Decision Fatigue

AS is usual these days when I have been thinking about something that is causing distress in my life along comes a blog post from someone else that sums up precisely how it is I feel, or what it that I am experiencing. This graph crudely explains it:

And this commentary from John Tierney more fully explains it:

Willpower—the popular idea is that it’s something that you use to resist temptation and to make yourself work. But they’ve also found that this same energy is used in making decisions, simply deciding what to have for lunch, what to do at a meeting; all these things deplete the same resource. After a while, when you’ve depleted this resource, it’s a state called ego depletion. You’ve got less self-control, you’re more prone to give in to temptation, it’s harder for you to work, and you tend to make worse decisions.

In this state of decision fatigue you’re looking for mental shortcuts, and sometimes you do something really impulsive because you just don’t think things through. You basically say, “Sure, I’ll tweet that photo of myself in my underwear; what could go wrong?” The other thing you can do is just defer decisions; you basically just duck them all day.

When in the depths of my depression i suffered this so badly that the mere act of going for a walk led to a myriad of decisions that overwhelmed my ability to actually make decisions. In deciding to go for a walk I pretty much expired all deciusion making options right there. Getting to the top of the driveway necessitated more decisions…right or left…long way round the block, short way…up the hill or down the hill…go to the beach or to the shops….it all was just too taxing to even think about it…resulting in sitting on my arse getting worse. Opening the freezer to work out what to cook for dinner was the same…steak or sausages…rump or sirloin…peas or corn…oh fuck it I’ll just have toast. I suffered from decision fatigue.

When you hear people say that depression is feeling just a bit sad you know they are full of shit and have never experienced it. You know when other bloggers and commenters say you should get off your arse and go get a job that they have no idea about how debilitating severe clinical depression is. But at the same time you simply just don;t care enough about yourself to combat it or do anything about it.

You need to learn the pathology of the illness and how it affects you. You need to learn that the drugs don;t help and you need to learn how to train your body to react the way you want it to react. For me I found that doing hard physical exercise, or complex tasks like researching and writing a blog post all in one go without drafts or thinking about it put the symptoms of depression into the back of my mind. I learned that walking vigorously for 2 hours a day sorted out my breathing, my fitness and cleared my mind and reset my system. I found myself again after 6 years of hiding from myself.

I can now make many decisions on the fly, and better ones. But it took a long, long time to train myself well. Even now when I feel myself sliding, I have to go for a walk, if I neglect my walks I neglect myself. I use the walks for thinking, for planning and for clearing my mind.


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  • Sarrs

    Original (hilarious) blog post here 

    I find that avoiding doing things just cripples me later. It’s like a plane going into a dive – you’re trying to pull back up and on to the right path but sometimes you can get a little close to the ground. I need lists to keep me focused and try and reward myself with things like TV or internet time for the successful completion of tasks. Not monumental tasks, sometimes it’s just folding the washing and putting it away! I envy people who seem to just automatically ‘do things’ like it would never occur to them not to. Sometimes just doing everyday tasks like going to work, cooking tea and doing the dishes takes all my emotional strength and people often mistake that for laziness or apathy. But actually, coming here and commenting – trying to treat it like University and be well mannered, rational and produce evidence to back up my comments helps a lot. 

    •  If only more followed your “lead” with this “and be well mannered, rational and produce evidence to back up my comments”.  I subscribe to the old – “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. And try to keep petty name calling out of it – that’s too much like first year’s before they gain vocabulary.

      • Sarrs

        My theory is that if someone spoke to me like that on here, I would want to curl up into a ball and cry…my skin is not very thick. I guess it’s the whole ‘do unto others’ bit. 

  • do you also find the walks are good for idea-generation…?

    i must look strange sometimes.. i walk fast as a habit..and i like walking barefoot in parks/on beaches..(if you haven’t done that for a while..i can highly recommend it,,)

    ..big dog and small dog trailing along..

    ..and me muttering away to myself.. some idea/composition takes over…

    ..and i hafta say…having a large dog that comes and leans in on me..shortly after 8.00am most mornings..

    ..does help with actually getting out the door…

    ..and of course..

    ..they enjoy it so much..

    [email protected]

    • James Gray

      And back to the ward by 8PM?

      • Gazzaw

        He doesn’t need a ward James. You already pay for his house, food, drugs, IT & probably a car as well. Much brighter than you & me and doesn’t have any conscience about bludging. Can’t and won’t last though – the wheel is inexorably turning.

  • wannano

    Phil, if what you are saying is that  we all need time out to clear the head from time to time, I agree.

    I have a little black dog that walks with me, and a big black dog which is never far away.