The Research

This is decision fatigue, and it is a thing; one that we all struggle with to varying degrees whether or not we even realize it.

In a 2008 study of the connection between decision making and self-control, a group of researchers concluded:

[s]elf-regulation, active initiative, and effortful choosing draw on the same psychological resource. Making decisions depletes that resource, thereby weakening the subsequent capacity for self-control and active initiative.

Decision making and self-control are both prominent aspects of the self’s executive function. It is therefore useful to recognize that they draw on a common psychological resource and that one may affect the other. In particular, making many decisions leaves the person in a depleted state and hence less likely to exert self-control effectively.¹

After making the dozen or more decisions about where to go for dinner, how to get to the restaurant, and what everyone should have, I had nothing left in the tank to choose a salad dressing.

In the grand scheme of things, not a big deal. It’s just salad dressing. And what does this have to do with budgeting, anyway?


Decisions and Your Budget

You decided you needed a budget because you wanted to improve your financial life. You wanted peace of mind and a better tomorrow. To do this, you’ve got to align your money with your priorities and aspirations.

You’ve got to make better decisions.

A successful budget isn’t about fancy software (shh, don’t tell anyone…), it’s about meaningful behavior changes and decision making. YNAB’s Four Rules provide a framework so you don’t have to decide on one yourself. And, well, the software makes it pretty easy, too.

(Talk about being overloaded with decisions, imagine building your own system…should we use paper and pencil? envelopes? a spreadsheet? How many columns? A tab for each month? You get the idea.)

Imagine yourself in a store or an online shopping cart at the end of a long day. Your capacity for self control is way down, yet you’re trying to weigh this purchase with everything else that is important to you. It’s not a good time for that. In fact, it is moments like this when you’ve done the spending you later came to regret.

Research tells us that you make better decisions when you haven’t already made a bunch of them already. It doesn’t matter whether they were big decisions or small ones. They all count, and they all drain your resource for making good ones from that point forward.

A budget fixes this problem. Not by telling you that you can’t spend or that you shouldn’t be in that checkout line to begin with. That’s a myth. (Budgets get such a bad rap!)

Instead, your budget fixes this because it is a set of decisions that are already made.

That moment of should-I-or-shouldn’t-I is still going to happen. But you will have decided days or weeks ago–maybe when you had a budget meeting with your partner–what spending was important to you.

So instead of succumbing to decision fatigue, you pull out your phone and check your budget. Yup, it looks like you already decided that a few bucks worth of music downloads would fit in your budget. Go ahead. Or, nope, it looks like you’ve already spent the money you had for [insert your vice-of-choice here].

Keeping it Simple

Just having a budget saves you from decision fatigue. Having a simple budget and a simple structure for your finances, puts that good effect on steroids.

How to keep it simple? Fewer moving parts is better.

Do you have multiple savings accounts? You don’t need them. Without them, you can stop making decisions about which account each dollar should be in. That decision adds no value to your money and your life. Just give your dollars jobs in the budget, and it doesn’t really matter where they sit in the real world.

Have you joined your life with someone else’s? Join your accounts, too. Don’t spend your time deciding how to divide each check. Is it mine? Yours? Ours? Does my paycheck go all in my account? Then who is going to pay the rent? Do we need to make a transfer from mine to yours before we do that? Make your decisions in your budget, and you’ll feel the positive effect.

And then there are credit cards. Have you ever stood in line flipping through four credit cards, trying to multiply by half percentage points to decide which card will get you a better reward? You just destroyed your own decision making capacity and blew a hole in your self-control. Keep it simple, keep one credit card instead, and make better decisions as a result.

It happens inside your budget, too. Do you have 173 categories? So many that you can’t tell whether to categorize something as “Pets: Cat Toys” or “Pets: Dog Toys” because they both might play with it? You’re spending too much time on decisions that won’t make a difference.

“The best advice may be for individuals to conserve their resources for important choices,” researchers tell us.²

Take a close look at how you’ve structured your accounts and your budget. Look for places to make your life simpler. Cut out decisions that just don’t add value or move you closer to your goals. Breathe easier. —

  1. Vohs, K.D., Baumeister, R.F., Schmeichel, B.J., Twenge, J.M., Nelson, N.M., & Tice, D.M. (2008). Making choices impairs subsequent self-control: A limited resource account of decision making, self-regulation, and active initiative. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 883-898.
  2. Wang, J., Novemsky, N., Dhar, R., & Baumeister, R.F. (2010). Trade-offs and depletion in choice.  Journal of Marketing Research, 47, 910-919.