Making decisions day in and day out can be exhausting. Whether they’re as simple as deciding where to park your car or as difficult as buying a new home, changing your career trajectory, deciding whether to go or stay in a relationship, or, as we all know too well, navigating a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, making decisions can feel overwhelming. That decision making often causes anxiety and stress is no surprise.
Decision fatigue is real.
It’s a state of mental overload. It can dramatically effect your ability to continue making decisions.
Here’s where it can come into play regarding weight loss.
Any time you want to change the status quo in your life, you are choosing to make new decisions.
If you think back to the Motivational Triad, you will remember that your ancestral brain is designed to conserve energy. Yet to effect change, we must tax the brain to use it’s precious energy to engage in new behaviors and think new thoughts. Hundreds of them!
Your brain is primed for decision fatigue when we do things we’ve never done before, go places where we’ve never been before or integrate new behaviors of thought and action.
Therefore, the key to our long term success in making any life changes to lose weight depends on creating concrete plans IN ADVANCE to bypass the brains inherent resistance to change. That includes food protocols, exercise plans, and how we’re going to anticipate and handle challenging situations which can easily derail us from our plans.
Making decisions is a cognitively taxing process.
The theory surrounding decision fatigue says that our ability to make decisions often gets worse after making many decisions because we simply exhaust our brains capacity to weigh options.
Research demonstrates that decision making ability declines after long sequences of decisions, whether they’re simple or complex.
Operating on auto-pilot or at the effect of our default thinking is infinitely easier than making change.
Lisa MacLean, MD, a psychiatrist and chief wellness officer at Henry Ford Health System, explains it like this.
Decision fatigue is “the idea that after making many decisions, your ability to make more and more decisions over the course of a day becomes worse,” said Dr. MacLean. “The more decisions you have to make, the more fatigue you develop and the more difficult it can become.”
“Every day, just in our personal lives, we are making a ton of decisions. And a lot of these decisions you are not consciously made,” she said. For example, “you open the refrigerator door and sometimes the only thing that’s in there is bagels and that’s a pretty easy decision.
“But if there’s a lot of different things in terms of … what do I eat, what do I wear, what do I do with my day especially on a day off, that can create stress,” Dr. MacLean added, noting that “by the time the average person goes to bed, they’ve made over 35,000 decisions and all of those decisions take time and energy, and certainly can deplete us.”
“A person with decision fatigue may feel tired, have brain fog or experience other signs and symptoms of physical or mental fatigue,” Dr. MacLean explained. “The phenomenon is cumulative so that as the person makes more decisions, they may feel worse or more drained as the day progresses.
“The more choices you have to make, the more it can wear on your brain, and it may cause your brain to look for short cuts,” she added, noting that “there are four main symptoms: procrastination, impulsivity, avoidance and indecision.”
Symptoms of decision fatigue include procrastination, impulsivity, avoidance and indecision.
“You are either putting off the decision until later, making a rash decision based on little evidence, avoiding the decision altogether or battling back and forth between various choices,” said Dr. MacLean. “The psychological effects of decision fatigue can vary, potentially leading to difficulty making the right decisions, impulse buying or other avoidance behaviors.
“If your brain is worn down, it may cause you to become more reckless with your decision making or not think things through,” she added. It can also “cause you to simply do nothing, which can cause even more problems.”
Additionally, “you might notice that you get angrier with colleagues and family, splurge on clothes, or impulsively buy more junk food,” Dr. MacLean noted.
One way to overcome decision fatigue is to “make fewer decisions by streamlining your choices,” said Dr. MacLean.
That means “avoid random decision-making by making lists. This way when you are at the grocery store, you don’t have to decide what to buy.”
Another example is to “pick your clothes out the night before and automate your decisions by setting up automatic bill paying,” she said. “Even using GPS can help you to easily find your way by not overtaxing your brain.”
Additionally, “simplify your life by cutting out things that aren’t important,” Dr. MacLean suggested. “Having fewer tasks and activities will lead to fewer decisions, and help you to feel restored and have more control over your life.”
Limit your choices to reduce decision fatigue.
The kissing cousin of streamlining your choices is limiting your choices.
Decide in advance how to stock your refrigerator and pantry. Reduce the number of items you have to chose among. When it comes to weight loss, this means only stocking your refrigerator and pantry with foods on your protocol.
Foods on your planned exceptions list stay out of your home.
Make a short list of meals that are quick and easy to prepare. Commit to the rotation and minimize stress activated by the nagging question, “What’s for dinner tonight?”
“Research shows that the best time to make decisions is in the morning,” said Dr. MacLean, emphasizing that “the morning is when we make the most accurate and thoughtful decisions, and we tend to be more cautious and meticulous.
“We hit a plateau in the afternoon and by evening our decisions may be more impulsive,” she added. “So, definitely don’t make big decisions when you’re tired or hungry.”
And being in a state of tired and hungry is often when we typically make dinner decisions. Make your meal decisions for the next day in advance.
“Avoid rehashing decisions and stop second-guessing yourself,” said Dr. MacLean. “Just let go of that perfectionism—you’ve narrowed it down to those two or three things.”
“Make the choice and be happy with the choice because we waste additional energy worrying about whether or not it was the right one,” she added. “Remember, you made the best decision in that moment with what you knew and don’t keep going back to it because that’s going to add to the fatigue.”
I find it helpful to believe the thought that I made the perfect choice at the time. How do I know? Because that’s the choice I made.
So simple. I can feel my brain relaxing as I think that very thought about what I wrote in this blog post.
When someone can “develop daily routines that put less important tasks on autopilot, it can make a big difference,” said Dr. MacLean. For example, “set your wake-up time and stick to it.”
Additionally, “instead of debating about working out or not, make it part of your daily routine,” she said.
“Another idea is to have a handful of go-to outfits planned out to further minimize decisions made,” Dr. MacLean added. “The bottom line is, look at all the big and little decisions you make every day and think about how you can simplify your life.”
“By changing your habits and setting up the right routines, you can decrease anxiety and conserve your energy for the decisions that really matter,” she said.
While decision fatigue doesn’t necessarily warrant a trip to the doctor, “if you notice burnout symptoms like exhaustion, cynicism and low self-efficacy or are struggling with depression and anxiety, you can consider seeking help,” said Dr. MacLean.
Decision fatigue “is a phenomenon that other issues could make it worse.”
Think about minimizing decision fatigue when designing your weight loss protocol.
It is important to minimize the effects of decision fatigue when designing your weight loss protocol because you only have a limited amount of cognitive bandwidth.
Presenting yourself with too many food choices and options can easily contribute to overwhelm and impulsivity.
Or, too many choices can lead to choosing the cognitively easy route — doing what you’ve always done or by just avoiding making any decisions at all.
When daily navigation is smooth and as decision free as possible, you don’t need to activate willpower, another easily depleted resource, to stay on track.
It’s Never Too Late to finally make weight loss your reality.
For sustainable weight loss, we need to build a foundation of thinking and behaving that over-rides and recalibrates all our default training. That means we’ll be making a lot of new decisions, new choices and new engaging in new behaviors.
This takes a lot of mental energy. But with advanced planning, streamlining your habits and simplifying your choices, you can lose unwanted weight in alignment with 21st century neuroscience and metabolic science.
And learning how to manage your mind throughout the entire weight loss process is the foundation you need to achieve success.
Find the peace and freedom you seek in your relationship with food, your body and your weight.
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No white-knuckling or willpower required..
It’s totally possible to make 2022 your year to create the healthiest you. No matter your age, stage or past experiences.
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