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How the Neurodiverse Can Better Cope With Decision Fatigue

Sensory sensitivity makes decision-making difficult.

Key points

  • Making too many decisions in a short period of time can lead to feelings of hopelessness and overwhelm.
  • For individuals who identify as neurodiverse, the impact can be even greater.
  • Here are 6 practical ways to alleviate the impact of decision fatigue—many include simplification.
Being overstimulated can make decision-making even more difficult.
Source: istock/fizkes

The clock glowed 3:08 a.m. and I could not believe I was still tossing and turning in bed, over none other than what to name this blog. The options were too vast: There were too many things I was trying to convey at once.

I wanted it to be a space where my readers felt taken care of, empowered, and protected. In Your Corner had been suggested by a fellow writer and I thought that could stick.

But the subtitle threw me for a loop. So I did what any confused (and highly social) person would do and sent group messages to a couple of my closest friends. The responses exploded on my phone. There were fantastic ideas, hilarious ideas and many sounded a lot like each other.

How could I convey that I would explore trauma, neurodiversity—mainly around high sensitivity and ADHD, women’s issues, empowerment, and healthy relationships in one single title? What could have been fun and exciting started to feel like the most fragile and important decision, for no reason other than decision fatigue.

Taxing Decisions

The freedom of free will truly does come with a cost, as every decision demands energy from our body and brain. Neuroscientists have discovered that each choice we make (no matter how trivial) requires trace amounts of glucose to pass through synapses of the brain.

If only a few decisions are made this is highly adaptable, but if you pile on modern life, working, parenting, and other major life choices (such as big moves, new jobs, marriage, or divorce) even the smaller choices can become taxing. In an article written in the New York Times Magazine, it was explained that when we are experiencing decision fatigue most of us respond in one of two ways: We shut down or we become impulsive.

Neither are helpful and both can lead you further from what you want and desire. Furthermore, you may experience feelings of irritability, confusion, frustration, sleep disturbances, or even physical pain.

How Sensory Sensitivity Impacts Decision Fatigue

Neurodiversity includes any person who experiences the world in a way that is unique or different from the mass majority. Advocates, including myself, stress the fact that neurodiversity is not necessarily a disorder in and of itself but simply a deviation in how the brain interacts with the world. Some examples include attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and highly sensitive people (HSP)—most of whom experience one form or another of sensory processing sensitivity.

Highly Sensitive People

Considering HSP, whose brains are much like a “supercomputer”, their experience while making decisions looks like a home screen with numerous tabs open, all piled on top of each other. These tabs include thoughts about how their choice will impact their life, the feelings and experiences of others, and the trickle-down effects of things that have not even occurred.

For some people, making a decision is never a single choice, instead, it becomes a string of events that are analyzed and predicted, which can lead to feelings of anxiety and overwhelm in the face of these choices. This is even more amplified if the highly sensitive person is tired, stressed, or overwhelmed by other stimuli.

Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Those with ADHD will also experience a flood of thoughts when making a decision, but for them, some of the thoughts may become hidden or forgotten. Their brain will likely shift to something more engaging and hyperfocus on other tasks—often unrelated to the original decision. Research has found the difficulty in decision-making for adults with ADHD occurs most when the decision demands a high degree of cognitive control.

Source: Tamer Dagas/ istock
Learning to care for yourself helps you tap into decision-making power.
Source: Tamer Dagas/ istock

Organizing thoughts with such depth in neurodiverse individuals means it can take less time, and even less stimulation, to reach decision fatigue. As a result, the “shutdown” or “impulsive state” may occur more often, leading the person to question their ability to make good choices. The thing is, if a person with neurodiversity learns how to manage their decision fatigue, they make better choices due to the fact that they think things through so thoroughly. It is a gift, that truly
needs to be managed.

How to Combat Decision Fatigue

To enable the power of neurodiverse decision-making and reduce instances of overload, the following skills are important to focus on:

  • Nutrition. Research has shown that simply eating is a powerful way to combat decision fatigue. Imagine if your goal is to improve your diet and you have made numerous decisions all day to stay away from junk food. By the end of the day, you will be far more likely to reach for a sugary snack to replenish the glucose lost while making choices all day. If you continue to keep your blood sugar stable and eat regularly, you will be less likely to make a decision you may regret, while also supplying the necessary energy for other choices.
  • Sleeping. Sleep is crucial to combat decision fatigue, as sleep deprivation has a direct impact on stabilizing blood sugar, as well as improving the ability to be innovative, communicate, and deal with distractions, which are all crucial for effective decision-making. Considering how important sleep is, it is crucial to prioritize sleep the night before making a big decision—giving new meaning to the phrase “sleep on it."
  • Omit Excess Choices. When possible, simplify what you can. Remember the issue before with trying to avoid junk food? Evident in marketing, repetition impacts our fortitude in sticking to tough decisions. The more you see something the more likely you will finally succumb to it. Eliminating unwanted options in your environment means you will spend less time and energy on those choices. Yes, you may think of a piece of cake, but if it is not in your home you will not have to choose not to eat it every time you see it in the kitchen.
  • Capsulize Choices. If you know you are going to have a stressful day, where many choices need to be made (for many this may be during working hours), eliminate choices where you can. Many have “go-to” meals they eat during the working day so they can prioritize decision power for work. Another example could be the commonly known capsule wardrobe, with a few rotating pieces of clothing that go nicely together. With fewer options, there are fewer decisions that need to be made.
  • Seek Support. It can also help to ask for support in decision-making when (or before) you have reached fatigue. Deferring to others to choose the movie you watch or what music to put on at dinner may seem like small choices, but if these are choices you do not feel deeply impacted by you can spare the energy by not making them.
  • Meditation. To further support decision-making, meditation has been found to increase activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that is sometimes dysregulated in those with ADHD. It has also been shown to calm activity in stress centers of the brain for HSP, allowing them to feel less stimulated when trying to make choices. If you have a choice you are struggling with, or are feeling overwhelmed, even five minutes of focusing on your breath and repeating the words "in" and "out" can be very powerful.

Understanding when you are nearing decision fatigue and engaging in forms of rest and self-care helps you remain connected with your inner voice and intuition: When there is a decision that matters deeply to you. Those who are under chronic stress, such as trauma, neurodiversity, medical issues, or poverty, will likely reach decision fatigue more quickly.

That is why it is important to practice acceptance once you do arrive at a choice. For those who struggle with perfectionism, or low self-esteem this can be a struggle, but using a mantra such as, "I made a choice and now I clear that space," can help to alleviate some of that stress. Moving on from a decision after it is final provides space and room needed to make the choices that have yet to come.


Aron, Elaine, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. New York, Three Rivers Press, 1998.

Doherty, Sean T., et al. "Design and assessment of the Toronto area computerized household activity scheduling survey." Transportation Research Record 1894 (2004): 140-149.

Harrison, Yvonne, and James A. Horne. "The impact of sleep deprivation on decision making: a review." Journal of experimental psychology: Applied 6.3 (2000): 236.

Mäntylä, Timo, et al. "Decision making in adults with ADHD." Journal of attention disorders 16.2 (2012): 164-173.

Orquin, Jacob L., and Robert Kurzban. "A meta-analysis of blood glucose effects on human decision making." Psychological Bulletin 142.5 (2016): 546.

Oto, Brandon. "When thinking is hard: Managing decision fatigue." EMSWorld (2012).

Sun, Sai, et al. "Calm and smart? A selective review of meditation effects on decision making." Frontiers in psychology 6 (2015): 1059.

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