Conquering Decision Fatigue

Empowering Strategies for Individuals with ADHD

Published on
May 31, 2024

Have you ever kicked yourself for making a spur-of-the-moment decision?

What about the opposite - feeling like your brain is frozen on the ‘loading screen,’ unable to make even the simplest choice? Or that feeling when your brain seems to be on a roller coaster, constantly bombarded with so many choices you can’t stop to take the time to think them through?

Well, my friends, you're not alone.

Living with ADHD means we have a lot on our plates already, and decision-making can sometimes feel like an Olympic sport. From picking what to wear in the morning (does it really matter if our socks match?) to deciding which task to tackle first, it can be downright exhausting. And here's the kicker: the more decisions we make throughout the day, the harder it becomes to make good ones.

In fact, the New York Times published an article exploring the intricate connection between willpower, self-control, and a phenomenon known as decision fatigue. It's like a superhero origin story for our struggles! In a nutshell, the more choices we make in a day, the more our brains get bogged down with each subsequent decision. It's like our brain's way of saying, "Enough already!"

But don’t worry -  we're about to don our capes and take on the decision fatigue villain head-on. We'll learn more about what makes the enemy tick, and unleash clever workarounds and tactics that would make even the most seasoned crime-fighter proud.

What Is Decision Fatigue?

Decision fatigue is the mental exhaustion that follows tasks requiring us to constantly monitor our behavior (i.e., making decisions). The bigger the decisions, the more self-control they demand, leaving us susceptible to greater decision fatigue.

Decision-making, willpower, and self-control are intertwined. Scientists conducted tests to unravel the connection, finding that when people resisted the temptation of M&M's or cookies, their ability to resist other temptations diminished. It's as if the mental energy we expend to resist one temptation leaves us weaker in the face of others.

This decision-making fatigue sheds light on why even the most level-headed individuals may find themselves snapping at minor annoyances, or indulging in impulsive purchases, for example.

In a way, self-control is akin to a muscle. It can tire out, and once depleted, we become less capable of resisting other temptations. Ever wonder why they strategically place candy at the checkout line? It's because our ability to resist diminishes after making a multitude of decisions while grocery shopping. And the ADHD brain tires more quickly than others, leaving us more susceptible to impulsive actions.

How Decision Fatigue Affects Different Areas of Life

Decision fatigue, like a cunning shapeshifter (I mean that in the best possible way, Mystique, really!) stealthily infiltrates various aspects of our lives, leaving its mark on our well-being. Its effects ripple through different domains:

  • Personal Relationships: Simple disagreements can escalate into unnecessary conflicts, and our ability to empathize and understand others diminishes. Decision fatigue strains our connections, leaving us irritable and more likely to withdraw rather than engage in meaningful interactions that nurture our relationships.
  • Work or Academics: Depleted cognitive resources result in reduced focus and clarity. Prioritizing tasks, making strategic decisions, and problem-solving become arduous challenges. Productivity suffers, deadlines may be missed.
  • Self Care: Our tired minds struggle to engage in healthy habits and prioritize our physical and mental health. Choices that contribute to our well-being, such as nutritious meals, exercise, and self-care activities, become more and more susceptible to impulsive choices that offer temporary relief or gratification but undermine our long-term well-being.
  • Finances: Fatigued minds gravitate towards immediate desires and impulsive spending, neglecting long-term financial goals.

The Link Between ADHD and Decision Fatigue

Continuing with the muscle analogy, making decisions actually involves.) several brain-powered “muscles” - aka, executive functions:

  • planning
  • working memory
  • attention
  • problem solving
  • verbal reasoning
  • inhibition
  • mental flexibility
  • multi-tasking
  • initiation and monitoring of actions

For those of us with deficits in these areas, decision fatigue and procrastination are no surprise. The intricate workings of decision-making require more energy and time for our super-powered brains.

Consider the difference between a body-builder and a distance runner. Both have considerable muscle, but the body builder trains for short, intense bursts, whereas the runner’s muscles are adapted for endurance.

Our ADHD brains are capable of some incredible feats - I know I’m not the only one who survived most of my life on last-minute crunch deadlines (mental powerlifting). That’s an awesome super power! The drawback is that we can’t do that all day, every day. It’s just too exhausting.

Hot vs. Cold: Executive Function Categories

Before we get into strategies, it’s important to understand the distinction between different types of executive function (EF) that play a role in decision-making. One of the ways to categorize them is by dividing them into ‘hot’ (emotionally charged, reward-driven processes), and ‘cold’ (purely cognitive information processing).

The hot EFs are where individuals with ADHD often shine. We tend to be great ‘firefighters,’ excelling in situations that involve quick, intuitive decisions. The emotions, rewards, and motivations involved in these ‘hot’ situations are very stimulating. It is in these urgent, fast-paced moments that the ADHD brain's neurotransmitters ignite, enhancing focus and attention.

Conversely, cold EFs require thoughtful contemplation to sift through relevant and irrelevant information - a task that can pose a challenge for those with ADHD, as we tend to enjoy discovering new information (how many times have you gotten stuck in an internet rabbit hole while reading this article?).

In short, hot decisions harness our emotional connections and intuitive leaps, while cold decisions demand careful analysis and filtering of information. By understanding the interplay between these domains, we can navigate the complexities of decision-making and leverage our unique neurodiverse superpowers.

TLDR? Jessica McCabe, creator of How to ADHD, does a great job explaining it here!

How Can Those With ADHD Cope with Decision Fatigue?

Now that you know what decision fatigue is, why it’s so common in ADHD, and a bit of the brain science behind it, let’s talk strategy.

  1. Simplify and Limit Choices: Narrow the options. Cut out irrelevant choices and focus only on factors that matter most to you. For example, create a capsule wardrobe consisting of a curated collection of versatile and coordinating pieces. By selecting a limited number of items that can be mixed and matched, you eliminate decision fatigue when getting dressed
  2. Trust Your Intuition: Pay attention to your gut feelings. Research suggests that emotions play a significant role in decision-making. Allow your heart to guide you alongside logical reasoning. For example, you may find yourself torn between two potential positions that offer similar benefits and opportunities. While analyzing the facts and weighing the pros and cons is important, it's also crucial to trust your intuition. If one of the job opportunities gives you a strong gut feeling of excitement, alignment with your values, or a sense of connection with the company culture, it may be an indicator that it's the right choice for you.
  3. Seek Input from Trusted Individuals: Crowdsource decisions by delegating them to people you trust. Although they make the final decision, you retain responsibility and accountability for the outcome. For example, ask three trusted friends what they’d choose. Whichever option gets more ‘votes’ wins.
  4. Use Quantitative Pros and Cons: The good old pros and cons list is still a classic for a reason. Create a two-column grid. List all of the potential benefits of the decision on one side, and all the possible negatives on the other. Then, assign a positive or negative value to each one. For example, a score of +5 may indicate a huge benefit, and a +1 would be a minor convenience. A -1 may be mildly unfavorable, and a -5 might be a ‘hard limit.’ Add up the scores in each column, and subtract the total cons from the total pros. A positive overall score is a green light to go ahead with the decision; a negative overall score is a ‘nope.’
  5. Practice Time Extension: Learn to ask for more time before making a decision. Phrases like "Let me get back to you" or "Can I have some time to think?" allow you to buy time and avoid impulsive choices.
  6. Differentiate Significance: Consider the consequences of a decision and assign an acceptable margin of error. For example, choosing what color socks to wear might have a 50% acceptable margin of error, meaning it is safe to leave it up to chance. On the other hand, choosing between two job offers might only have a 5% acceptable margin of error, since the decision will impact your daily life for years to come. Allocate more time and energy to decisions with lower acceptable margins of error so that you don’t waste brain power on the little stuff.

Strategies for Prevention

  1. Create a Quiet Space: Reduce external stimuli by finding a calm and quiet environment to contemplate decisions. Noise, visual clutter, and distractions can overload an ADHD brain, making decision-making more challenging.
  2. Anticipate Recurring Decisions: Be proactive and anticipate decisions that recur regularly. Mark important dates on your calendar, ensuring you're prepared and reducing the likelihood of hasty, uninformed choices. For example, create a document or excel sheet with the names of each of your friends and family members. Keep it somewhere handy - a link on your desktop or home screen. Any time you see something you think a loved one would like, copy/paste a link to the item into your document. Now, when it comes time to get them something, you have a handy list to consult.
  3. Proactive Decision-Making: Avoid procrastinating decisions until your options are limited. Delaying choices can intensify decision fatigue. For example, when you’re super hungry, it’s a lot easier to give in to a burger and fries despite your fitness goals. I know I work from the library every Tuesday, instead of from home; so every Sunday I decide what lunch will be on Tuesday, and I prepare a lunch box for myself, or look up the menus at places nearby so I know what healthy options are available to me in advance.
  4. Prioritize and Plan: Create a list of decisions you know you need to make. Tackle the most important decisions, and/or the ones that will require the most brain power, when your mind is fresh. For example, right after your morning coffee, or when that evening ‘second wind’ hits and you get a burst of energy.
  5. Take Breaks and Nourish Yourself: Schedule regular breaks to replenish your brain. Remember, we’re powerlifters, not endurance runners. Ensure adequate meals, snacks, and hydration throughout the day to maximize your decision-making muscles.
  6. Identify Signs of Decision Fatigue: Recognize the symptoms of decision fatigue, such as increased stress, anxiety, or frustration. (For example, I know when I’m in decision fatigue, I get the urge to go hide under the covers in bed.) By acknowledging these signs, you can address the underlying causes and improve your overall mental well-being.
  7. Lean on Routine: This one is also great for reducing the number of small decisions you make throughout the day. Creating a routine is difficult, but once established, you conserve mental energy because you’re acting on ‘autopilot.’ For example, I eat the same thing for breakfast every morning so I don’t have to worry about making a choice when my brain is still fuzzy.

The Battle’s Conclusion: Defeating Decision Fatigue

Decision fatigue can feel like battling a formidable supervillain, especially for individuals with ADHD. The mental exhaustion it brings can be akin to Kryptonite, weakening our ability to make sound choices.

But fear not! We've explored strategies to combat this villain - simplifying choices, like Batman narrowing down his gadgets; seeking input from trusted allies, like the Avengers assembling for a mission; trusting our intuition, like Spider-Man relying on his spider-sense; and proactively anticipating recurring decisions, like Professor X planning strategies for future battles.

Each of these strategies strengthens our decision-making powers. With these super-heroic approaches, we can triumph over decision fatigue and emerge as the heroes of our own lives, making wise choices that propel us towards success. Remember - true heroes are not defined by their initial struggles, but by their unwavering determination to conquer challenges. So don your cape, summon your inner hero, and conquer decision fatigue, one choice at a time!

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