Another pandemic malady: Decision fatigue

Most of us have felt the exhaustion of decision-making in the pandemic era.

Is it safe to send my child to day care? Should I travel to an elderly relative? Can I see my friends and if so is everything ok? Mask or no mask? test or no test? Which day? Which brand?

Questions that once felt trivial now carry the moral weight of a life-or-death decision. So it might be helpful to know (while you’re contemplating whether to cancel your non-refundable vacation) that your battle has a name: decision fatigue.

In 2004, psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote an influential book called The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. The basic premise is this: whether it’s choosing your favorite ice cream cone, or a new pair of sneakers, or a family doctor, the choice can be a wonderful thing. But too many choices can leave us feeling paralyzed and less satisfied with our choices in the long run.

And that’s just for little things.

Faced with a barrage of difficult health and safety decisions during a global pandemic, Schwartz said we could experience a unique kind of burnout that could profoundly affect our brains and mental health.

Schwartz, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Swarthmore College and Visiting Professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, has studied the interactions between psychology, morality and economics for 50 years. He spoke to KHN about the decision fatigue that so many Americans are feeling two years into the pandemic and how we can deal with it.

What is decision fatigue?

We all know the choice is good. That’s part of what it means to be an American. So when the choice is good, more must be better. It turns out that’s not true.

Imagine, when you go to the supermarket, you not only have to choose between 200 types of cereal, but also between 150 types of crackers, 300 types of soup, 47 types of toothpaste, etc. If you really went about your shopping spree with the aim of getting the most out of everything, you would either starve to death prematurely or die of exhaustion. You can’t live your life like that.

When you overwhelm people with options instead of freeing them, you paralyze them. You can’t decide. Or, if they do choose, they are less satisfied because it’s so easy to imagine that an alternative they didn’t choose would have been better than the one they did choose.

How has the pandemic affected our ability to make decisions?

At the onset of the pandemic, all the opportunities we faced disappeared. The restaurants weren’t open so you didn’t have to decide what to order. Supermarkets weren’t open or too dangerous so you didn’t have to decide what to buy. Suddenly your options were limited.

But when things calm down, you sort of revert to a version of your former life, except with a whole new set of issues none of us thought of before.

And the kind of decisions you’re talking about are extremely high-stakes decisions. Should I see my parents on vacation and endanger them? Should I let my child go to school? Should I gather with friends outside and shiver, or am I willing to risk sitting inside?

These are not decisions we are practiced with. And after you made that decision on Tuesday, you’re faced with it again on Thursday. And as far as you know, everything changed between Tuesday and Thursday. I think this has created a world that is just impossible for us to negotiate. I don’t know if it’s possible to go to bed with peace of mind.

Can you explain what goes on in our brain?

When we make decisions, we train a muscle. And just like at the gym, doing reps with weights tires your muscles. When this decision muscle gets tired, we basically can’t do it anymore.

We’ve heard a lot about more people feeling depressed and anxious during the pandemic. Do you think that decision fatigue makes mental health problems worse?

I don’t think you need decision fatigue to explain the explosion of mental health problems. But it puts an additional burden on people.

Imagine if you had decided that starting tomorrow you will think about every decision you make. OK, you wake up in the morning: should I get up? Or should I stay in bed for another 15 minutes? Should I brush my teeth or skip brushing my teeth? Should I dress now or dress after coffee?

What the pandemic has done for many people is make routine decisions and not make them routine. And that puts a kind of pressure on us that builds up as the day goes on and then tomorrow comes and you’re in front of them again. I don’t see how it could possibly not contribute to stress, anxiety and depression.

Will we get better at making these decisions as the pandemic progresses? Or does increased fatigue make us worse when it comes to evaluating options?

There are two possibilities. For one thing, we strengthen our decision-making muscles, which means we can handle more decisions over the course of a day than we used to. Another possibility is that we simply adapt to the state of stress and anxiety and make all sorts of bad decisions.

Basically it should be the case that in a dramatically new situation you learn to make better decisions than at the beginning. And I don’t doubt that’s true for some people. But I also doubt that it’s generally true that people make better decisions than when they started.

So what can we do to avoid burnout?

First, simplify your life and follow a few rules. And the rules don’t have to be perfect. For example, “I’m not going to eat inside a restaurant, period.” You’ll miss opportunities that might have been quite pleasant, but you’ve taken a decision off the table.

And that goes for a lot of things like we buy Cheerios every week when we do our grocery shopping. You know, I’ll think about a lot of things I buy at the grocery store, but I won’t think about breakfast.

The second thing you can do is stop asking yourself, “What is the best thing I can do?” Instead, ask yourself, “What is good enough that I can do?” Which option most often leads to sufficient good results? I think that takes a lot of pressure off.

There is no guarantee that you will not make mistakes. We live in an uncertain world. But finding good enough is a lot easier than finding the best.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) produces in-depth journalism on health issues, one of the three major operating programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). Another pandemic malady: Decision fatigue

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