Millennial Woe: Are You Suffering From Decision Overload?

Will I have a mocha, chai or Americano? How about backpacking to Asia, Oz or NZ? And what'll I have for dinner? Argh! Feeling overwhelmed by life's choices? Welcome to decision overload says Rosemary Mac Cabe.

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How many choices do you make each and every day? Think carefully – we’re talking about every single decision you make on a given day, from whether or not to have a shower (what? I had one last night!) to which salad to get for lunch, from whether to drive or cycle, to which college course to choose, or whether to stay in your relationship or call it a day.

Chances are, by the time you head home, your ability to make decisions – at least, the right decisions – will have diminished severely from early morning. The good news is, science has come up with why – and it’s not your fault.

Say hello to decision fatigue, or what happens when, having made decision after decision after decision, your mental energy is so low that you just. Can’t. Choose. Yep, there’s a biological reason why you can’t seem to pick a preference from that takeaway menu, or why holiday planning seems like a great idea first thing on a Saturday morning – but hellish torture at 7pm on Wednesday.

According to social psychologist Roy F Baumeister, experiments at Case Western and Florida State Universities demonstrated that we’ve a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control –essentially, that willpower is a form of mental energy that can be exhausted.

Further experiments by postdoctoral fellow, Jean Twenge, demonstrated that the process of decision-making will in itself exhaust mental energy so that, after a particularly decision-heavy day, we’re, well, not up to much.

Negative energy

Cognitive behavioural therapist Niamh Connolly suggests that reducing the stress we feel about decision-making is the first step to making the process itself less mentally exhausting.

“I’d be wondering, what exactly is it about making decisions that would stress someone?” she posits. “Typical negative thoughts include, ‘I never make the right decision’; ‘everyone else has this decision-making thing sussed, whereas I always get it wrong…’” Niamh recommends taking a pause to remind yourself that you’re talking to yourself in a manner you’d never, ever talk to someone else you cared about.

“We often don’t realise how harsh and critical our inner dialogue can be,” she confides. “Then we wonder why we feel so bad!” While taking a breath to remember to be a little kinder to yourself is definitely to be advised – at all times, not just when you’re struggling to make a decision – that’s not really going to help you when you’re overwhelmed by the sheer volume of responsibility you feel on a daily basis.

Pick priorities

Niamh says it’s about distilling your to-do list into manageable chunks, and prioritising – because while some decisions absolutely need to be made today, others can definitely wait until tomorrow.

“Firstly, list everything,” she recommends. “Then categorise things under headings of urgency and timeframe. Breaking things down into smaller pieces makes things less daunting, and helps prioritise which needs to be done first – today, this week, this month, by the summer…”

It’s not just the prioritisation that makes a difference, either; according to Niamh, the act of writing can be therapeutic when you’re feeling overwhelmed, giving you a space outside of your emotionally driven feelings of panic in which to process what has to be done. “Writing engages a different area of brain to our emotions and helps us think more rationally,” she confides. “It also helps us get a bit of perspective on things.”

The next thing that Niamh recommends is a pretty basic step in the get-things-done handbook: “Start!” she laughs. “It doesn’t matter how small or insignificant you think the task is – doing it is the start of any action and helps with our motivation.” Just don’t organise your activities by thinking about which ones you’d like to do; emotion has no place here. “If we wait until we feel like doing something,” Niamh advises, “It’ll probably never get done!” Experience says she’s right.

Lastly? Reward yourself by recording your victories – even if they’re teeny tiny. It’ll make deciding what to do and when – and then doing it – seem like a positive thing, rather than a chore. “Tick things off that list,” says Niamh. “Enjoy the feeling of satisfaction as you see things getting done – this becomes evidence for the next time you think, ‘I can’t do…’”

And if all else fails, remind yourself that no one can exercise their brain tirelessly for hours on end without a break – so switch off your phone, pick up a book or spend half an hour watching mindless television. Then return to your decision-making with a fresh outlook.

It’s simple: all you have to do is choose.

This article originally appeared in the March issue of STELLAR. The August issue is on shelves now!

Stellar August Issue

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