If you find yourself struggling to figure out what to eat, how to structure your day, or what to wear, you are not alone. Our brains have a limited capacity for decision making, which is why each and every one of us feel like our brains have turned to mush when we are maxed out on making choices. This effect is called Decision Fatigue, and because our brains have a limited store of mental energy to use for making decisions, we are all susceptible to the overwhelm that comes when faced with too many decisions to make.
That’s how decision-making can feel when experiencing a normal amount of fatigue. Toss in a pandemic and the need to make more decisions than ever can leave one feeling like a hollowed out version of themselves. That’s what I felt like in 2020!
During the first few months of the pandemic, I often felt like making decisions about Covid-related issues seemed both critical and futile. As though each choice I faced could have serious consequences no matter which point of view I leaned towards, which meant I couldn’t win. My opinion could be swayed throughout the course of a day, hour, or even conversation. Sometimes I felt totally paralyzed about what to do and would default to not making a decision at all. Or I would change my mind after making decisions that I had been completely committed to. Finally last fall after another major decision we changed our minds about (as variables shifted for the umpteenth time), I resolved that I would stop telling people about my decisions until it was absolutely necessary. That way if I changed my mind, I wouldn’t feel like the flake I worried I was becoming.
Throughout my life, I’ve always been a strong decision maker. I tend to know exactly what I want and where I’m headed, which helps me make small decisions quickly and large decisions with confidence. I’m rarely indifferent. But over the past few years leading up to the pandemic, I realized that the decision-making process is something that has to be cultivated and protected when life gets busy or circumstances feel overwhelming. It took me a while to get my decision-making sea legs during the pandemic, but eventually, I regained my footing and was able to ride the waves with more confidence and clarity. More on how I achieved that in a minute.
My first real experience with decision fatigue came with motherhood. It seemed that there were infinite choices to make regarding pregnancy, birth plans, nursing, and recovery. Not to mention choosing a name for one’s child or the inundating amount of options one is faced with when picking out everything from a carseat to a brand of diapers. Throw in lack of sleep and a roller coaster of hormones and ta-DAH, you officially have been diagnosed with ‘mom brain’, a perpetual fog that doesn’t seem to lift unless you can retain a sliver of mental energy reserved for something other than keeping a tiny human alive.
As each baby grew and more were added to the mix, the list of things to make decisions about became exhaustive. Work, domestic responsibilities, health, education, child-care, travel, finances, spiritual growth, hobbies & interests, and relationships all came with their own set of ever-evolving decisions to make. Keeping up seemed impossible. That’s where strategy and structure made all the difference in helping me regain sanity and utilize my mental energy in a way that felt life-giving, not soul-sucking.
When the pandemic hit, it took me about six months to recover from the initial overwhelm we faced after a 2.5 month lockdown and then the realization that fall and winter were going to come with another set of uncertainties and struggles. I knew that in order to thrive and not just cope, I had to lean on structures and strategies that had helped me overcome overwhelm in the past. When implemented, these structures helped minimize the amount of decisions I was required to make and gave me mental space and energy that would enable me to thrive.
Here are 5 of the things I do on a regular basis to keep decision fatigue at bay so that I can thrive even during times of uncertainty or overwhelm.
“I realized that the decision-making process is something that has to be cultivated and protected when life gets busy or circumstances feel overwhelming.“
1) Meal Plan
I plan dinners a week in advance based on my schedule. Busy days require easy-to-prep options or a big enough meal made the day before that can feed us the following day. I don’t like to cook and clean up the kitchen on Sundays, so I meal-plan to accommodate that preference. I don’t have time to come up with new lunch ideas every day, so my kids get an assortment of cheese, crackers, veggies, dip, fruit, pickles & olives. Breakfasts are planned out the night before based on the standard favourites and ingredients we always have on stock: oats, eggs, bread, fruit, yogurt. I keep things interesting by working with seasonal ingredients and dishes. I roast a chicken every week to use in several meals and make rice or potatoes in large quantities so that I can focus on integrating fresh vegetables on a daily basis. If meal-planning is daunting, start with planning for your busiest, most stressful day or time of day. Also choose a day and time to plan when you are rested and haven’t made a bajillion decisions already. Traditionally I use the drive to church on Sunday morning to plan. Will drives and I tune the kids out for ten minutes to order to plan our menu and make the grocery list.
I don’t enjoy exercise for the sake of it. I like the results, I know it’s important, but I’m not naturally inclined to work out. The only way I’ll do it is if I plan it into my schedule. Hiking with a friend a couple mornings a week means I’m not thinking so much about the workout because we’re chatting along the way. It’s also harder to flake out on than a solo workout. Having my workout clothes and weighted backpack ready the night before makes it easier to get ready when it’s still dark outside. At-home video workouts are only interesting to me if I have something else captivating to listen to or watch, so I usually put my workout videos on mute. Whatever I gotta do to keep myself taking care of my body is a good thing! If you’re struggling to find a time to exercise my recommendation is to keep the barrier to entry LOW and the activity LIKEABLE. If it’s too tough or uninteresting or complicated, you won’t be able to maintain the habit.
3) What to Wear
This is similar to meal planning for me. I have specific outfits I like for busy days or specific activities (working out for instance) and they are my go-to outfits that I don’t even have to think about. I enjoy putting together outfits but don’t often have the time, so at the beginning of every season, I go through my wardrobe and pack up what I know I won’t be wearing for the next few months, then try on everything that’s left. If I love it, I keep it and I put together a bunch of outfit combos that I know I’ll wear over the next while. I do this when I’m rested and the house is quiet…a Saturday morning when Will has taken the kids for a walk for instance. That way I’m taking advantage of mental space and energy in order to create the outfits I like, that way when I’m busy or tired, I know what to pick out because the creative process of decision-making has already been done.
This can be hugely overwhelming, but whenever I look at my monthly, weekly, or daily schedule I start with blocking out my calendar based on when we need/want rest. I want our lives to revolve around knowing how much sleep and unplanned time we need in order to thrive. Everything else has to fit around the margin we protect and plan for. Then I block in work and school. I try to ensure there is a buffer before and after each activity in order to keep stress to a minimum if things don’t go as planned…because something ALWAYS comes up! A dirty diaper, a spill, a forgotten item, a detour, a longer visit. At that point in my scheduling, I can make decisions about which events and extracurriculars we realistically have time for. This is where I usually have to make uncomfortable and regrettable cuts, but there is never enough time in the day for all the things, and if we don’t prioritize, we’ll wind up looking back with bigger regrets than whether or not we did all the things and went to all the parties and park dates. Like all other strategizing, aim to do your planning when it’s quiet and when you’re fresh. Like on a Sunday or Monday as opposed to on a Friday at the end of a long week. Sit in the grocery store parking lot for an extra 20 minutes (before you go in) blocking out your month. Wake up an extra half hour early on the first day of the month so you can plan in peace before the rest of the household is clamouring for you!
When we got married and I realized I was going to be responsible for two sets of gifts because gifting was NOT Will’s strength (totally fine, he does all the numbers, so I’m perfectly happy with the trade-off!), I was overwhelmed. I became even more overwhelmed when we had kids and I had to provide gift ideas for numerous family members. Gifting became a burden instead of a blessing which meant I needed to strategies and and a plan to implement them. Now I keep an ongoing list on my iPhone with ideas that come to mind, as well as a list of everyone we typically do gifts for at Christmas, along with the pre-determined budget we’ve set aside for each person. That means I have an easy resource to reference when I need it, which helps to eliminate the stress or need to come up with a creative gift idea on the fly. I also keep a small assortment of small gifts to give friends or neighbours when they host an event or need a lift. Bud vases, candles, and my favourite Trader Joe’s treats are usually on hand along with a stash of blank cards, ribbon, and small gift bags for quick packaging and delivery. I also keep a list of ideas for the kids on my iPhone as well as a few private Amazon wishlists that help me keep track of ideas. Creating a space to collect gift ideas, a list of people you typically gift to, a pre-determined budget (that can flex but helps you gift within your means) and a small cache of quick gifts to go can really help keep the stress of gift-giving at bay and ensure it remains a blessing for all.
If you want further detailed suggestions for combating decision fatigue, please email me (Jaime Fenwick) at firstname.lastname@example.org to determine the best way to help you strategize and implement techniques that will lead to more thriving and less surviving.
I am passionate about coming alongside others to inspire them in their creative journey. With 15 years’ experience as a creative entrepreneur, I have been able to cultivate a strong repertoire of strategies to boost creative output and help others tap into their creativity. If you would like to have me speak either in person or online at your upcoming conference, workshop, or retreat, please email Jaime Fenwick at email@example.com .
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