Planning Fatigue Is Real and Here's Why You're Feeling It

Our minds weren't set up to overthink everything, and due to COVID-19, it shows.

Posted Jun 19, 2020

 Erik Mclean/Unsplash
Source: Erik Mclean/Unsplash

What Is Planning Fatigue?

A big portion of my work week these days is spent helping clients manage existing mental health problems in the context of the additional stress brought on by COVID-19, isolation, and health-related anxieties. But in the past few weeks, I have also noticed the insurgence of what I call planning fatigue.

You know it, that feeling of bone-deep exhaustion at the thought of having to make one more decision related to safety measures at the grocery store, planning how to execute what would otherwise have been a simple backyard get together, or even mapping your route to the drug store (“mask, gloves, sanitizer, check”). I myself have even gone so far as to call my local Trader Joe's and inquire what their least busy time is, so as to minimize exposure to people. All of these actions require not only time but forethought and mental space, which we have been forced to create on top of already existing responsibilities. And it is exhausting!

There is a reason why our brains are struggling to adapt to this new predicament. Planning fatigue is settling in because having to plan our every move goes against how the unconscious brain has evolved. Our minds, over centuries of evolution, have worked hard to simplify our existence by automatizing functioning and taking short cuts, by filtering much of the information around us, and thus allowing us to execute a multitude of functions (and actions) simultaneously and unconsciously. This way, our conscious minds are free to focus on more pressing matters like learning new information, creating spreadsheets, planning our finances, communicating with others, etc.

How Unconscious Processes Make Life Easier

What we know and understand about the unconscious today is light years away from the narrowly defined conflictual unconscious of Freud and psychoanalysis. As we discuss in our book The Unconscious: Theory, Research, and Clinical Implications, unconscious processes are much more ubiquitous than previously thought, are part of everyday functioning, and, rather than being pathological, actually serve an evolutionary purpose. In a lot of ways, they make our lives easier.

For example, right now you may be reading this article while your mind is also filtering tons of sensory information, scanning the environment for relevant stimuli (your child starting to cry or food starting to burn on the stove), and even processing internal stimuli like thoughts and emotions related to that heated zoom discussion earlier today or the feeling of hunger in your stomach. All of these processes occur simultaneously, some more automatically and with less conscious awareness than others. If we were to give all of them the same amount of focus and attention, we would simply become overloaded.

Unconscious processes assist us in avoiding such overload, by taking the conscious thinking and planning of many of our daily functions out of the equation. One such process (or a quality of unconscious thought) that allows us to function without such overload is automaticity. It has been particularly compromised during the current COVID-19 pandemic, contributing to the development of Planning Fatigue.

Automaticity and Planning Fatigue

Understanding automaticity dates back to at least William James, who, in the late 19th century, described how mental processes that are sufficiently rehearsed fade outside of awareness and begin operating autonomously and without conscious intentionality. Today, our knowledge about automaticity has expanded to recognize two types of automatic processing based on whether or not a function was ever conscious in the first place.

This post-conscious automaticity that James explored (from conscious to automatic through continuous repetition) ensures that with rehearsal, we can master new skills and abilities to a degree that we can eventually execute them with efficiency without having to overthink their every aspect. Think, for example, about learning to drive a car. At first, you have to go over your mental list of steps, foot on the break, check mirrors, shift gear, but overtime, you are able to execute those actions seamlessly without thinking about them. Now think about the difference in going to the grocery store before and after quarantine. Currently, we are having to overthink so many actions throughout our day! Every time we step outside of our homes, interact with people, or even receive a package at our doorstep, what would have otherwise been an automatic effortless action is now a conscious, effortful, and well thought out one. Add many of those throughout the day, and we have planning fatigue.

Also important are what John Bargh has termed pre-conscious automatic processes. Unlike their post-conscious counterparts, they were never conscious to begin with, and were never learned through rehearsal. Instead, they result largely from the fact that our brains are giant pattern-recognition machines and are constantly accumulating sensory input. In other words, we are learning about the world implicitly (read more on implicit memory and implicit learning here). Pre-conscious automaticity can be responsible for many social-cognitive processes, including behavior contagion, consumer behavior, moral and social judgments, motivation, and even emotional regulation.

For example, we receive a lot of unconsciously processed information from automatically reading people’s facial expressions and then connecting this sensory input to a large associative network of memories, emotions, and cognitions. While this process happens below the threshold of awareness, our minds nevertheless perform multiple such judgments each day, which then affect our emotional regulation and decision-making. Now recall that, currently, the faces of most people we meet outside are covered in masks (some more creative and colorful than others). This change is profoundly altering our perceptual fields from what we are used to, and getting in the way of making automatic “calculations” that enable us to continue to focus on more focal conscious material. This perceptual ambiguity, in turn, leads to much more conscious and effortful processing of stimuli which would have otherwise been processed under the threshold of awareness, also contributing to planning fatigue.

I Have Planning Fatigue. Now What?

As I have discussed elsewhere, much of our functioning is unconscious and this is not a good or a bad thing. It just is. Whether or not unconscious processes hinder or enhance our functioning depends on a multitude of other factors, including stressors in the environment and how well adapted we are to it. If you are experiencing planning fatigue, you are not alone, and this is normal. Your brain is struggling to adjust not only to a new (and scary) environment, but also to a slower, much more laborious way of functioning in that environment, with less help from automaticity. As a result, the distress and fatigue you are experiencing reflect your mind’s efforts to adapt. (Coincidentally, if automatic self-criticism does not seem to be similarly impacted, please take a moment to find some self-compassion for just how difficult the last few months may have been.)

Equally as important is the realization that over time, these new ways of operating under the present circumstances will become more habitual and will, therefore, require much less conscious effort. In the meantime, if it is any consolation, your brain is building new synapses that may just lead to personal growth and, in the long run, making you more adaptable and resilient.

References

Weinberger, J. & Stoycheva, V. (2019). The unconscious: Theory, research, and clinical implications. New York: The Guilford Press.