Decision Fatigue and How to Feel at Peace with Your Choices
Updated: Mar 25
It wasn't the work of mothering six that was overwhelming me...it was the overthinking.
Photo by Emily Henrie
This has been a month of many decisions. It’s time for the kids who’ve spent the last few months with us to move on, and if it was an adjustment when they arrived, this one’s been twice as tough—for them and us.
Almost every moment, I find myself asking, 'What’s the right thing to do? What’s the right thing to say?' I’ve become a bit burned out, not from caring for six kids—I was finally getting the hang of it!—but from the mental strain of constantly questioning myself. As a Questioner (according to Gretchen Rubin’s four tendencies), I tend to overthink just about everything. I’ve succumbed to this tendency even more over the past month, especially since the stakes, being the welfare of people I love, seem so high.
Only, it’s not getting me any closer to the answers I’m desperate for.
If anything, all this overthinking has been holding me back. At times, I’ve felt my mind and heart racing with anxiety. I’ve even found myself trying to escape in unhealthy ways by browsing on my phone or eating too much ice cream, which I typically avoid since it makes me sick to my stomach. Everyone else seems to be on edge too, and it’s been difficult to feel at peace amidst all the pain and confusion, despite my attempts to keep the mood light and calm in our home.
That, and I ended up in the hospital with an early labor scare a couple of weeks ago. Happily, this baby’s staying put for now, but my nurse did find that I’m extremely low on iron, meaning I’m anemic. I was honestly relieved to find out, because it explains much of the malaise I’ve been feeling lately. So I’m taking an iron supplement three times a day, and I haven’t had any stomach upset since I found this whole food iron from Garden of Life. (I love their once-daily prenatal and chewables too, when I was too nauseous to swallow a pill.) I’m already starting to feel more like myself again!
(As a side note, not that these supplements are particularly pricey; they’re not, and that’s why I chose them. But why is that we’ll spend $200 for a prescription, because it seems necessary, but we’re unwilling to spend anything close to that amount for high-quality supplements or food that could do us as much good, or more?)
But, back to overthinking things: I know I don’t have to stay stuck in this state of overwhelm. I’ve finally been able to relax and find some clarity over the last week or so, since I’ve stopped trying to figure out all the answers and instead, started trying to find peace about the decisions I’m already making.
That’s why I’m writing this post. I believe that making decisions doesn’t have to be exhausting; it can be a sweet source of joy, because it’s how we live in line with what matters most to us. Decisions are power.
Decision Fatigue and Why It’s So Common in Moms
There’s a name for the kind of burnout I’ve been dealing with: decision fatigue. It’s not a physical fatigue, as much as a mental and emotional one.
When we saturate our minds with too many decisions or deplete our willpower, we can find ourselves struggling to choose well. Decision fatigue can also come from wanting to control people or circumstances outside of us. (Guilty.) We might feel confused or unmotivated. Other signs are acting impulsively, procrastinating, second-guessing ourselves, or turning to distractions to avoid making decisions. (Guilty again, on all accounts.) This article by The New York Times describes it well, if you'd like to do some more reading up on it yourself.
Moms are especially prone to decision fatigue, because we often take on quite a bit of responsibility in caring for others. Not only are we making decisions for ourselves, but for the good of others. This is a noble pursuit close to my heart, but also a weighty one.
Photos by Hannah Mann
I remember feeling as if a lightbulb lit up when I first learned about decision fatigue. At the time, I had two toddlers, and I was letting them run my day. This led to me feeling constantly torn between my own priorities and their demands—I was never sure whether I was spending my time wisely. Even little tasks like doing the dishes or turning off the TV seemed exhausting (that age old question, "should I let them keep watching or listen to them whine?"). I had to learn how to stop simply reacting and start deciding how to structure our day around what mattered most.
Chances are, you’ve experienced decision fatigue, too—perhaps during a big move, or even in daily decision-making like when to see the dentist. Simply spend a moment browsing an online shop, Instagram, or the grocery aisles, and you’ll be bombarded with dozens of decisions.
Bottom line, we only have so much mental energy to make decisions, so we must find ways to either conserve it or expand it.
Conserving and Expanding Our Mental Energy for Decisions
Did you know you can make better decisions without using up more willpower?
Knowing what to do about decision fatigue can take us from feeling overwhelmed and frustrated to confident and peaceful. Our decisions are the only thing we truly have power over in our lives, which is why I believe they can be our greatest source of joy.
We can avoid decision fatigue in one of two ways: either conserving our mental energy by making fewer decisions, or expanding it by becoming more adept at making decisions. In one of my recent Simple Greetings, I shared a few thoughts on this. (If you’d like to join my mailing list, sign up here.)
I’ve reworked and added to that list here, with nine ideas on how to best use your mental energy when making decisions:
1. Go after the answer. There are times to be still and listen to your intuition, especially when it comes to decision-making. However, I’ve found I can often get stuck in my own circular thinking—going around and around the problem, without ever coming to a decision about what to do, which only wastes my mental energy. In this case, there’s no better way out of confusion than to get outside of myself and get inspired. Reaching out to people I trust for advice, reading books, praying, journaling, and going for walks are my favorite rituals for finding clarity. Podcasts and blogs are good places to look, too. Don’t stand still, waiting and wondering what the answer is. Go after it!
2. Stop overthinking and second-guessing yourself. No surprise, this is the greatest waste of mental energy for me. A few years ago, my dad and I were out walking when one of the electrical lines across the street burst into flames. I panicked and asked my dad to call 911, but by the time the fire department came, the flames had fizzled out. With sirens blaring, half-a-dozen firemen pulled up to the wrong pole and jumped out, looking confused, because there wasn't even a fire anymore. I felt so silly that I'd thought it was some sort of serious crisis, and I spent years second-guessing that decision to call the fire department. When I brought it up to my dad the other day, still embarrassed, he said he'd never felt sorry about it. He'd done what he thought was right at the time—why question it? I felt like I'd been hit over the head. This is exactly what I've been doing lately, overthinking and second-guessing every decision, when all I need to do is what feels right.
3. Be brave. The right answer is often the uncomfortable one. Are you willing to face whatever stands in your way, whether it’s your own weakness, or the judgments of others? Can you do what needs to be done, or say what needs to be said—even if it doesn’t come easy, or you can’t do it perfectly? Doing the difficult thing means putting your mental energy into following through, rather than into needless worry and hesitation.
4. Get out of fight or flight. It’s easy to obsess about what to do when you’re motivated by fear or stress. Remaining in ‘fight or flight’ also makes you more likely to react, rather than think rationally. That’s why it’s so essential to calm your mind by letting go, breathing, and focusing on feelings like confidence and peace. This is the time to be still—but I find that walking, writing, brewing a cup of my favorite chamomile tea and laughing can be relaxing, too. I wrote a blog post with two simple steps to help you feel more calm here.
5. Define your values. In other words, prioritize. Knowing what matters most to you means you can quickly decide yes or no without having to debate everything, which conserves precious mental energy. Writing down my values—happiness, health, simplicity, beauty, faith, growth, love and family—has been absolutely freeing. Any lifestyle or choice that doesn’t fit with these values is simply not an option. I’ve also written down over 20 goals for my life that guide me in my daily decisions. I recommend grabbing a journal (here's my favorite) and getting clear on your values. Don’t be afraid to write down your biggest dreams and life-long goals, too. The more detailed your vision, the better.
6. Minimize unnecessary decisions. When I first learned about decision fatigue, I tried to avoid it by creating a more minimalistic lifestyle. While it hasn’t been the answer to everything, I’ve found so much contentment in owning less and living simply. Every aspect of our lives represents multiple decisions to be made. That’s why simplifying can help conserve mental energy: you have fewer decisions to make. A few of my favorite ways to do this are:
Tiny wardrobes (i.e. capsules—Jessica Rose William's guide has been everything)
Meal plans (or a meal list, which I prefer)
Daily routines, rituals and rhythms
Decluttering (I highly recommend The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up in case you haven't read it)
Unplugging from your devices
Scheduling and assigning chores (my kids have simple morning, after school, and bedtime chores, and we try to schedule a family cleaning day about once a month—this helps takes the pressure off everyone to be cleaning up all the time)
Using only cash or debit instead of credit
Keep in mind, these shifts themselves can cause decision fatigue—deciding what's essential and what's not—so I prefer a slow and steady approach rather than trying to simplify everything at once. Creating a vision for the lifestyle you want is a must for this, too.
7. Give it time. Perhaps you’re still getting clear on your values, or you’re not sure what outcome you’re looking for from a particular decision. Don’t worry! You don’t have to know everything from beginning to end. Take it one choice at a time. Do what feels right, right now, and go from there. Be patient, keep going, and don’t give up.
8. Keep your mind, body and spirit healthy. We all get sick. But feeling miserable because I ate too much ice cream isn't going to help me out when I have decisions to make. I've felt my mental energy expand again since I've been trying to drink plenty of water, snack on veggies instead of sweets, and spend time reading God's word, praying and journaling. I get off track all the time, but that wholesome sort of feeling is the reason I keep trying, because of the sense of clarity and wellbeing it brings. That's worth the extra effort.
9. Remember, it's your choice. I remember the moment after Cal’s birth when I realized I’d been living my life to satisfy other people. For years, I’d tormented myself with every decision, wondering whether others would approve or not. As a mom, I couldn’t do that anymore—I had to be able to trust my own judgment. Lately, I’ve fallen into this trap again, trying to satisfy everyone, when it’s not only impossible but unwise. I’ve had to let go. In doing so, I’ve felt lighter, things have started to fall into place on their own, and I’ve found I can be myself again without holding back.
The best way to expand your mental energy is to fully own your decisions, even if others disagree. Getting offended, trying to control or compare yourself to others, and people-pleasing only keeps you from clarity. You get to decide who you’re going to be and what kind of life you’re creating. You're free to be your best self, no matter the circumstances. It's your choice, always, and no one can take that away from you unless you let them.
How to Feel at Peace with Your Choices
Honestly, I struggle on every single one of these points, and much of my decision-making is trial-and-error (as in, “well, that didn’t work…I guess I’ll try something else”). But I do know, no matter the decision, I want to be someone who’s patient, humble and loving—and confident in my own actions.
The truth is, so many of the decisions we make every day really don’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. You don’t need to stress over little details like what day to go to the store or how to work tonight’s dinner around baseball practice. You’ll hardly remember in another week, much less ten years.
What does matter are the values and sense of purpose that drive you, and caring for your mind, body and spirit in a way that helps you stay clear on that. That’s where peace comes from—no need to second-guess that.
Here’s to more good days,
How about you, what do you do to get clarity and make better decisions? Which of these ideas would you try? Comment below or email me at email@example.com. I always love to hear from you!
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