The difficulties of decision-fatigue!

Do you sometimes find yourself making a parenting a decision that goes against your better judgment, feels inconsistent with your values, or leaves you scratching your head wondering why you opted for that at all. Being blindsided by our own choices (or the unexpected consequences of them!) can feel baffling, but perhaps you’re simply suffering from Decision Fatigue.


What is “Decision Fatigue?” 

Of all the descriptions I’ve read, one of the simplest is also my favourite;

“When we are fresh and alert, we make the best decisions we can with the information we have available. However, as we become tired, the quality of our decisions fade, such that a later reflection may result in us regretting the choices we made.

When there is a sequence of decisions to make, the greater the effort required for each decision, the greater will be the decay in decision quality.”

Making rational, intelligent decisions requires a lot of cognitive effort. We weigh up different pieces of information against each other, and we exert self-control and will-power to deny ourselves the ‘easier’ option in favour of the ‘right’ answer. The brain tires from this process. Whether it’s a few momentous decisions, or a whole series of tiny ones, the processes become overworked and so the quality of our choices deteriorates.


How does this apply specifically to parenting?

When people talk about whether or not to have kids they think of it as a “big decision”. Then they make decisions about when will be the right time, how many they would like to have, how long they’d like to wait between them.

Couples who are contemplating their future might discuss their own values and translate these to the types of BIG parenting decisions they intend to make. They decide whether they will send their children to public or private school, whether they will raise them under a certain religion or not, and so on.

Expectant parents, preparing for the arrival of their little one, start making decisions and plan more to come. They choose a colour to paint the nursey walls and this feels like a momentous decision. They browse the baby section of the local shops and decide whether they will use cloth nappies or disposables.

Your child has been the subject of many big decisions before they even take a breath outside the womb.

But these BIG decisions are nothing compared to the reality of life as a parent. Top-ranking CEOs, managing hundreds of employees and negotiating major deals, may have an inkling of how many decisions a parent has to make every day!

Until you have a child, it is hard to comprehend the quantity and, more importantly, the constancy of decisions that you will have to make when caring for your child.

It’s not one decision per big concept – “Will I breastfeed or bottle-feed?”

It’s not even one per detailed topic – “Will I use gold stars to reward toilet training, or wait patiently for child-lead toilet learning?”

In fact, you don’t even get to make a single decision per specific scenario – “Will I let my child have a lolly at the checkout when we’re at the supermarket?”

You have to make and remake these decisions (and infinite others) over and over again, on the run, countless times a day, every day. There are a million decisions you will face, from the momentous to the minute. Parenting is constant and dynamic – there is no pause button and the choices you made yesterday might not apply today. Sometimes the situation changes beyond your control so you have to revisit your earlier choices (for instance, the best laid plans about breastfeeding may not be physically possible for every mum). At other times it is your child that has changed – as he or she grows and develops the rules will need to change to adapt to their new levels. On many occasions, though, you will find yourself making decisions simply because of the momentum of real life. You won’t remember the plans you made in advance, or recall the choice you made last time you were in this situation, or simply won’t have time to carry out the same strategy you implemented before. So, you readjust, you think on your feet, you make a new decision to answer a familiar question.


Making so many decisions is draining.


It results in decision fatigue – a phenomenon that affects the most high-functioning CEOs just as much as it impacts the most sleep-deprived parents (and keep in mind that sometimes the CEO and the tired parent are the same person!) Parents aren’t a separate species – they are human beings with human brains. Decision fatigue is your brain telling you that it needs rest. Your brain is a renewable energy source but that doesn’t mean you can leave the power running constantly. When you experience decision fatigue it is as though your brain has put itself on power-saving mode to conserve battery power. If you’ve ever seen this happen to your laptop or smartphone you’ll know that power-saving mode lowers the brightness of the screen, stops tasks from operating in the background and restricts functions to basic applications that run more slowly than usual. Sound familiar?! That’s what decision fatigue is like for our brains! Our brightness dims, our capacity to multi-task decreases and we struggle with complex functions. We are on power-saving mode and that is not the right time to make important decisions – or to blame yourself for the not-so-perfect choices you make. 


So, what can we do to decrease the likelihood, or impacts, of decision-fatigue?


Limit the number of unimportant choices you have to make each day.

Your brain can’t truly differentiate between minor and major decisions. The effort required to choose still adds up. If you’re wasting mental energy on a hundred little, inconsequential decisions a day then there will be nothing left when you need to make an important choice. So, look for ways to cut back on the little decisions. This could be by removing articles of clothing from your child’s wardrobe so there are few options in the morning (or doing the same for yourself!)


Make your big decisions first.

It can be tempting to get the ‘routine’ out of the way first before setting our mind to ‘the big stuff’, but this can mean you’re running on empty by the time you’re “ready” for the big stuff. Don’t take your child to the shops and then sit down to look at school prospectuses.

The shopping trip opens a Pandora’s Box of tiny decisions that accumulate to brain drain - “Should I take that parking space far away or keep driving around waiting for a closer one?”, “Should we get the better, expensive brand or the cheaper one?”, “My son’s favourite cereal or my daughter’s favourite?”, “Will I let him have a treat at the counter?”

Your supply of clarity, certainty and will-power will be drained before you even look at the things that truly matter to you. It is therefore best to look for the earliest possible opportunity to make your big decisions each day. 


Write the question at night, write the answer in the morning.

Some parents find their brains unloading at night, once the children are in bed, as it’s the first time during the day that they’re able to stop and reflect. Suddenly a whole list of questions comes tumbling out (or, more likely, a whole whirlwind of questions start swirling around!) If you can (and it’s easier said than done!) – write them down, then let them go. Don’t start searching for answers – particularly online where you might get stuck in a scrolling loop that prevents you from switching off in preparation for sleep. While you rest, the ‘back of your mind’ will mull over the details and the following day, early on before you’ve depleted your decision making power, you’ll be able to come back to the questions with a clearer head.


This is particularly important for families where one (or both) parent(s) is/are at work during the day. When the co-parents reunite in the evening they often turn to each other with a list of questions they need help with. This is understandable, but it’s equally natural that it results in miscommunication or inaction at best, and conflict at worst. Both parties are mentally exhausted and unable to give the help the other needs and deserves. It’s still important to reconnect and talk to each other, and to share the questions that are swirling in your head, but perhaps it’s easier not to push for answers or solutions. Work together to write a list and then tend to it the following morning, when your decision-making mechanisms are refuelled.  


Reach out to your decision-buddy!

In some cases, this will be your co-parent (your husband, wife, partner, or former spouse). It is important to remember, however, that your co-parent might be just as “decision fatigued” as you are (see above). In that case it’s really helpful to have a ‘go-to’ person whose opinion you trust who can look at your situation with fresh eyes. This may be your own parent, a mentor, a friend. Just someone who knows you well enough to have empathy and understanding, but is removed enough to have clarity and objectivity. You don’t necessarily need to ask them for an answer or solution, but just sharing your thought-process out loud can help you look at it more clearly (and sometimes your decision-buddy will just be there to reassure you that it’s okay that you made some imperfect decisions today and it’s not too late to fix them tomorrow).



When you make “the wrong choice” – which you inevitably will, many times and in many different ways – forgive yourself. It is simply evidence that you are a functional human being with a healthy brain that behaves exactly as it should.

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