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Decision fatigue (wikipedia.org)
184 points by diablo1 on March 4, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 82 comments

Someone is probably going to quote that study where they say decision fatigue doesn't exist, and I'm going to head you off right now: It exists, everyone on HN has experienced it, and one of the best tools a successful businessman has is being able to differentiate between which decisions actually need their input, and none of us use that tool enough.

Case in point: it is 2 pm, I am on HN replying to this.

Also, someone is going to probably recommend reading "Thinking Fast and Slow". It's not at the top of my list of books to read, but you should read it once just so you understand the references to it.

I had a very, very illuminating discussion with the guy in charge of repairs when my kitchen sprung a leak.

Kitchen layout is constrained a lot by physics, and again by ergonomics, and the customer's theories on how the kitchen should be don't always allow for these. He confessed that the reason they bombard you with a million tile and color and flooring and countertop options is to induce decision fatigue.

So that when they hit you with the news that the sink can go in exactly two places and which one do you want, you just answer instead of fighting them on the stuff they know, care about, and cannot change no matter how long you monologue about it.

I don't know if I was more shocked that they had this figured out, or that software developers don't.

This reminds me of large code reviews which have a million different things going on. After a while, people tune out and don't see bigger issues and quality of their feedback goes down, or they give up and say "yeah, all this seems fine to me". Compare that with a smaller code review with fewer things going on and where people end up being super opinionated on minor things.

The sort of lesson in this example is if you want to get some design decision through that you know may be controversial, bury it in with a bunch of other changes.

(Also related, the idea of announcing negative things on busy news days, i.e. "a good day to bury bad news".)

Battle Chess. Duck. It's an obscure reference.

By "physics" do you mean actual laws of physics, or "which wall contains the plumbing"?

I mean that water doesn't flow uphill or horizontally. In most houses you can have an oven in the kitchen island, because wires and gas pipes can run any direction. But drain pipes have a run rate, and unless you want to do horrible things to the ceiling downstairs you can't have a drain line enter the floor more than say 6 feet from the nearest wall.

I've heard tell of people getting quite upset about this information.

You can't put the sink upside-down and have it pour up.

Not with that attitude!

I have got to start using this. Lifehack++

> and one of the best tools a successful businessman has is being able to differentiate between which decisions actually need their input

A tool of a successful team lead is knowing which decisions can be deferred until there is more time, energy, and information to give them the consideration they deserve. And which ones are so easy to reverse later that drawing straws is a perfectly valid strategy.

For the canonical 'bikeshedding' parable: My preferred escape route for a bunch of highly paid individuals to stop wasting time on what color to paint a goddamned shed is to budget enough time and materials for several different options and to move on. No matter what color you paint it, it will need to be painted again in 5 years anyway. Argue about the color then. Today you're supposed to be worried about the QC history of the concrete contractor, since you are going to be using some of the most expensive concrete known to man.

Bikeshedding is the absolute worst.

I've been very involved in (local) party politics.

There are legitimate reasons why people despise parties, politics, policy, campaigns, planning, etc. Because it sucks.

And there are some people who LIVE for the knife fight. Living incarnations of the Simple Sabotage Field Manual.


Of course this happens in all organizations, to varying degrees.

I've struggled to come up with mitigations. Some have worked pretty good. Briefly. Like JADs (joint application development). With an enforcer playing Bad Cop.

Codifying better governance in bylaws and codes of conduct can also help, a bit.

But the moment you stop pumping energy into the system, things revert to the Tyranny of Structurelessness.


Decision fatigue is one of those things I am inclined to agree with my confirmation bias and just disregard studies that claim it does not exist. It just makes a bit too much sense.

If someone got belligerent about it, I might allow that it's just plain fatigue.

Being tired or worn out reduces our ability to function at a level we demand of ourselves or others, leading some people to some pretty bad issues they don't know how to handle.

It can be vigilance (which for some of us includes deciding things), overstimulation (background noise), understimulation (loneliness, boredom), physical exhaustion, illness... any or all of these can induce us to make other sorts of highly suspect decisions, including how we spend our free time, money, or how we treat others.

It's a little weird to say "before you even bother presenting evidence, I'm here to tell you that evidence doesn't matter because several people on this website have strong feelings."

I don't know who's right, but I know that I am more likely to be convinced by arguments that use reason and evidence.

I've been offered valid reasoning based on incomplete evidence as proof that something I've directly (and measurably!) experienced just doesn't happen at all (so, obviously, I'm just stupid or lying). The fact of the matter is that evidence is often lacking (lots of things are hard to measure and/or study); but incentives are aligned to find a conclusion anyway. So, I'm more likely to be convinced first by my own direct experience. And, sometimes, even though the name or explanation doesn't fit, the model is close enough: it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, and treating it like a duck yields the results I want; so it doesn't matter if my experience isn't perfectly aligned with evidence that shows ducks don't exist.

No, it does not mean you are stupid or lying. It means you have the same crappy way of knowing things as we all do. It is conventional wisdom among parents that giving kids sugar makes them hyper.

They have pretty categorically disproved this idea with studies in which children are dropped off and then returned to parents having been randomly given a sugary treat before hand and half given a non sugary treat. In follow up calls the parents did no better than chance in correlating their child's excitement level to whether they received the sugary treat or not. It doesn't mean anyone is dumb or lying. It just means personal experience isn't good for knowing certain kinds of things are true or not.

Exactly. And I think the effect can be even worse when examining our own behavior and state of mind. There are plenty of extremely well-known cognitive biases that tend to effect our own self-examination. It doesn't mean self-examination is bad, but it does mean that more methodical methods of reasoning (like scientific experiments) are important.

The "sugar rush" case has another potential parallel here. It may in fact be the case that parents, when frustrated by their children's hyperactivity, give their children less sugar and in fact observe lower energy levels. Parents may even mistake this for "personal evidence" that "sugar causes hyperactivity" is a good explanation for their observations. But of course, they very well may have just lowered their child's calorie intake, and perhaps sugar itself has no unique effect on hyperactivity.

Another thing to note regarding the sugar misconception is that studies have in fact shown that parents will report their children are more hyperactive if they have been told that their children recently consumed sugar. To me, that's the real nail in the coffin, and it's also not good news for the mode of thinking that goes like "I've observed this feeling in my own life therefore no evidence could possibly show otherwise."

As I understand it, "decision fatigue" is a particular explanation for the observation in people's own lives and the observation of other people that decision-making seems to get worse after long stretches of decision-making. If I've observed, for instance, that I make more bad decisions at work later in the day, no one is necessarily saying that I am fooling myself (although to be honest I would prefer to see rigorous studies even of that claim, since judging the value of one's own thoughts and decisions is pretty well-known to suffer from many biases).

In this case I'm willing to accept that decision-making does tend to get worse after long stretches, but I'm more concerned with how to verify this particular explanation for why decision-making gets worse, and for that I think it's vitally important to do controlled experiments. One's own experience almost certainly has no explanatory power for why decision-making is getting worse.

It's certainly a reasonable guess that my decision-making is getting worse because I've had to make many decisions today. But there are also other reasonable guesses. Maybe it's my diet, and I had more energy immediately after breakfast and lunch but less energy later in the afternoon. Maybe sunlight has an effect. Maybe simply knowing that I get to go home from work soon makes me less invested in decisions at the end of the day.

A less reasonable guess would be something like "when the afternoon train starts running my decision-making gets worse." It still naively fits my observations, but we can probably agree that a controlled test would likely show this explanation to be incorrect (but who knows, maybe the train is loud and distracts me, or makes me think about my upcoming commute home!).

These are all things that can probably be controlled for, and it wouldn't be too shocking to me if the number of decisions made in a day is not in fact a significant explanation for why the later decisions are poorer. I haven't even seen the study that was preemptively dismissed, but I'd like to.

There's a difference between something you personally experience and a general trait of all humans.

And it's why computer-assisted driving is so nice. You've felt decision fatigue if you've ever done long car drive.

>It exists, everyone on HN has experienced it

It may seem like something that's easy to confirm, but the mind is a messy blob of bias. Real science needs to be done to give a conclusive answer. A single study (for or against) is only one step in that process.

Remember, the plural of anecdote is not data.

I think that study is about the existence of ego depletion (willpower is a limited resource).

Yes, and it's more like "if someone believes in it, it is limited, otherwise not": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ego_depletion

Right. And it's different than decision fatigue.

> Case in point: it is 2 pm, I am on HN replying to this.

Yet your input, although welcome, was not needed... bad businessman ? :)

Also, why your software should not be infinitely configurable, unless it depends on a network effect. Let the 5% of users with specialized needs go elsewhere.

Infinite configuration requires infinite testing.

That's why the only "agile lean scrappy startup" software that works has infinite users.

> For instance, judges in court have been shown to make poorer-quality decisions late in the day than they do early in the day.

This references the study "Extraneous factors in judicial decisions": https://www.pnas.org/content/108/17/6889

Here's an article, which has been posted on HN a few times, about why the conclusions of that study don't make sense: https://nautil.us/blog/impossibly-hungry-judges

Here's a concise HN comment about how the observed effect is explained without decision fatigue: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14703990

Decision Fatigue is like muscle fatigue in that it is mostly due to the waning of glycogen feeding your brain. When the cause is lack of glycogen due to hunger, as in the case of judges who have good snack discipline, they exhibit it just before meal times. When the cause is lack of glycogen from high insulin due to sugary snacks (as provided by your typical startup) you exhibit decision fatigue after you eat candy or drink soda. Exercise helps because it it raises your resting metabolic rate so more glycogen is flowing through your body at any one time. Stimulants help because they increase hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine which also increase metabolic rate.

There are secondary effects like nutrient deficiencies that can result in low essential neurotransmitters. And also if you stay focused on one thing, I think Troxler Fading can increase the the energy draw your brain needs to stay focused on that one thing.

Probably as important is complexity/uncertainty. If glycogen delivery is your capacity to work, complexity/uncertainty is the primary demand that the work has on your brain. So if you can keep redrawing/refactoring your problem in simple terms, I find you can keep going when others cannot.

It seems like you haven't read the articles that are linked to by the comment you're responding to.

Everything you said is precisely what is controversial and under question these days regarding both decision fatigue and ego depletion. The original experiments proposing such theories have failed to replicate.

Are you saying you can share experiments that show optimal levels of glucose in the body are not directly proportional to optimal decision endurance? I'd love to see something that refutes this, I can't imagine what it would look like when I have found it so easy to evidence the relationship in myself and others.

I noticed that I have a "decision-quota" that I can spend every day, and sometimes I spend a lot of this energy on trivial tasks.

So I created a small tool a while ago to learn Vue and to help me with this: https://roulettecarnival.com/ , it's not close to be finished but it kinda works. I also use it with my team to make trivial decisions more fun.

Awesome! This reminds me of something similar I built, called Bracket Based Decision Making!

Site here: https://bracket-based-decision-making.firebaseapp.com/ Code here: https://github.com/weaversam8/bracket-based-decision-making

Quick review:

Very neat presentation. I often work out this sort of thing in my head or on paper.

I was confused by the wording initially. "Enter a list of what you want to decide" sounded to me like I should enter separate decisions ("What should I eat for lunch?", "When should I mow the lawn?", …). Perhaps word it as "Enter the alternatives you are trying to decide between".

I built something for binary decisions: https://en.howtruthful.com

Nice site! I really liked the tournament-style visualization with divs. Just a heads up, your /about page is throwing a 404

Nice idea. Frankly I don’t understand why some people care so much about some irrelevant details, like cloth to wear for a normal day. My girlfriend is expert at indecision and when she ask my opinion and I reply in a second she looks impressed and ask: why? Of course, I don’t reply "because both are equally valid so I just chose one arbitrarily", I come on with some believable argument. But the truth is spending thinking about the options is wasteful. I tried to teach her the head-tail method for binary choice but she’s not convinced.

you are a genius, you should start girlfriend coach or somthing like that.

Looks like I am having tacos tomorrow. Thanks.

Cool tool. You should make it a PWA.

How do you decide what to put on the wheels?

Nice! Can I save the wheels yet?

Unfotunately not yet, I was thinking to save them to localstorage but I didn't had much time lately to work on this.

It's the first item on the TODO list anyway.

Decision fatigue is also major problem associated with the use of stimulants.

Decision fatigue is a problem with exhaustion of cognitive endurance rather than a problem with cognitive overload. The former, like physical endurance exhaustion, occurs from becoming tired due to exercise over time without sufficient rest. The later occurs in a short time when the variables comprising a single, or focused set of, decision overwhelm the performance of a timely or adequate decision/response.

When a person becomes tired from continuous exercise, whether physical or mental, there are symptoms that occur that negatively impact performance. These symptoms are a way of telling you that the body is entering a state of heightened stress that can be resolved, to some degree, by appropriate rest. Stimulants work in the body to increase some performance factors while simultaneously impairing the association between exhaustion with the need for rest.

While these results from the use of stimulants can increase performance in a short term they are not a substitute for rest. Performance will degrade once the short-term high from the stimulant fades and especially as continued use results in tolerance to potentially catastrophic results.


Thank you for this. I am prescribed 50mg Elvanse and feel slightly worried about its long term effects - and also feel its effectiveness decreasing. I don't know where this ends. I don't want to keep increasing the dose, but without it I'm very ineffective.

Yeah, don't do that. Visit with your doctor to discuss your options. Last year I ran an IG investigation about a person who was fired without documentation because of their declining performance resulting from prescription drug tolerance.

The Paradox Of Choice is about part of this (how people want choices but become paralysed by too many)

It’s one of my favourite TED talks ever. Highly recommend: https://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_the_paradox_of_choi...

It’s also a book which I’m sure you can find on your own if you like the talk.

It's one of my favorite talks and books as well. It really opened up my eyes to how I am often trying to maximize in a lot of ways in my life and that it was making me miserable. Now I try to limit places where I expend that mental energy and make sure it's worth it, and be okay with just "satisficing" where it really won't make a big difference.

If you like that did you also watch the one based on the book ‘Stumbling Upon Happiness’


It seems to me almost like a scientific proof of Buddhism. This also made me really think about why I was perusing certain goals or not.

The basic premise is that humans think they’re really good at predicting what will make them happy, when in reality we totally suck at it and make lots of deliberate choices that are bound to make us unhappy.

Yes! I watched that video as well around the same time and read the book. (Admittedly I was in a "positive psychology" kick at the time and was consuming anything about happiness.)

I like your summary. An even more general way to look at is that we have less control over our minds (and moods) than we expect, so don't stress about it. :)

I too read many books on Positive Psychology and can highly recommend for you an attempt to unify the field into a cohesive whole:

The Good Life: Unifying the Philosophy and Psychology of Well-Being by Michael Bishop


The author points out how the current field is fragmented with no underlying theory, and he provides one by reconciling the demands of psychologists and philosophers who have thought and written about this topic.

I wonder if this is part of how competitive environments get whittled down to small numbers of limited choices. iPhone vs. Android, Boeing vs. Airbus, Windows vs. Mac, Intel vs. AMD, Republican vs. Democrat—is this the level of choice we’re actually capable of sustainably handling?

The aviation community has developed a lot of interesting insights into human decision making. The concept of "pilot workload" is important. Most accidents happen under high pilot workload. An example of high workload is the takeoff: the pilot must make decisions about thrust, flaps, landing gear, pitch, altitude, and heading all within a brief window.

The autopilot helps reduce workload during those brief high-workload moments. It's also critical for reducing decision fatigue on long flights.


I'm a hard believer in decision fatigue, and live my life accordingly. By doing so I've noticed that I've dramatically increased my quality of life - and quite frankly I no longer have "brain dead days".

My favourite mechanism for doing so is prepping my clothes, prepping my my next day, and preparing my lunch - all the night before. Similarly knowing what we'll eat for dinner the next night. It might not work for everyone else - and I'm not the planner type, but this has dramatically improved my life.

Planning meals is one step further than what I normally do, and probably the best way to do it.

My technique is to always plan to have healthy stuff within easy reach. The step before that is to grocery shop when NOT hungry.

You might have autism then, my younger adult brother has to habitually organize his week before hand, clothes, meals, etc to cope with it. It certainly helps him focus during the week.

Nope - I don't any any of those needs (few in general actually). It's more that this possible decision point is gone. It's uplifting, at least for me.

Note that the commonly cited example of judges being more likely to grant bail earlier in the morning and immediately after lunch is at least partly due to a confounder: The cases where the accused has a lawyer go first.

Also, easier cases often go first.

Surprised there was no control for that sort of thing.

I think this is common for entrepreneurs. I've found focusing on my personal mental health has generally been positive for my company.

For example, I nap now whenever I want. Whether I lost sleep b/c of some late night problem or just stress, I vigilantly make sure I get enough sleep. Exercise is huge too. Your mental state builds on your physical state.

In software, UI design and in creative fields, this is a real thing. If you have unlimited options (like in music production), you spend all of your time on a tangent-tangent-tangent caught up in decision after decision.

Decision Fatigue: when you spend all your daily quota deciding which HN articles to read.

A great method to help you track decision fatigue is the spoon theory https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spoon_theory.

Basically; start the day with X number of spoons. Every time you make a decision, take away a spoon. Spoons run out? Your day is done!

Now I need to decide how many spoons to start the day with.

Am I allowed to use the spoon for the decision of what to have for lunch to eat it or has soup just become much more costly?

Start with 7 spoons. Or 8. It doesn't really matter because you just need something to start with, then you adjust it if it's too little (you had more energy after running out of spoons) or too many (you ran out of energy but still had spoons left).

It's up to you what you spend spoons on. If you find that deciding what to eat is mentally costly, then yes, spend a spoon. Or set a habit to not make decisions about food and eat the same thing for lunch.

I think Decision Fatigue has a long and rich treatment in the Buddhist and specifically Zen tradition. One of the true practical daily takeaways from Zen teachings I can share is that dithering and hesitation are acute forms of suffering and akin to a broken record repeating.

A zen master may deliberate on a question, but will never dither. When presented with a choice, do the thinking it deserves but no more.

A simple example: you're looking at a menu and they all look good. Pick the first one or the one closest to your finger. It doesn't matter.

Also, don't cheat and be deferential; "I don't know, which would _you_ like?" Practice actively choosing. It'll do wonders in your daily life.

A very related concept & book: Paradox of Choice


The book was excellent, made me more-cognizant of choices and about having a strategy for dealing with it all (statisficing rather than maximizing).

Great short summary by the author in his classic TED talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_the_paradox_of_choi...

Choosing a shirt and tie doesn't contribute to decision fatigue in fact modern professional dress is designed to mitigate decision fatigue in many small and subtle ways without reducing the process of dressing to absurdity

I wonder if decision fatigue is related to our search for novelty. The decisions might be exciting at first, but then the novelty wears off and we become less interested.

I usually set a time limit of how long it takes for me to make a decision

Once I write something I don't go back to fix it until after its done

Bandwidth is finite.


It’s fairly understood as a rule to capitalize non minor words in titles. Secondly, nouns are to be always capitalized in titles. Decision fatigue taken together is a noun.


but it isn't a title in the journalistic sense

How (and where) is the journalistic sense of "title" defined?

To me, a non-journalist, a title is a title.

This capitalization is automatic by the HN software and happens when you do the submission. You can edit the submission afterwards and it won't do it automatic anymore, but still does it the first time.

Honest question: Is this a joke?

I only ask because the article is about people making poor choices because they're bombarded with too many things that they have to make choices about. Then you show up and say, "Hey, we need everyone to think more carefully about their choice of capitalization strategy for titles."

Additionally, out of curiosity, did the difference in font also bother you? I couldn't help but notice that the lower case 'g' in "Fatigue" that HN uses is different than the lower case 'g' that wikipedia uses. If we used a font that makes the first letter in a word that is supposed to be lower case appear upper case (but technically still be lower case if you looked at the ascii code), would this solve your concern about the issue?


"[...] Otherwise please use the original title, unless it is misleading or linkbait; don't editorialize."

Also if you look at the title tracker (found here https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21617016) you can see previous capitalization changes.


This ad hominem caused me to instinctively upvote the parent.

Quick guide for the confused:

- Please don't be a jerk: valid rhetorical move intended to influence tone.

- Only a jerk would think that: ad hominem fallacy.

- You're a jerk! Insult. Poor rhetoric (usually), but not ad hominem, which conflates the person with the argument.

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