I’ve been thinking a lot about decision fatigue lately. If you don’t know, decision fatigue is the idea that every choice you must make takes mental energy. The more choices you have to make, the less mental energy you have.
Think of your brain like a bank account balance; if you start the day with $100 every decision you must make or question you need to answer withdraws from that bank account. The lower the number gets the harder it is to make decisions. And then add into the calculations if you didn’t get enough sleep or something is weighing on your mind and those items decrease your initial balance to get started. As you spend that $100 it gets harder and harder to make the right decisions because then you start making the easy ones (which aren’t always the healthiest) like doom scrolling on social media, zoning out in front of the TV, or eating ALL the snacks (yes, I have done all these, sometimes at the same time!!).
In an ideal world you will either just run out of your mental energy or still have a surplus when it’s time to go to bed but that definitely doesn’t seem like the case lately.
Therefore, developing habits that are routine make life easier. The more habits you have in place to accomplish the “adulting” the easier it is to make it through the day doing the right thing. For example, when I don’t meal plan, dinner easily becomes cereal in front of the TV. And while there is no shade for cereal in front of the TV for dinner on occasion, I know that it doesn’t really make me feel good when it happens too often during the week.
At school we instituted a rotating schedule amid coming out of a pandemic and returning to “normal” and I believe that has been the crux of my ability to settle into this year. When we have been trying to re-learn how to function as this pandemic raged on and is now (hopefully) turning the corner into an endemic reality of life I have been struggling to get used to and organize myself on this four-day rotating schedule where every day is different. It is March and I still haven’t stayed in a routine — every time I try to get into one at school something throws me a curveball, or my balance is already so low that I just sit and stare at my computer trying to think of what I should be doing.
This was evidenced a few weeks ago when my go to breakfast wasn’t available — it was 6:00am and there I was standing in the kitchen whining like my 5-year-old because I just couldn’t make a decision about what to eat for breakfast. My routine had been thrown out of whack by the simple miscalculation of how many Belvita breakfast biscuits were left in the pantry. With my morning routine thrown off it’s axis my day took a little while to get back on track. Something as simple as a package of “breakfast cookies” drained my bank account in the morning because I have been fighting to control the chaos of the past two years and maintain some level of normalcy or structure both for myself and my daughter.
If you have (or been around) children, you’ve probably noticed that being hungry is the quickest drain to the account. When trying to get my daughter breakfast on weekend mornings if we wait too long and we ask her “what do you want for breakfast?” the answer becomes a resounding “I DON’T KNOW!!” and at that point we should stop talking to her and throw some food at her until her bank account is restored.
It has been the constant barrage of changes, pivots and “what ifs” that has really tested my coping skills in the past two years.
Habits are the automatic deposits into the mental energy bank account; they are the psychological equivalent to “paying yourself first”. The more things you can make into a habit the less willpower your life takes. Gretchen Rubin has 21 strategies to use for habit change and James Clear (author of Atomic Habits) has a lot of information on building good or breaking bad habits. Finding the habits that automatically deposit into your account are crucial for feeling less drained and more productive overall.
I am hoping that as Spring arrives in the Northern Hemisphere and it seems that the constant pivots are a thing of the past, I can work on building some new habits to lessen the decision fatigue and mental exhaustion that has felt like an omnipresent companion these past two years. I want to use my habits to add to the bank account instead of having to think about every choice in a 24-hour period (16 if you get 8 hours sleep). As a woman, wife, mother, and teacher there are lots of choices I need to make every day so if I can start moving more of those into the automatic payment column everything will be a little easier.