How I Got Over My Decision Fatigue

Kay Bolden

Too many choices can lead to decision burnout.

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When I set out to travel around the world on my long-delayed "gap year" at 60, I carefully planned how I’d survive financially — I made budgets, organized my client commitments, and synched up my payment schedules. I downloaded maps and plotted courses across countries based on logic and likely weather and lodging costs (when you’re running your business from the road, a dollar saved is a euro earned).

What I didn’t plan was how I’d survive emotionally — not the occasional bouts of loneliness, which I could handle — but the decision fatigue.

​Decision fatigue--the idea that your ability to make good ​choices deteriorates after an extended period of heavy decision making — is something I was already somewhat familiar with. I was a single mother and a nonprofit manager for a couple of decades; decision fatigue was as common as sand.

What I wasn’t expecting was that I’d have to battle it during my travels. This trip was a lifelong dream come true — what was there to be anxious about?

But from the moment I left the States last September, I found myself overwhelmed by choices, and continuously pressed for time. Should I stay in Europe, move to the desert, or sail the seven seas? Should I hike up the mountain, or tour the national library, or take the jungle tour? Should I attend this writers’ meetup, or volunteer in that community garden, or go have tea with the Queen?

When we have too many choices, it leads to overwhelm, causing us to either make bad choices, or have a meltdown and do nothing. (This is why we stand in the grocery store staring at 118 variations of frozen pizza, and end up buying ice cream instead.)

If we are experiencing overwhelm every day, at work and at home, decision fatigue isn’t far behind.

At first, it was exciting and fun to have seemingly unlimited options. But you know decision fatigue has set in when even small things like choosing a restaurant devolve into mental acrobatics. Soon I was see-sawing about everything from bus routes to sushi rolls.

I would wake up every morning in a panic — there’s not enough time! — and either rush through as many experiences as I could squeeze in, or conversely, sit in the house and do nothing, immobilized by the sheer volume of my choices.

When you’re forced to constantly make decisions under pressure — big and small — it gets easier and easier to make bad ones because, in your cognitive exhaustion, you lose the ability to tell the difference.

Or in my case, the ability to make a decision at all.

“No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy.” — John Tierney, co-author, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

By the time I made it to the Caribbean, I was already having familiar symptoms of emotional depletion. I wasn’t sleeping. I was touchy and irritable. I was bingeing Netflix and arguing with Twitter trolls and not writing. I was brittle as glass. No matter what choice I made, I wasted half my energy second guessing it.

The end came in Key West. I was in witnessing a spectacular sunset, but I was checking my phone, worrying I’d be late for a dinner reservation, debating my cocktail order … when I suddenly realized … I was irritated with the sun for taking too long to set.

Even worse — I hadn’t written one new word in almost five days.

I knew I had to recalibrate, or risk blowing my entire trip. I made four new decisions — all non-negotiable. No matter what happens by the end of any given day, these decisions stand. No vacillation, no revisiting the process.

I gave up “all or nothing” thinking.

Even if I stayed in Costa Rica, or moved to Madagascar or Thailand or Italy for three months, I won’t see it all, taste it all, experience it all. And that’s okay. I resolved to aim for enough, instead of everything.

I put a time limit on my ruminations.

I give myself 30 minutes to consider the choices — I set the timer on my phone. If at the end of 30 minutes I still can’t pick between sailing or hiking or paragliding, I put my choices in a hat and pick one.

No changies, no backsies.

I cut way back on social media, especially Twitter and the ever-churning drama of Facebook.

This really helped alleviate my sense of being pressed for time. Everything on Twitter feels so urgent! Everything on Facebook required a response! I had no idea how much my social media habit was contributing to my anxiety, and my feelings of “running behind.”

I got out.

I reclaimed and protected my writing time.

Advice to “write whether you feel like it or not” has never worked for me. Plunk me down at noon in a random airport with three hours to kill, and I promise you, I will get no writing done. Not because of the airport — because of the time of day. Early afternoon hours are dry as a desert for me, and I don’t try to write when I’m fried.

But early morning hours? That’s my prime writing time, and now I guard it like it’s Fort Knox. I write first; everything else has to get in line and wait.

Non-negotiable.

As soon as it's safe to travel again, I’m headed next to Panama, where I need to see a guy about cruising a canal. I’m sure I won’t see everything, but what I do choose to see will get my full, undiluted attention.

I know, I know — this is what I should’ve been doing all along. But I’ve recently decided not to second guess my decisions, so I’m not going to spend another minute worrying about that.

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Digital nomad, traveling the world on my #GapYear at 60. I write about adventure, food, and family. What are you waiting for? It's only too late if you don't start now.

Chicago, IL
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