You might not realize it, but your days are actually filled with hundreds of choices from the second you wake up. Which shirt should you wear? What should you eat for breakfast? Should you drink your coffee before or after your workout? How should you tackle the new assignment from your boss?
Some days are more stressful than others and may require you to make more choices than usual. This can cause decision fatigue, a phenomenon that negatively impacts the quality of the decisions you make after you’ve reached that point.
The concept of decision fatigue can have significant consequences when it plays out in reality. For example, one astonishing study found that judges were significantly more likely to grant parole when reviewing cases in the morning versus the afternoon (there was a ~65% difference!).
Once you reach the point of decision fatigue, you’re more likely to make rash, impulsive decisions or put off making decisions. Thus, if you’re hungry, you’re more likely to choose impulsively and reach for more calorie-dense options.
“People may go for something easy and tasty,” says Kathleen Vohs, PhD, professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Minnesota, another of the study’s authors. This could be a pre-packaged food item, which tends to be high in calories and sugar. “It is more like giving in to the easy route.”
6 Ways to Avoid Decision Fatigue and Lose Weight
1. Plan your meals.
Having a stable of go-to food choices may help limit your choices when you’re hungry. Meal prep can make your decision-making more automatic since you don’t have to think about what to eat multiple times a day. “When you wait until the end of the day to decide what’s for dinner, you’ll probably eat more fattening, caloric food than if you make a plan for the week,” says Baumeister.
2. Create “if, then” strategies.
Eliminate the need to decide in the moment by creating “if, then” strategies for yourself.
You can craft scenarios that apply to food choices or other situations, which normally arise in your work or personal life, such as: If it’s Monday, Wednesday or Friday, then you’re going for a run after work, even if you’re not in the mood. If you’re hungry for a snack, then you’ll eat fruit, not candy.
3. Take periodic breaks.
When you’re making cognitively demanding decisions, taking a break may help you avoid decision fatigue. Call a friend for a quick conversation or go for a short walk. “Often, a break away from a workstation or the task at hand is likely to be replenishing,” says Hagger.
Another pro tip: When you’re feeling stressed, step outside for a few minutes. “Researchers have found taking a break can help reduce decision fatigue, especially if it involves getting out in nature,” says Vohs.
4. Write down your top 3 goals for the day
Do this either before you go to bed or before leaving for work in the morning. Prioritize these goals so you know what you should work on next throughout the day. The idea is that you’ll complete the hard stuff before decision fatigue hits.
According to Getting Things Done creator David Allen, planning before you start working saves valuable energy because it decreases the mental energy required to switch between tasks.
Instead of ending one task and having to decide what to do next, you will already know your next task because you planned and prioritized at the start of your day.
I don’t like to adhere to the same routine day in and day out, but I do jot down post-work objectives before any new day begins. I love a good checklist; physically writing down a TO DO list on paper and crossing off items is so gratifying!
When I write out my evening goals (e.g., “yoga, groceries, prep tomorrow’s snacks and lunches”), it’s so much easier to accomplish them.
5. Don’t follow the fad diets
Fads like the cabbage soup diet, the lemonade diet and the sleeping beauty diet will ensure that you lose a certain number of pounds within just a few weeks, and more often than not, they’re right. But that doesn’t mean that they’re healthy or reasonable, and it definitely doesn’t mean that you’ll keep off the weight.
“Most fad diets go something like this: Take a few foods, give them ‘magic’ power, and set a plan to convince people that eating this way and only this way will promote weight loss,” says Alexandra Caspero, RD, a nutritionist.
. But while most of these quick fixes will help you lose weight, most fad dieters can’t—and shouldn’t—keep up with the diet for good, and they ultimately gain back all of the weight they lost and sometimes more.
6. Strengthen your self-control via exercise
“Research shows practicing self-control boosts can have a positive effect on the ability to resist temptations,” says Martin Hagger, PhD, professor of health psychology at the University of California, Merced, who studies decision fatigue. “Physical activity may help because it requires self-control [to commit to a routine] and also has appetite-suppressant effects.”