6 Solutions for Procrastination Caused by Decision Fatigue

If you put off decisions, try these strategies.

Posted Oct 17, 2019

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Recently, I wrote about six common causes of procrastination. One of these is procrastination caused by decision fatigue, which is when you're so exhausted from making many decisions that you put off even tiny choices.

Personally, I find that this is the most frequent cause of procrastination I experience. Here are some solutions.

1. Define default choices.

Define set procedures for how you handle recurring choices. For example, when I need to hire a car, my default is to make a flexible (no pre-pay) reservation through Costco travel. If I've got a bit more energy, I then have Autoslash track that reservation for price drops (free).

When you outline what your system is, you can evaluate whether it's simple enough that you'd still follow through in a decision-fatigued state. My theoretically ideal M.O. would be to search through Autoslash first, but in reality, I find that the path of least resistance is to just book through Costco. This comes with a free additional driver, which means I don't need to decide if that's something I need for a particular trip or not, since if I only search Costco, then it's typically included.

Take-home message: If there is a choice you might put off due to decision fatigue, try to reduce it to a one-step process so that there is less chance you'll bail at any step, or not even get started.

2. Outsource decisions.

Outsourcing part of your decision process can help reduce decision fatigue. For example, when booking rental cars, a typical situation is to see options for a nicer car for slightly more money. When this happens, I'll often ask my spouse to choose whether we should do the upgrade.

In another example of outsourcing decisions, a reader recently told me she collects recipes on Pinterest and then has her family choose meals from those. This seemed genius to me!

Take-home message: If you have a process that allows you to present a small number of options, you can often outsource decisions.

3. Solve tiny barriers to decision making.

When you outline your decision-making process very explicitly, it enables you to problem solve silly barriers. For instance, for a while, every time I wanted to make a rental car booking, I needed to reset my account password as it wasn't saved correctly in my password manager. That seems like an inconsequential barrier, but when you're decision fatigued, those types of silly barriers to action can mean the difference between getting on and making a decision versus putting it off.

Take-home message: Making something slightly easier or slightly harder can have a big impact on whether you'll do it. This is the most basic behavioral psychology but easily overlooked in practice.

4. Assign a value to just making a decision.

In The Healthy Mind Toolkit, I wrote about how I assign a value of $20 to making a decision and taking it off my mind. This stops me from overthinking very small decisions. The time and energy I save by making a decision now versus having to revisit the choice are mentally worth at least $20 to me.

Another point I wrote about is that it's useful to realize when a decision doesn't actually matter. It usually won't matter whether I rent a car from Avis or Alamo, or whether I get a compact or SUV. 

Take-home message: Sometimes, the decisions that we put off are those where several/many of the options we could choose are fine, and ironically that's part of why the decision is hard to make.

5. Over time, gradually develop systems that reduce how many decisions you're making.

To get to the root of decision fatigue, you can gradually streamline aspects of your life, so that you're not needing to make as many decisions, and more good decisions happen on autopilot. 

Routines are a good option for this. For instance, perhaps for one or two nights a week, you have the same meal for dinner every week on those evenings, such as you have a Tuesday night meal and a Friday night meal. Likewise, if there is something you need to do monthly, quarterly, or annually, then you might have a routine for when you do that thing so that you don't need to decide when and how you'll go about it.

Another example: every Tuesday night at 10 p.m., my Google Home pipes up and tells me to take the trash and recycling bins outside for collection. That way, I don't need to think about when I'm going to do it or remember to do it, and it frees up my mental space.

As well as removing decisions about when you'll do a particular activity, you can gradually work on establishing default decisions (see #1 earlier), automating, batching, and outsourcing decisions. Be creative about the ways you do this, such as, if you don't like to decide on gifts to buy, maybe you create a process of this, such as giving any child you'd normally buy a birthday gift some money equal to their age plus $10, or whatever works for you.

Take-home message: When you gradually remove and simplify decisions, every little bit helps. Get creative about the ways you can simplify the decisions you're required to make.

6. For decisions about throwing items away, consider having an "on the way out the door" box. 

If you're struggling to make a final decision about discarding an item, put anything you're considering getting rid of in a box and label it with a date (e.g., a week away on trash day). If you haven't gone through those items again by that point, out they go.

If you have difficulty following through, perhaps outsource the actual dumping of the box into the trash to your partner/spouse.

This is a strategy I am spotty with applying, but I do it occasionally, and when I do, it works well.

Take-home message: You don't have to be entirely consistent with any of the strategies I've mentioned, because every little bit helps. You can also combine strategies, such as combining outsourcing decisions with another of the strategies I've mentioned.

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