3 Ways To Prevent “Decision Fatigue” From Wrecking Your Health Goals

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“Decision fatigue”? What the heck is that, and how is it wrecking my health goals?!

Surf the web and you’ll find many definitions of decision fatigue, but my interpretation is this…

As humans, we make thousands of decisions each day (and, in this fast-paced world, we make many, many more than our animal relatives and ancestors). Because of this, we ultimately hit a point of mental exhaustion. Once this moment hits, we’ll do, say, and/or eat just about anything.

This has been the case for quite some time, but, in the advent of technology, the number of daily inputs we’re faced with continues to increase. Sure, robots do many menial tasks for us, but there are also graphics and images and advertisements and news flashes and text messages and emails and phone alerts bombarding us at every moment.

By the end of the day (or possibly late morning/afternoon), even though robots may turn on our TVs or speakers, we’re mentally tired; this overwhelming feeling of decision-induced exhaustion (aka decision fatigue) weakens our ability to make the healthiest, best choices.

Okay, so what’s the big deal?

In my opinion, just knowing that decision fatigue is a “thing” is empowering.

While checking out at the grocery store last week, I was almost convinced that I needed the candy bar staring at me from above the conveyor belt. However, I knew that I was A) being cajoled by supermarket product placement tactics to buy something I didn’t truly want and/or need and B) suffering from decision fatigue, especially since that day was a particularly long one filled with multiple work and life stressors.

The numerous candies, magazines, and other common impulse buys are not situated next to cash registers by accident; the people who place them know exactly what they’re doing! They’re trying to catch you in your weak moments of decision fatigue! Now that you know what’s what, you won’t succumb to the temptation.

Avoiding impulsive actions at the grocery store is one thing, but dodging them in our homes and routines is a whole different story…

3 Ways To Prevent Decision Fatigue From Wrecking Your Health Goals:

1. Don’t keep junk food/drinks in your home. Period.

When you come home at the end of a long day, you’ll likely reach for an easy snack. If you’re decision fatigued—and there’s a 99.9% probability that you will be on any given afternoon or evening—you probably won’t mull over the nutrient density of that snack before you eat it.

Thus, the easiest way to avoid making poor, decision-fatigued food/drink choices is just to keep all junk—sugar-filled yogurts, protein bars, chips, candy, ice cream, crackers, pretzels, soda (diet and regular!), etc.—out of of your home.

Save treats for special occasions like holiday gatherings, birthday parties, or Saturday night Netflix binge sessions. There’s absolutely no reason to keep junk food around 24/7 because even the most well-intentioned, health-conscious person will grab a few chips here and a handful of M&Ms there. When junk food is easily accessible, we may eat twenty—or more!—servings of crap we didn’t intend to eat in just one week. Each “harmless” handful truly adds up.

When I started to focus on cleaning up my diet and lifestyle, I kept treats around thinking I was mentally strong enough to save them for those special occasions. In reality, this never happened. It seemed so innocuous to snack on pretzels or candy while prepping dinner, but my intake of extra empty calories, processed vegetable oils, and “natural” flavors was so unnecessary. I realized that I—like most of us—was not above mindless snacking, especially when I was decision-fatigued at the end of a long day.

Now, I eat treats outside of my apartment. Walking through NYC, I’ll happen upon a new ice cream store and grab a scoop. Out to dinner with friends, I’ll indulge in a few spoonfuls of shared desserts. At happy hour, I’ll order the cheap and delicious $5 chicken fingers.

At first, it may feel bizarre and sad not to have pretzels, candy, and soda around, but I promise it’ll pay off. Soon, you won’t even miss them! The delicacies you consume at special dinners and parties will seem that much saltier and/or sweeter, and the healthy foods/snacks/drinks you keep in your home will be nutrient-dense and energy-giving.

You’ll feel so much lighter (mentally and physicallyyou’ll probably drop some lbs!) because you won’t have to make that extra choice to eat “healthy” or “unhealthy” in your decision-fatigued moments. Everything you’ll eat in your home will be healthy! It’ll be sooooo freeing!

2. Make the healthiest habits the easiest to do.

Embarrassing admission: I work in New Jersey and live in NYC. But that’s not the embarrassing part. (I’m not a New Jersey hater!) Here it is: In order to get myself to the gym after a long workday, I must lug my gym bag with me from NYC to New Jersey and back to NYC. Then, I must walk home on the specific route on which I pass my gym. If this perfect storm doesn’t happen, I just won’t work out. Instead, I’ll come up with every excuse and rationalization I can possibly think of and end up on my couch watching god knows what on TV. I’d like to think I’m the type of person who can go home first, change into gym clothes, and then go to the gym, but I’m just not. After years and years of attempting the latter routine, I’ve given up and accepted the gym bag schlep.

It truly all comes back to decision fatigue. No matter how great our intentions are, we’ll likely not make the best, most healthful choices when we’re mentally exhausted. When I walk by my gym with my exercise gear in tow, it’s so easy for me to walk right in! By removing just a few extra choices from my day, I’ve set myself up for a healthier lifestyle.

Some people combat late-in-the-day decision fatigue by exercising before work. Others lay out their gym clothes in the morning so that it’s easy to slip right into them after work. There’s no right or wrong way to set yourself up for success when it comes to healthy lifestyle choices like exercising; you must figure out what works for you!

Just make sure to do whatever you can the night or morning before—when you’re energized and free from decision fatigue!—to set yourself up for success. Aside from the above example, here are some other ideas:

  • Meal/snack prep. For example, right when you get home from the grocery store, wash + chop up all of the vegetables you bought so that they’re ready to eat raw or for use in recipes. You’ll be much more likely to snack on a carrot stick if it’s pre-washed + chopped!
  • Sign up for exercise classes ahead of time. I use ClassPass and sign up for yoga and spin the night before or the morning of any class; if I cancel, I’m penalized…which is actually a good thing! ClassPass forces me to get my butt in gear!
  • Or, plan in advance to meet a friend at the gym. When it comes to working out, accountability is key!

3. Write out 2-3 healthy goals for each day—and stick to them!

I don’t like to adhere to the same routine day in and day out, but I do jot down post-work objectives before any new day begins. I love a good checklist; physically writing down a TO DO list on paper and crossing off items is so gratifying!

When I write out my evening goals (e.g., “yoga, groceries, prep tomorrow’s snacks and lunches”), it’s so much easier to accomplish them.

One trick to keep in mind: only write down 2-3 things you’ll absolutely do. Don’t get crazy! If you make a TO DO list of 18 things you need to accomplish on a Wednesday night, you’ll feel overwhelmed, unmotivated, and disappointed when you don’t finish everything.

When you make a healthy checklist of 2-3 goals per day, decision fatigue becomes a thing of the past. Even though you’ll still be tired after a long day at work, you’ll already have decided which objectives you’ll tackle. You won’t end up in a vicious thought pattern like this: “Should I go to yoga? I’m so tired. Maybe I should get groceries instead. Or, I could do both? I don’t know, it was a long day. Sitting on the couch is probably the best idea…”

Bottom line: Food choices, exercise, and overall healthy habits are just three areas that can be negatively impacted by decision fatigue; beyond these, consider all of your healthy lifestyle “shoulds.” Ask yourself, “How is decision fatigue holding me back?” Then, identify solutions!


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