Decision fatigue is a form of cognitive overload which occurs when we become overwhelmed by the number of decisions we need to make, or by how important they are. This can lead to stress, anxiety and avoidance behaviours, as well as a decreased ability to make further decisions.
The circumstances of the past few years, including the global pandemic, inflation and cost of living crisis, mean that many of us have been in a state of high alert or elevated stress for months on end. These can also be contributing factors to cases of mental exhaustion that can affect our ability to make good decisions.
We’re going to take a look at decision making and speak with professional poker player, and 888poker ambassador, Vivian Saliba, to discuss how to overcome decision fatigue and make informed choices.
How Many Decisions Do We Make?
It can be difficult to quantify how many decisions we make. Choosing tea over coffee is clearly a decision, but is scratching our nose a decision or an impulse? Nevertheless, research shows that we make thousands of decisions a day. Sounds tiring just thinking about that, right?
Most of these decisions are small and relatively inconsequential. Deciding whether to wear the blue top or the red top to work, or to have a sandwich or soup for lunch probably won’t have too much impact on the events of the day. However, one study from Cornell University found that we make approximately 226 decisions every day solely about food – when it adds up like that, even these small decisions can be taxing.
Some will have identifiable consequences or results, which may not be huge but can add or detract value from our lives and the world around us. Deciding to walk to work rather than drive, for example, has benefits for both personal fitness and the environment. Some are major – deciding to take a new job or accept a marriage proposal requires a lot of thought, and we place a lot of pressure on ourselves to make the best decision.
So how does someone who needs to make quick decisions regularly in their career handle it? Vivian explains: “I try to base my decisions on the theory that I studied, instead of a feeling or impulse that may indicate doing something different. This might not sound easy, but by learning how I should play, I try to make rules and establish some guidelines in order to execute the theory to my best capability.”
Diminished Capacity for Decision-Making
No matter what size or importance our decisions have, our decision-making ability can be seen as a finite resource. The more decisions we make, or the more pressure we put on ourselves to constantly make the right decisions, the more we become fatigued.
Then, when faced with more decisions later, our capacity for making those choices is diminished. People who choose hobbies or careers that require multiple decisions to be made, such as poker players like Vivian, or those who must make complex and significant decisions such as surgeons, are highly susceptible to decision fatigue.
People who are more susceptible to decision fatigue often develop strategies and techniques to overcome the worst effects and retain their ability to continue to make smart choices even when tired or under pressure, as Vivian explained.
“I've tried quite a few things in order to perform better when playing poker", she says. “A few years ago I would drink bulletproof coffee every morning and do yoga lessons, and this did help.
“Nowadays, if I have the opportunity to choose when to play, I will. Sometimes we just don't feel our best, [for reasons such as] illness, personal worries, even women having a hormonal imbalance [at certain times of the month]. On days when you feel any of these, they won’t be your best days to deal with tough decisions and perform your best. For me, I’d rather skip playing if I have the choice and do something more productive instead, such as studying or just taking care of myself.”
Decision fatigue comes from changes in the function of the brain – it is more than simply a feeling. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, researchers examined brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and striatum – two areas of the brain associated with decision-making, impulse control and other aspects of cognition. Subjects of the study were asked to choose between items presented in sets of six, 12 and 24. When faced with 12 choices, activity was highest, suggesting this is the “correct” number of choices, or the sweet spot for decision-making.
And brain health plays a pivotal role, not just in decision-making, but also living a healthy life. Vivian says: “[Something] that helps me with my performance is a healthy lifestyle. Diet, exercise and rest. It sounds cliche but it does work.
“Before any major series I go through an [alcohol] detox period a few weeks prior. I am also stricter with my routine and commitment. Before I started doing this intensive preparation, I wouldn’t feel as good during the long and [high-]pressure hours of a poker game.”
Time of Day
The time of day can also play a role in how well we make decisions or how much energy we have to put into those decisions. One research study on judicial rulings in the US, which examined over a thousand rulings on parole release across a 10-month period, found that some criminals did not perhaps get a fair hearing.
Cases being heard early in the day and just after a lunch break were significantly more likely to result in favourable outcomes for the defendant when compared to those held just before the break or at the end of the day. This was true for over 1,100 cases evaluated.
High emotion can also make us more likely to make bad decisions, especially when the emotions we are experiencing are negative. Cognitive scientist Jussi Palomäki conducted a study on the phenomenon of “tilting” in poker (when a player makes a run of bad decisions leading to a losing game).
Palomäki discovered several repeating themes among players who had experienced tilt, all of which were linked to feeling strong, negative emotions. Some players tilted after what they felt was an unfair loss, resulting in chasing behaviour involving making poor decisions in an attempt to recapture the “unfairly” lost chips.
Dissociation was also common, with players reporting feelings of numbness and emptiness during their tilt. More inexperienced players also reported feeling angry and having “bad luck”, although most experienced players recognised that not all draws would go their way.
So how does Vivian avoid tilting? “Sometimes, especially after playing for a long period of hours or/and under pressure, we might make mistakes that we normally wouldn't, and this can make the difference in winning and losing,” she says. “The more competitive the game you are playing, the more costly mistakes will be. Even the best poker players of the world can't play perfect poker all the time.”
There are various risk factors that can make people more likely to suffer from decision fatigue, which is also referred to as ego depletion. People at a higher risk of becoming fatigued include those who:
Make a higher-than-average number of decisions each day
Make lots of very complex decisions
Make decisions that are stressful or could have a high impact
Make decisions that have a significant effect on others
Feel highly affected by the decisions they make.
There could also be additional factors such as culture and perception.
The participants from the West believed that it was draining to exert willpower, while the participants from India believed it was energising. These beliefs affected how individuals performed.
There are several noticeable effects of decision fatigue, which revolve around our continued ability to make good decisions. People suffering from decision fatigue may:
Make more impulsive decisions, such as impulse buying, without thinking through the consequences.
Procrastinate or avoid making decisions at all, often leading to poor outcomes.
Overthink or ruminate for long periods of time on one aspect of a decision, without proper consideration for the trade-offs.
Many people also experience feelings more commonly associated with stress, such as lethargy, irritability, inability to sleep or sleeping too much. Decision fatigue is a form of stress so it makes sense that the symptoms would be similar.
How to Overcome Decision Fatigue
The good news is there are various things we can do to overcome decision fatigue and increase our chances of continuing to be able to make good decisions throughout each day. Many successful people have shared their tips on how to reduce decision fatigue and Vivian has revealed how her techniques can be applied outside of the poker world.
“The main component to living a healthy lifestyle is the diet you follow, just by adding fresh veggies to your everyday menu and removing junk, you will feel a huge difference in your general health, and your brain health too. Trust me, I used to be very unhealthy.
“Another easy thing to do is just move your body, walk instead of driving, use the stairs instead of the escalator etc. I got a standing desk and a portable treadmill to be able to move my body when I am playing online poker, this might be a good investment for you as well.”
Reduce the number of decisions
While no matter what we do, we will still have to make thousands of decisions in a day, there are some areas where we can naturally and easily reduce the number of less important decisions we must make.
Some of the world’s most successful people are known for wearing the same outfit every day:
Steve Jobs’ blue jeans, black rollneck and trainer combo is as much a part of the Apple brand as the products themselves.
Mark Zuckerberg is rarely seen wearing anything other than a grey t-shirt.
Albert Einstein always wore a grey suit.
Barack Obama pared his wardrobe choices down to two colours during his time in office.
The reason for the wardrobe monotony? Each of these people have stated that they made a conscious effort to reduce the number of decisions they had to make in a typical day, to conserve brain power for more important tasks.
How to reduce your decisions
There are several things you can do to simplify your life and reduce the number of decisions you have to make.
Create a capsule wardrobe like Jobs and Zuckerberg.
Make a rotating meal plan and stick to it, so you don’t waste time deciding what to make for dinner. This also helps reduce the number of grocery shopping decisions you need to make, as you can set up an online order for the ingredients you need each week.
Set up a proper morning routine – decide in advance what time you will get up, what to wear, what to have for breakfast etc., and follow the same routine every day.
If you exercise, have a specific time of day you go to the gym or for a run, so you don’t waste time deciding whether to go or not
Think about the three Ps
Preferences are unique to each of us. Spending a little time now determining what your preferences are could save you multiple decisions in the future. Determine what your specific goals are in any situation before you enter it, so you have a clear idea of the outcomes you want. For example, if you need to hire a new employee, identify what values and characteristics you are looking for before you start reading CVs or interviewing candidates.
Duke also suggests measuring the payoff of each potential outcome before making a decision. Most decisions will result in a mixture of good and bad – there is rarely one correct choice. Just as with determining preferences, you can evaluate important decisions based on the payoff. Some decisions will add value to your life in some way, such as increasing your income or your happiness. Others may be simply about avoiding negative payoff – choosing the path that will cause you to lose the least.
Determining the probability of getting the outcome you want can also help you make better decisions. Sometimes luck or outside factors beyond our control will affect the outcome of our decisions. Calculating the probability often comes down to identifying how much of the outcome we can control and how much is out of our hands.
Decision fatigue is something that will affect all of us at some point. As Vivian mentioned, there are a range of factors such as being tired or under the weather can make us more susceptible, and putting off important decisions or avoiding situations where you will have to make lots of complex choices can be a good idea. It’s a strategy that has helped her win many games and become a professional in her field – by being aware of decision fatigue and taking measures to reduce the effects, we can all improve our chances of making better decisions.
She adds: “The only way to have a clearer understanding of what you should do is knowing the theory and trying to implement. Of course, it is easier said than done, but I'll try to find the answers by taking my time and really thinking through the situation [and decision].”