Decision fatigue

Every day, we make tens of thousands of decisions, most of which we're not aware of. Shoes or sandals? What pair of socks? Paper or plastic? The list is endless. Not all of these decisions are obviously decisions--our brain likes to take shortcuts. If there's snow on the ground, I'm obviously going to choose shoes over sandals. That one's a no brainer. These shortcuts are essentially an energy saver- our brain is a limited resource. It can only do so much thinking. To save time (and energy), we have habits or patterns. We drive the same route to work. We flip through the channels in the same order. We eat the same flavor of ice cream out of the same bowl with the same spoon. Okay, maybe that last one is just me. Decisions are hard to make.

It's why, ultimately, we're creatures of habit. Simply, it's easier.

Scientists have come up with a name for why we get so tired after we have to decide something: decision fatigue. It's the subject of a recent New York Times article:

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. You start to resist any change, any potentially risky move — like releasing a prisoner who might commit a crime. So the fatigued judge on a parole board takes the easy way out, and the prisoner keeps doing time.

The highlights are mine.

That's my default mechanism: when I'm stressed, when my brainpower is at an ebb, I default into anxious rituals of indecision. ED behaviors are a way to avoid any choice. They're ritualized, prescribe. Once they start, they continue of their own accord. They let the world pass me by without ruffling my feathers.

It also seems to me that the ED is a way to avoid decision fatigue. When I'm in AN mode, my decisions are much more limited. Eat only the lowest calorie options. Say no. Weigh myself again. And again. Get back on the treadmill. There's no decisions involved*, just commandments. That life is on autopilot, and it's uniquely positioned to limit decision fatigue.

I don't have to face the anxiety over deciding what to eat and when, and even with what utensils, because I eat the same thing, every day, on the same plate with the same cutlery. I don't have to decide where I want to go out to eat because I'm not going out to eat. If I do have to go out, I order the house salad, dressing on the side, and a Diet Coke. No menu (or decision) required. My life becomes prescribed and circumscribed by the anorexia. It's a hellish existence, a very limited one, but then there's this: it's easier.

Author Barry Schwartz calls it The Paradox of Choice. If you haven't read his book, definitely go do so. I think it goes a long way to explain some facets of ED thinking.

Besides being fatiguing, decisions are usually anxiety provoking. Most decisions actually result in minimal anxiety. After all, wearing the wrong pair of socks can make your feet sweat or make your shoes look funny, but this rarely results in lasting harm. The problem with decisions--the reason I think they provoke anxiety--is that they're a turning point. Once you've chosen a car, it's hard to un-choose that. Ditto for the socks, once you've left the house if you're not carrying a spare pair.

An eating disorder is the ultimate un-decision. You avoid everything. Sure, it saves you the anxiety over actually making a decision, but it also costs you a lot, too. Recovery means learning to face the decision anxiety and accepting it as part of normal life. I'm guessing lots of us retain our mental shortcuts and rituals that help us avoid anxiety (and decision making), but our brains take on lots more.

Have you developed strategies to deal with decision fatigue? Do you find yourself falling into similar traps?  Share in the comments!

*At least, no real conscious decisions.

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hm said...

More good quotes from that article:

"Apparently ego depletion causes activity to rise in some parts of the brain and to decline in others. Your brain does not stop working when glucose is low. It stops doing some things and starts doing others. It responds more strongly to immediate rewards and pays less attention to long-term prospects."

'“Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low,” Baumeister points out.'

I suppose this is why many of us in recovery follow rigid meal plans and see "intuitive eating" as a ridiculous, unattainable ideal. When my RD pushed for "variety" my portions plummeted. I couldn't handle the extra decisions about which new foods to eat and keep my willpower to eat regularly up at the same time.

At the moment I eat the exact same thing pretty much every day for breakfast, lunch, and 2 snacks. I only really make decisions about food for dinner. Is that still disordered eating? Probably. Do I give a shit? No. My goal is to live- "variety" is not even ON my list of goals. Keep my heart beating, keep my kidneys functioning, keep the feeling in my fingers and toes, etc.- those are my goals. I struggle with feeling guilty and like I'm a failure b/c of my inability to incorporate variety. This article helped me to see why I shouldn't feel guilty- willpower depletion is a normal phenomenon- and sticking with a plan that involves minimal decision making on my part is the safest thing for me to do right now. It takes an incredible amount of willpower just to do this- extra decisions would only sabotage my recovery efforts right now.

hm said...

Ha ha ha- I put up those 2 quotes, and then ended up not discussing either of them. Instead, I remarked about the article in general.

As to those 2 quotes specifically, they stood out to me b/c they reminded me that there is a scientific basis for needing food in order to maintain willpower. That seems obvious, I guess- but I never thought of it like that. Restricting/abstaining doesn't just get you back in the HABIT of restricting/abstaining- it actually depletes your ability to find the willpower to do any different. Interesting.

Anonymous said...

I'm an anxious wreck when it comes to major decisions (or even minor decisions that I treat as major life-changing choices, for example which flavor yogurt?). Here's my current strategy (I read this somewhere, but don't remember where exactly): don't make important decisions at night - in the dark even the smallest obstacle looks like a mountain. This allows me to wisely use my decision-making energies throughout the day and then give it rest. It's a good way to avoid making hasty or irrational choices just because you're tired of thinking.

Cammy said...

I have DEFINITELY had struggles with decision fatigue in my recovery (and in other areas, like choosing grad schools). I went from eating the same restrictive menu every day for years to finally having to choose from options and expand my food repertoire....

... there were many, many days when I was roaringly hungry but ended up just sitting on the floor crying after 45 minutes of surveying my kitchen because I could not for the life of me decide what to eat, with all the rules and rationalizations and debate swirling around my mind.

I also noticed that I was able to handle decisions a lot better once I had restored some weight, I was actually a lot more emotionally stable in general after that. But it was an incremental improvement and the problem certainly never disappeared.

I ran across this story in the NYT this morning and almost forwarded it to you, but you beat me to the punch and already had a post up about it! You rock.

Katie said...

My partner and I were discussing this last night! I definitely struggled with this in relation to my ED, and specifically focused on it in recovery two years ago because I knew it would be a problem. I didn't know it was called decision fatigue, but I knew it was a potential problem!

To a lesser extent I still have problems with it - just day to day issues rather than ED related ones. Like if I'm at a restaurant and there are ten options I could have. I don't get anxious about it because of the calories or fat or whatever, just because I don't know what to pick! One of the reasons I liked being vegetarian was because it narrowed down the number of choices on a menu - they were usually all cheese baths so again, not a calorie thing, but having help with the decision making was reassuring for me.

I also find that when I'm going through my epic numbers of photographs for my weekly photography blog project, I start out by going "keep, keep, keep", then 200 photographs later it's "rubbish, too much work to do on that one, wonky angle, can't be bothered, delete delete delete".

Anonymous said...

I completely relate to the avoidance of decisions. I tend to get so overwhelmed when it comes to making decisions and my anxiety can go really high - it's sort of like it is just too much for my brain to handle (oh yeah, and probably being malnourished isn't helping either) and then it's just easier to *not* do anything. For that moment, at least, it can get rid of the turmoil around my brain relating to making a decision.

Maybe that's why I'm not good at making decisions ~ it causes so much turmoil in my brain that it is hard to think and by *not* making a decision, I'm returning to the status quo.

Jess said...

making decisions make me feel more powerful and I'm the one in control. With Ed around, no decisions ever needed to be made. It was all routine day in and day out. However, once you experince a variety of things, it gets harder and harder to go back to routine. The more you do something, the easier it gets. It's falling back into the trap that gets you.

Jessie said...

You're so right. For the past almost three years, I've been telling myself 'Tomorrow. I'll stop purging tomorrow. I'll eat tomorrow. I won't exercise tomorrow. I won't cut tomorrow.' Then my parents found out, and started telling me I would stop today.
I didn't.
The doctors said I would stop today. I didn't. Then I was hospitalized, and now I haven't harmed myself on purpose in... oh, my gosh. Tomorrow will be two weeks.
You're blog has really helped me, Carrie. Thank you. Keep doing what you're doing, and we'll both make it out of this hell.

Anonymous said...

such an interesting article! I can totally relate to how ED is a way of avoiding decisions. I am absolutely terrible at decisions, and i do think my ED was a way of coping with that...

Anonymous said...

Great post. For more on decision fatigue (and other things that keep us from change), I recommend, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. I'm reading this & seeing ways I can apply this to recovery. One thing that's a given? Making food in advance and having snacks/meals readily available when I get home late and hungry. I am guaranteed to take the route of least resistance at these times, so might as well have it be a healthy route of least resistance.

Interestingly a friend of mine who is seeing a nutritionist to help her lose weight originally was on a food plan that was very restrictive choice-wise in the beginning, and that made it easier to stick with before adding in more variety. This is really similar to weight gain in recovery--sometimes you got to keep it simple (i.e. an extra instant breakfast/supplement, very specific food plan) instead of getting overwhelmed by a multitude of options for additional food to eat and therefore not eating it out of decision paralysis. Not that I speak from experience or anything...

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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