Decision fatigue: The new (old) disease affecting mums

decision fatigue

I was idly surfing social media the other day, procrastinating about the seventeen billion things I have to do, when I came across an article with a headline that made me raise my eyebrows. “Do you suffer from decision fatigue?” it asked. “Yes,” I answered. “YES, I SURE DO.” Decision fatigue! There’s an actual official-sounding phrase for what I feel when my husband asks me for the trillionth time what takeaway shop I want him to stop at on the way home from work on Friday night. “I don’t care!” I always text back. “You decide!” And he replies, “I don’t care either. Just pick one.” This is my cue to let the kids decide, and then let my husband reap the consequences when they order fish and chips for the tenth Friday in a row.

Decision fatigue is a real thing. There’s even a Wikipedia entry for it. If you google “decision fatigue”, the very first thing that comes up is this: “In decision making and psychology, decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making. It is now understood as one of the causes of irrational trade-offs in decision making.”

When I read these words, a light bulb went on in my brain. THIS is why the supermarket always puts the lollies near the checkout area. Because they KNOW that as soon as I’m done with my shopping and heading toward the till, I’m going to make decisions of a deteriorating quality and grab that Flake Luxury. Maybe even two. I’ve spent an hour choosing between different brands of frozen peas and trying to find the one kind of free-range ham my son likes, and by the end of the shop, I’m just chucking things into my trolley willy-nilly. What flavour ice cream? Oh, why not just get both! You can never have too much ice cream in the freezer, right?

Decision fatigue is endemic to motherhood. Who in your house makes the weekly shopping list, books the appointments, remembers to wash the school uniforms before Monday rolls around? Who determines what gifts to get everyone else in the family for birthdays and Christmas and graduations? How about packing to go away on holiday — who makes the lists of things to take, and packs up the kids’ luggage? Who juggles the school run with tutoring and dance lessons and swimming and sports? Chances are it’s Mum — and you’re making not only the big decisions, like which intermediate school to apply to for your kids, but also the hundreds of micro-decisions that make up each and every day. How many nappies should you put in the nappy bag for that outing? Order a birthday cake from the bakery, or make one yourself? Hang washing on a line outside or on a drying rack in the lounge? Do I need an umbrella for school pickup? Did I sign that permission slip? Send that email?

And decision fatigue is just that — exhausting. Not only are you completely over it, decision fatigue also makes you less productive and more stressed out. The little things build and build and build until you don’t have the energy or the willpower to deal with the big things. And the “big things” inevitably end up being related to your own self-care and wellbeing. Decision fatigue is why I live in yoga pants. It’s why I just ate that Flake Luxury instead of taking a walk in the late-afternoon sun. It’s why I’ll be up late tonight, doing the laundry I forgot to do this morning, and wondering what else I’ve let slip today.

What’s the answer? Well, first of all, where are the dads in all of this decision-making? Can they please change their mindset from “helping out” to “equal partner” and take over half of those decisions the mums are lumped with by default? Choose the damn takeaway place already.

Second of all, we need to let other people in our lives make their own decisions — and sometimes, this means we have to actively teach them to do so. This is especially true for children, who feel overwhelmed when they don’t know what to do or when faced with a new experience, and rely on us to guide them. But being a guide is not the same as doing it for them. Teach them to pause, think about it, and make a decision. Model this yourself, so they can see it in action.

Lastly, we mums need to stop thinking that we might as well just do it ourselves, because it’s just easier, or we’re too tired, or it’ll get done faster, or they’ll make a mess of things. This is enabling the non-decision-makers in our lives to continue, well, not making decisions. Let them figure it out. They’ll screw up sometimes. And when they screw up, it’s their responsibility to fix things — not ours.

Being a mum is hard work. It’s exhausting, even without having to make decisions for everyone else. Let’s decide to be kind to ourselves, above all else.

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