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What is Decision Fatigue?

by Dorsey McFadden
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Decision Fatigue and What To Do About It

Have you ever heard the term ‘decision fatigue’?

I often say I’m suffering decision fatigue. But what does that really mean?

I plan my days to simplify the amount of decisions I have to make to preserve my mental ability and energy to make decisions later in the day. I find the more decisions I have to make daily, the greater the strain on my mental and physical state. If I get home from work and am exhausted how can I take care of myself in a healthy way? 

Thanks to Dr. Russell Barkley’s book “Taking Charge of ADHD” I now see that I was actually managing my self-control. 

What is self-control?

The definition of self-control is the ability to choose something other than your initial impulse in order to get something in the future that you want more (or that is better for your long-term welfare and happiness). 

Here’s the thing. Self-control isn’t just self-control. Using self-control involves executive functions. ADHD brains are slow to develop this part of the brain therefore it stands to reason that ADHD is a deficit of self-control. 

Executive Functions Involved in Self-Control:

  • Non-verbal working memory 
  • Verbal working memory 
  • Self-regulation of emotion 
  • Planning and problem solving 

Together, these executive functions allow us to recall past events, to consider possible future scenarios, to contemplate different outcomes, weighing pros and cons based on past experiences and emotions, then to formulate plans for the future. 

If we have a deficit in these areas, it’s no wonder we get decision fatigue, or procrastinate. There are a lot of working parts to consider. It takes us more energy and time to do this and that’s a fact you can’t change with willpower alone. 

We humans use self-control to change our behaviors to achieve goals. 

The longer the delay between the time we exert self-control and the time we get our reward the harder it becomes for people with ADHD to achieve their goals. We have trouble both visualizing the future and remembering our passion or desire for our goals. 

So what can we do about it? 

The good news is that self-control is a self-directed action– meaning you actively choose when to exercise self-control. Much like how you can exercise the body and prepare it for a race, you can improve your  self-control abilities. Here are a few strategies I use:

Stick to your spoons 

Have you heard of the spoon theory? This is a metaphor used by many suffering chronic conditions where spoons are used to describe the amount of energy or activities a person manages daily. People love this metaphor, not only because they get to call themselves spoonies but also because it just makes sense. 

People with ADHD do suffer from an invisible, chronic, condition. Some of us will be misdiagnosed as narcolepsy because of how our energy flows or doesn’t when not stimulated. As always it’s important to understand that not every ADHD person will identify with this because we don’t all have the same set of symptoms.

Similar to the spoon theory I realize and accept that I have a limited amount of energy to make decisions daily. There’s no shame in admitting the truth. Once I accepted having a finite amount of energy I could then think of strategies to manage my energy. What works for me is to implement as many routines as possible. That way I don’t need to think about what I need to do daily – I just do it. This works best with things you need to do daily, weekly, or monthly. 

For example: 

  • I eat oat bran every morning. It’s healthy, easy, fast and can be dressed up in different ways if I want. 
  • When I worked in an office I would pick my outfit out and pack my lunch the day before. This eliminates the time I would spend thinking about what I wanted to wear or eat in the morning. 
  • I also tried to limit my work wardrobe to a certain number of outfits then rotate them. 
  • For lunch I had a special box with little boxes and I’d fill those with a variety of treats. My other options were leftovers or I’d take a sandwich. I tried not to eat out at lunch because that’s unhealthy in the long run and costs more money. 

Lists

Thanks to our lovely ADHD brains we can have trouble with object permanence. So what you don’t see frequently is totally out of mind until we get a visual reminder. Generally for me I see this manifest in long term friendships. I forget to reach out and check in on my friends or family who aren’t near me. For this I have a top 5 or 10 list of people I want to maintain or grow relationships with. Consciously making the decision to put someone on this list or take someone off makes maintaining communication much easier. You must be deliberate with your list and intentions. All of my closest friends and family know I have ADHD and I’ve tried to inform them of the way it affects me so they don’t take any of my behavior personally and know that they mean a great deal to me. 

My to-do lists are another example. I use a method called the Kanban board in my work but a simple catch all reminders list for my personal life. The Kanban board method is really neat, and it satisfies the part of me that knows I work best with defined systems and rules. Read more about that here.  

Tools

When all else fails I put on noise-cancelling headphones and eyeglasses with a thick side arm, making it difficult for visual distraction. I call these my blinders. Other ways to implement blinders are apps that limit the time you can spend on your phone or times lock boxes that can’t be opened until the time is reached. 

Visual Reminders

I have a white board on the refrigerator that I leave messages to myself on, a list of meals we have ingredients for and snacks that are fresh. We’re also trying to track our dog’s teeth brushing on there but that’s not going so well. This white board is in a prominent place, visually stands out from its surroundings, and I can get creative with my dry erase markers.

Speaking of dry erase markers – you can write on any glass surface! I like to use these in the bathroom on the mirror if I’m worried about forgetting something or if I just want to see a positive uplifting quote daily. You can also use Post-it notes on mirrors instead. 

In Conclusion

So there you have it. Those are all the ways I try to manage my limited ability to exert self-control throughout the day. Do this, and you’re less likely to feel mentally exhausted at the end of the day, and more likely to achieve long-term goals! 

What are some ways you manage your ability to exert self-control daily? 

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2 comments

Ryan T December 13, 2020 - 1:42 pm

I’ve never put a name or term to this, but this completely tracks in my experience. It’s almost like each step of the process has it’s own fuel tank. You make one decision to get to the next step in the process, which then has it’s own tank to draw from, and so on. But each step won’t use the same amount of fuel, so it’s entirely possible you run out of fuel for Step 3 before Step 4. Then you sit there stalling out in executive dysfunction, saying “JUST DO THE THING JEEEEEZ”.
One thing that has helped me a lot (when I can manage to do it) is to not drag myself for those times when a tank empties out. It’s hit or miss, but beating myself definitely never helped any of it.

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VANDEVERE8 January 8, 2021 - 5:53 am

Thank you!!1

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