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The Too Busy Brain: Implications of Decision Fatigue

Posted Aug 17 2011 11:10am

by Barbara Berkeley, MD

When I was younger, I could never understand people who went to the same place for vacation year after year.  Wouldn't they want to explore the world?  Have new adventures?  It seemed very uninteresting.  But as I've gotten older, my family has found themselves returning to the same beach in Caribbean for over 20 years.  It's a place that provides complete peace and rest.  I've often wondered why.

This particular island paradise is not all that perfect.  There is escalating crime, an unacceptably high rate of poverty and AIDS, and, at the moment, an epidemic of Dengue Fever.  But after my recent return from a trip that my younger self would have cheered:  a complicated, stressful and stimulating trip to Asia, the appeal of our Caribbean retreat suddenly came into focus.  It is a place that removes all need to make decisions. 

Our island has no malls, no big box stores, and no glut of restaurants.  From the moment our plane touches down, we have very few choices.  Pool or beach?  Dinner at five or at seven?  Watch a movie or go to sleep? While away, we stay mostly disconnected from our jobs and our cell phones.  This, combined with a soaking of sun and sea breeze, makes for a wonderful, restorative retreat.  

Vacations (aside from adventure travel) have always had this element.  Whether it's the sand and a good book or a cozy fire at your favorite ski lodge, vacation has traditionally meant down-time; a time that the brain as well as the body goes on holiday.

Just prior to leaving for the Asia trip, my brother-in-law convinced me that I should buy an IPad.  He had become addicted to this little piece of technology and assured me that it would be the perfect travel companion.  It was.  This tiny wafer of a computer held all my books, connected me to the internet, took photos for me, made phone calls and stored the six movies I wanted to watch during 20 hours of flight time.  It even let me play Scrabble with daughter and listen to all of my music.  It was great!

But the entry of the IPad into my life, along with my recent decision to switch from a PC to a Mac, has plunged me into a sea of choice that has been dizzying and disconcerting.  Just holding the IPad triggers a low level wave of anxiety.  Read the headlines?  Finish the next chapter in that book I'm reading?  Go back to that other book I started?  Check Facebook? Answer email?  It's all a moment away, and I find myself flipping from one to the other in a way that feels more like a rat trying to find its way through a maze than a person accessing needed information.

So I was particularly intrigued to read a lengthy, but extremely important article on decision making in today's NY Times.  Entitled  Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? , this is a must-read piece that confirms what most of us already know:  we are paying price for the abundant choice in our world.  

Constant decision making wears us down and deteriorates our ability to make good choices.  Essentially, after being asked to decide on everything from the elements of our latte to the features we want on our phones to which of the thousands of items in our supermarket we choose to buy, we revert to default or to making the easiest choice. We lose our willpower, which is another way of saying that we lose direction.  I can feel the pressure of this decision fatigue every day.  It feels very real to me, particularly when I juxtapose my life here with my life in vacation mode. 

Obviously, the issue of willpower is of prime importance to those who want to control weight.  This article is in agreement with my belief that limiting choice is essential for keeping willpower intact.  

When you read this article, I hope you'll take the section about glucose with a grain of salt.  The authors of some studies appeared to show that giving people sugar helped restore their willpower.  I haven't looked at all the data, but it doesn't seem that they tried other restoratives, like feeding people a healthy meal or having them take an exercise or meditative break.  While a shot of glucose does recharge the brain (and this is one of the reasons that sugary foods are so attractive), we pay for it with hunger and cravings later.

This caveat aside, I think that you will all relate to the data presented in this article.  I'd be interested to know if others feel similarly overwhelmed by the need to choose.  I loved this quote, which closes the Times piece:

“Good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it’s always there,” Baumeister says. “It’s a state that fluctuates.” His studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.

This view dovetails with my own.  In order to keep our lives on track and preserve our will to move in the directions we desire, we need to limit our exposure to needless choice.  Doing this is a personal task and the ability to tolerate decision making may vary in individuals, but the research cited in this article suggests that most of us are vulnerable to a world that fatigues our brain.  While we work to make ourselves healthier in body, let's not forget that the brain and body are part of one entity and both need our care. 


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