Ever hear of something called decision fatigue?

As reported in The New York Times Magazine, a group of researchers stumbled on this phenomenon a few years back.   They learned that individuals who constantly make decisions eventually avoid making them or just default to the easiest decision:  maintain the status quo. For example, in a study about judges making parole decisions, prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time.  Those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.

Their powers of intelligent decision-making expended, the judges suffered from something called “ego depletion.” In effect, they found it difficult to make any decision at all.

How Decision Fatigue Affects Families

Let’s bring this concept into the world of parents and children, who face hundreds of decisions each day.  Parents are worn down by work and parenting.  By the end of the day, they may not make their best decisions.  Decision fatigue can result to saying “yes” to a persistent teen who wants to go out on a school night.  It can also lead Mom or Dad to choose ice cream rather than a piece of fruit for a late night snack.

And consider the impact of decision fatigue on our children.  We want them to be good decision makers.  We also want them to have choices, rather than the edicts we were given by our own parents.  But too many options may be unhealthy for kids.

Author Carol Lloyd examines this issue in a recent article.  She believes the research explains why our children, even with all their choices, aren’t necessarily very happy.  They wear out over unimportant choices we insist on giving them (e.g what cereal for breakfast, or what snack before soccer?).  As a result, by the end of a day they often don’t have the mental energy left to decide how to tackle more important tasks, like school projects, for example.

A Short Term Solution

Researchers also found there is a short-term solution that will restore the mental energy associated with decision fatigue:  glucose.  Yes, a sweet snack will help refocus and re-energize a lagging brain.  For obvious reasons, however, consuming sugar every time we are wearing down isn’t an ideal antidote for a brain suffering from ego depletion.

A Long Term Solution

The better solution for both parents and kids could be the same thing:  structure.  Not an authoritarian regime with no options, but a reasonably structured environment.  Routines for bedtime, media use and homework cut down on constant decision-making and the ego depletion that can arise from it.  As social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister explained in the New York Times Magazine article, “Good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it’s always there.” Rather, “It’s a state that fluctuates.” The people least likely to suffer from decision fatigue are those who structure their lives, according to his studies.  They are able to conserve the willpower that is depleted from constant decision-making.  “They establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices.”  Life with a little structure may help kids form habits that will make them better decision makers in the long term, too.