Decision Fatigue-the Struggle is Real

We start each day deciding what we want to wear, what to eat for breakfast and the decisions continue throughout the day. Many people make efforts to reduce their physical fatigue, but what about mental fatigue? Even the smallest decisions can begin to wear on most people by the end of the day—and I’d guess it may be the reason so many of us eat dinner at the I don’t care restaurant. Just what is decision fatigue and what can we do about it? Nurses General Nursing Article

Decision Fatigue-the Struggle is Real

The average adult makes thousands of decisions each day. Choosing to read this article is just one of many decisions you'll make today. Some decisions are important, while others may be trivial, but they all compete for our attention. We start the day by deciding to get out of bed. This might be after we decided to roll over to turn off the alarm, or to hit the snooze button one more time.The decisions start from the moment we open our eyes and continue from there.

What should I wear? Do I want to eat breakfast? Is there time to check this website or go through my email? How do I respond to this text?

Open the history on your computer and look at how many pages you've already visited today. Each click a decision on your part to move to another site, or open another window-and deplete your future decision-making ability.

What Is Decision Fatigue?

The more decisions we make, the weaker our decision process becomes. Studies have shown that judges make less favorable decisions by the end of the day. Our brain looks for shortcuts rather than expending more energy to think through the consequences, or instead we avoid deciding by doing nothing.

Decision fatigue is different than physical fatigue because we're not always aware of the depletion of our mental energy. That's one reason stores place impulse items and junk food at the register. Or have you ever wondered why you ended up with those extra warranties when you made a large purchase? Our mind wants to default to the easy decision, which can result in:

  • Making less-desirable decisions
  • Reduced willpower
  • Poor judgement
  • Impulse buying

Combat Decision Fatigue

Many decisions can't be avoided. But you can find ways to reduce the number of daily trivial decisions to make space for ones that are more significant. As nurses, we must make many important decisions throughout the day. To conserve mental energy, consider methods to work against decision fatigue.

Automate Easy Decisions- What do Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Albert Einstein have in common? They all simplified their wardrobe to save their mental energy to focus on more important decisions. If you already wear scrubs for your job, you may be saving the time and effort on that daily decision. Otherwise, consider paring down your wardrobe to neutral colors that easily coordinate. If you still want to add a little flair you could change your accessories. Plan other decisions the night before such as:

  • Where to get coffee the next morning
  • The route to take to work
  • Who's dropping off, or picking up the kids
  • What to have for lunch, or dinner

Do the Most Important Thing First - Some people make less ethical decisions by the afternoon because of decision fatigue. Prioritize your tasks so you tackle ones that require more thought and mental energy early in your day.

Stick to a Schedule - Reducing the strain on your brain by simplifying basic decisions. Instead of constantly thinking about what routine chores you should do, designate a day, or a time of day, so you don't flood the decision gates.

If the thought comes to your mind, you won't have to focus on it because you know that you'll complete the task at that designated time. Schedule when you:

  • Get groceries
  • Do laundry
  • Pay the bills
  • Sort through your emails
  • Exercise

Batch Your Tasks - Complete similar tasks at one time. Sometimes multi-tasking can be counterproductive. Instead of stopping and starting a task, decide when to start and get to work. You might get a bonus of increased productivity once you get in the mental zone of devoting all your focus on the task.

  • Complete your meal prep one day a week
  • Fill a medicine box with your vitamins for the week
  • Buy birthday and holiday cards for the month
  • Determine which day, or time, you will complete weekly errands
  • Buy lunch items in bulk for you, or your family
  • Do all your charting at one time

Reset Your Mental Space - If you're feeling the weight of decisions, take a break and eat a snack to fuel your brain, or take a short nap to recharge and prepare to tackle more decisions.

Rest Your Mind

The next time you wonder why you feel so exhausted when it seems that you haven't physically exerted that much energy, consider if it's mental fatigue dragging you down. It's impossible to avoid decisions, but you can work on methods to save some of the energy expended on daily, routine choices to focus on the big decisions.

How Do You Save Your Mental Energy?

Maureen Bonatch MSN, RN draws from years of experience in nursing administration, leadership and psychiatric nursing to write healthcare content. Her experience as a fiction author helps her to craft engaging and creative content. Learn more about her freelance writing at and her fiction books at

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Specializes in Nursing Professional Development.

I don't often read the articles posted here ... and almost never comment on them. But I am now -- because I think this is an important topic very relevant to many of us nurses. It certainly is an important topic for me. Thank you for bringing it up. I hope we get a good discussion going about the topic.

My brain definitely gets tired. My life seems to be an endless stream of decisions and choices. I've been busy at work lately and I am at that point of needed a break -- when I can just shut everything down for a while.

Specializes in Leadership | Psychiatric Nursing | Education.

I agree. I'll sometimes look back over the day and think that I really didn't do much of anything to feel so exhausted, but it's the mental strain that can drain me physically.

While I agree that batching chores can lighten your load, I absolutely do not agree with doing all of your charting at the same time. I saw it happen with paper charts and even more so with EHRs. I also see physicians doing a cut and paste of documents. All of this leads to incorrect documents and errors in charts. Try defending that in court someday.

Something as simple as picking out what you will wear the next day can be very useful as well (provided you stick with that choice). This can help the day start out with a little less stress and possibly get you out the door a bit faster. This is something that my husband always insisted but I ignored since I often would make a decision in the evening on what I would wear for the next day (without getting it out and put together), and change my mind in the morning. However, when we travel, we will choose our outfits for each day, with accessories as we are packing. I found when I am getting ready in the hotel room that I get ready much faster since I already know exactly what I will be wearing each day. Now I find that if I get the outfit out, with the accessories, in the prior evening, the majority of the time my day starts less stressful and with more energy.

I will say, I hate making any type of decision outside of work. I don't even want to decide on dinner. It drives my family nuts.

But, when I make life or death decisions for 36-40 hours a week, I'm over it outside of work. It's exhausting.

There comes a great responsibility with saving lives. I have to sit there and think, does this slight change warrant a call to the doctor? Should I give this patient an extra bolus on this pain medication or will it tank their vitals? What all do I tell the family at this time? Do I advocate for this and that? Should I give this med at this time? Will I tank their blood pressure? Do I need a central line? Do I need a CT?

When I clock out, I'm mentally done. I want to hibernate in my room, not talk to people, and not make decisions.

But I find, nobody truly understands.

Specializes in Leadership | Psychiatric Nursing | Education.

Oh no, I certainly wouldn't want to use cutting and pasting for charting. I agree, that could lead to errors. Thanks for reading!

Specializes in Leadership | Psychiatric Nursing | Education.

I hate picking out my clothes, but I always do on work days since I can get ready without even thinking about it. Thanks so much for reading!

Specializes in Leadership | Psychiatric Nursing | Education.

LovingLife123 - it's true that nurses have to use so much energy just to make so many important decisions, it's mentally draining. Thanks for reading!