“Honey, you need to start eating,” I said to my oldest during the breakfast-to-school-scramble. He explained to me, with my phone in his hands, what the weather would be like for the next week. In detail. I started thinking about what clothes to put out for him while giving our sitter instructions on how to pack the diaper bag for my youngest.
This was our third babysitter, from my then employer’s back-up care service, in less than 2 weeks. After dropping off my son, I rushed to walk the babysitter and my daughter half-way to the park. I had less than 10 minutes to be on my first conference call so, gave her hasty directions before running back home.
This happened four years ago. Unfortunately, the mental load worry loop falls to Moms in most families. This is everything from remembering camp registration to scheduling doctor’s appointments. The stress from fractured attention is damaging. But we often overlook its contribution to decision fatigue.
How many decisions do you make each day? Okay, how about before noon? It turns out our brains have limits. And one of them, is the number of decisions we can make. So, it’s not only the mental load of trying to remember too many things that’s draining. But the rabbit hole of possible choices before you take action.
Decision Fatigue Isn’t New
Most of us try to outsmart our biology and push past that, I’ve-hit-a-wall sensation. Which can lead to, As Dr. MacLean shared for the American Medical Association feeling “tired, brain fog or other symptoms of physical or mental fatigue.” She explained, “The more choices you have to make, the more it can wear on your brain, and it may cause your brain to look for short cuts.” She also notes that “there are four main symptoms: procrastination, impulsivity, avoidance and indecision.”
Notice When You’ve Reached Your Limit
We don’t exactly feel decision fatigue. But whether it’s doom scrolling or trying to re-read a paragraph for the fifth time, you probably have some sense of when you’re done. Done wrestling thoughts to the ground and done with being in charge. So, know what the negative spiral feels like for you. And begin to make it your cue to pause. And push back that important decision or discussion.
Because Our ‘Decision Budget’ is Somewhat Fixed
The pandemic ramped up what was already hard. And if you’re paid to make decisions professionally, and most of us are, it’s a daily fight to resist maxing out. But if you understand it’s ‘when’ not ‘if’ then you can be choosier about allocating precious brain space. First, consider the current environment.
Decide Which Big Issues are ‘Your’ Issues
You may not actively think about navigating the pandemic or inflation. Not to mention, political division, social injustice, and climate change. But uncertain macro conditions filter into our daily choices and mindsets.
One way to care for yourself, is to pick one or two issues you want to have an active voice in. And then, decide how you want to engage. Whether it’s volunteering for or donating to causes you care about, or some other form of activism, choose one or two lanes. And you will be less tempted to ruminate on how to fix all the broken systems at once.
Protect Time for Critical Decisions
Like many of us, I start my days early. And because that’s when I feel the most alert and alive, I am ruthless about protecting that space. During the week I rarely schedule meetings before 11:00 am. And use mornings for writing, strategy, and other deep work.
So, the decisions I’m making for my business are happening in my ‘peak’ zone and not at the end of the day when I’m pretty crispy. If you can ‘time block’ space during your alert window each day for important decisions, it’s easier to make choices from a place of clarity.
And Be Intentional About Less Critical Ones
The less critical decisions, like which plates to use or kid to start bedtime with, I’ve systematized. And I relegate especially draining decisions, like what shoes to order or groceries to buy, until after the kids are asleep. Because I’d rather not clutter my thoughts with these less strategic choices when I have other priorities and childcare coverage.
Systematize Everything You Can
If you’ve ever listened to the Tim Ferris podcast, you’ve probably heard him say, “make the one decision that removes a hundred decisions.” And that advice helped me streamline a lot of repeat choices with systems.
Like a system for meals, including dinner, because you really don’t need to cook a unique meal every night. When to volunteer my time, how to respond to an unpaid speaking request and even, how many activities my kids can be in at once. So, in this wild season, there are things that you can do to lessen decision fatigue.
You may think emerging with your sanity from the blurry sleep training years, is the ‘finish line’ but then, activity madness takes hold. And you’ll feel compelled to enroll your kids in everything. So, pause, breathe, and think critically about kids’ activities before you sign up.
And set some limits that work not only for them, their energy, and interests, but for you. How busy do you want to be on the weekends if you’re over scheduled all week long? Will your child’s life feel incomplete without fencing lessons? Right, probably not.
Yes, Even for the Kids
I agree to one Saturday pre-scheduled activity. So, one child can be in the Saturday-sport-of-choice, at any given time. The other activities must fit during the week or we don’t do them. It’s not super popular with my kids. But it’s a boundary that helps reduce my stress levels. And the decision fatigue that comes from finding, scheduling, arranging rides and buying equipment for, their activities. It’s okay for your family to have opinions and needs but if you’re the doer or the planner, it’s your precious hours on the line. Can you have a weekend formula?
Yes, remember we’re talking about your time. So, let’s declare you Queen of the rules, okay? Figure out how you can enjoy and not feel overwhelmed by family activities. For example, on Saturdays without birthday parties or sports, my kids can watch television. And, enjoy a ‘pre-breakfast’ snack which allows me to go for a longer run and cook at brunchier time.
And then, we always do our local park or library, after lunch. Followed by snack, baths and screentime, for the kids while I prep dinner. That’s the formula. So, I don’t have to spend the mental energy planning fresh entertainment each week.
Spouse-source Whenever Possible
If you are partnered, what can your partner take over? Whether it’s pick up, drop off, meals, doctors’ visits, school forms or scheduling, there’s no glory in doing everything yourself. Yes, spouse-sourcing can be really complicated. Because of the emotional weight shifting established household roles carries.
But there are wonderful systems to help you reimagine what you need to do. And operationalize in-home equity. And if you’re a Mom partnered with a Dad, change how you model and discuss what have been traditionally gendered roles.
And Memorialize Your Self-Care
What can you put onto your calendar, from the top of the Mom’s Hierarchy of Needs? Whether it’s reading an inspiring book, catching up with a friend, going for a walk, meditating, or just sitting in the bliss of silence, schedule it. Put it on your calendar to block the time. And if you’re feeling adventurous, make it a recurring meeting with yourself.
It doesn’t mean that you won’t have conflicts. You will but that time will begin to feel like your commitment to you. And you won’t have to agonize over trying to ‘fit’ whatever ‘it’ is onto your schedule. Or even decide what you want to do in the moment. So, less decision fatigue and more time for mental, physical and emotional health.
So, pick something from your daily routine to turn into a system. And reclaim more peace and mental energy.
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