I’ve always been an indecisive person. Most of the time, I hate figuring out what to eat for dinner or what my plans should be for the day. And if I don’t make a to-do list for myself, I’ll pretty much wander around and get virtually nothing accomplished.
That’s just my personal life, though. At work — and all throughout college — it’s been incredibly easy for me to make decisions. Choose an essay topic? Done. Pitch these sites? I’ve got three ready to go. Write an article? It’s on the editor’s desk by 5 o’clock.
The nature of my job involves making tons of decisions, both large and small, on a daily basis, and it doesn’t bother me one bit. I love to work hard because No. 1. I genuinely enjoy my job, and No. 2. I’m essentially getting paid to make the right choices. My work is decision-heavy, but in that environment it comes naturally to me.
Noticing a Pattern
I started to realize I prioritize the decisions I know will net me the most vital returns. In college I earned a high GPA, and at work I do well so others will hopefully notice my hard work and I can solidify a career path.
But when it comes to making decisions in my personal life, it’s almost as if I can’t be bothered. Planning dinners for my grocery list usually means I stick with stuff I’ve already made so I know exactly what to buy at the store. I can write about personal finance and the gig economy all day, but when it comes to choosing a bank account that’s best for me or finding a side job to make myself some extra money, it’s so hard to make an actual decision.
Why are work decisions easy and personal decisions much more difficult?
After years of wondering why I’m like this, I finally found out there’s an official term: decision fatigue.
So Many Decisions, So Little Time
Decision fatigue is the decrease in quality of your decisions after a long period of decision making. In his article for The New York Times Magazine, John Tierney writes, “you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you're low on mental energy.”
He explains that humans have a finite amount of mental energy for exerting self-control. And we’re faced with decisions all day: Should I drink another cup of coffee? Treat myself to a nice lunch? Check Facebook just one more time? At the end of the day, after resisting all these urges and decisions, our brains are just tired. This means when we get home, we’re nearly running on empty in terms of rational decision making.
According to Tierney, there are two ways the human brain will cope at this point. One way is to act impulsively instead of rationally thinking through the consequences. The other is to save all the energy you have left and not make any decisions at all. My brain prefers the latter.
Figuring Out How to Respond to Decision Making
Finally, I know why it’s so difficult for me to figure out personal decisions at home — my brain literally does not have the energy to make any more decisions! With all the decisions I face at work, I’m left mentally drained.
Knowing what I know now, and the actual psychology behind it, I still prefer to spend my limited amount of mental energy during office hours. To curb my mental exhaustion at home, I always make a list before grocery shopping and plan out dinners ahead of time. I’ve also found it helpful to make a list at the beginning of the week or weekend of things I need to get done, whether it’s checking on my budget or running a few errands.
Most importantly, it’s OK to feel mentally drained — it’s just part of being human and having a mentally exhausting job. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing, and now I don’t see it as one.
My brain just needs a little more fuel before it can get back to its full potential.
Jacquelyn Pica is a writer at The Penny Hoarder, a personal finance website that helps you make smart money decisions. Find her on Twitter @JacquelynTPH.