Decisions, Decisions…

***If you are visiting for the first time or for ICLW, feel free to check out my previous post that sums up my IF journey so far***

A few days back a wonderful fellow blogger sent me an email with this link, an article in the New York Times by John Tierney “Do you suffer from decision fatigue?”.  It is one of the most fascinating articles I have read, and I encourage everyone to check it out.  For the time being I will do my best to sum up the article in my own words, along with heavy quoting.

The basic premise is that as we make decisions through the day (even the mundane ones) it uses up mental energy and causes decision fatigue.  “These experiments demonstrated that there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control.  When people fended off the temptation to scarf down M&M’s or freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, they were then less able to resist other temptations … Willpower turned out to be more than a folk concept of metaphor.  It really was a form of mental energy that could be exhausted.”

Decision fatigue hits and we either take the instant-gratification route, or avoid making a decision all together.  “Part of the resistance against making decisions comes from our fear of giving up options … To compromise is a complex human ability and therefore one of the first to decline when willpower is depleted.”

The studies with lower-income families vs. high-income families especially fascinated me.  “Shopping can be especiallyn tiring for the poor, who have to struggle continually with trade-offs …Spears and other researchers argue that this sort of decision fatigue is a major – and hitherto ignored – factor in trapping people in poverty.  Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into middle class … In one study, he found that when the poor and the rich go shopping, the poor are much more likely to eat during the shopping trip.  This might seem like confirmation of their weak character … But if a trip to the supermarket induces more decision fatigue in the poor than in the rich – because each purchase requires more mental trade-offs – by the time they reach the cash register, they’ll have less willpower left to resist the Mars bars and Skittles.” Most people struggling with infertility, unless they are incredibly wealthy, find themselves suddenly spending large amounts of money and having to re-budget and re-prioritize spending habits that have been in place for a long time.

Through a number of research tests, they came to the conclusion that glucose may help, and so did a test with a number of women who were dieting. “Skeptics pointed out that the brain’s overall use of energy remains about the same regardless of what a person is doing, which doesn’t square easily with the notion of depleted energy affecting willpower …Then they [the dieters] were again shown pictures of food, and the new round of brain scans revealed the effects of ego depletion: more activity in the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s reward center, and a corresponding decrease in the amygdala, which ordinarily helps control impulses.  the food’s appeal registered more strongly while impulse control weakened – not a good combination for anyone on a diet .. Heatherton’s results did much more than provide additional confirmation that glucose is a vital part of willpower; they helped solve the puzzle over how glucose could work without global changes in the brain’s total energy use.  Apparently ego depletion causes activity to rise in some parts of the brain and to decline in others …It responds more strongly to immediate rewards and pays less attention to long-term prospects.

As someone who has spent a lifetime struggling with weight, I found this research hit close to home.  “They start out each day with virtuous intentions, resisting croissants at breakfast and dessert at lunch, but each act of resistance further lowers their willpower … The mere expectation of having to exert self-control makes people hunger for sweets … The problem is that what we identify as sugar doesn’t help as much over the course of the day as the steadier supply of glucose we would get from eating proteins and other nutritious foods.”

The other thing we run into, even if you are not struggling with weight, is the shear number of times we make decisions and resist temptation.  “Desire turns out to be the norm, not the exception … Many of their desires were ones that the men and women were trying to resist, and the more willpower people expanded, the more likely they became to yield to the next temptation that came alone.”

So what’s a person to do?  We all have to make so many decisions in a day!  “When there are few decisions, there was less decision fatigue.”  Now, this brings up an interesting point, not really addressed in the article but it came to my mind.  100+ years ago, you were born into a family, and had a career lined up from the day you came out of the womb.  Your daddy was a banker?  You would be a banker.  Your daddy was a carpenter?  You would be a carpenter.  You’re a woman?  Going to marry and have babies.  Or be a nurse or nanny.  And yes, that had to be frustrating and stifling, but it could also be very relaxing to have a path, a focus.  Today we are told we can be anything we want to be… but what if we want to be an Olympic Athlete, a Doctor and a Chef?  Trying to make such huge decisions is so incredibly overwhelming and draining, huge decisions that our fore-fathers and fore-mothers never had to deal with.

Then, of course, there is the added issue that as we go through our day, there is not any good clear-cut signal that we have hit decision fatigue, alerting us to the fact that perhaps we need to not make any more important decisions until after we have had something to eat. “Virtually no one has a gut-level sense of just how tiring it is to decide.  Big decisions, small decisions, they all add up … It’s not like getting winded or hitting the wall during a marathon.  Ego depletion manifests itself not as one feeling but rather as a propensity to experience everything more intensely”

Finally near the end they give some pointers about how to handle our crazy, fast-paced lives.  “studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower … they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices … they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions … Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low … if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach.” 

So how does this all tie back to infertility?  Well, besides all the endless “regular” decisions we make every day, we have to juggle huge, important, life-altering decisions on a monthly (sometimes weekly or daily!) basis, absolutely draining us of our ability to handle the decisions that come afterwards.  It’s no wonder infertile people struggle with money problems, marital problems, work problems, depression, anxiety… we have this giant boulder on our backs.  Even once we have made a decisions, it usually still pops up, running through our brains, as we contemplate “What if X happens?  What if Y happens?  What’s my back up plan?  How am I feeling?”  I feel so frustrated with myself sometimes because I feel like I do nothing all day but I’m just exhausted, all. the. time.  I feel that job hunting is stupid because I barely have time and energy for my life, let alone a job on top of it.  I do not thing this article is going me an excuse to do nothing, but it does give me comfort to know I’m not alone, I’m not “flawed” or “lazy” and “undeserving” of being fit, trim and healthy, or of having a career or of being a mother.  To be honest, I’m not really sure how to set up a super-regular schedule to allow me to eliminate mental effort.  For instance, when I get up I walk and feed the dogs, and then face the onslaught of  “what will I eat for breakfast?  then my snack 2 hours later?  then my lunch?” etc.  It would be easy if I had a bunch of pre-prepared meals that fit neatly into the diet I’m supposed to be following per doctors orders.  But I can’t afford to drop $100-200 on special foods.  So now every meal becomes this struggle of trying to keep it all balanced and tasty (without being monotonous and eating the same thing every day).  I feel like all the thought I put into my food every day is currently my biggest drainer, but I’m not sure how to stop it.  And then I start worrying about money.  Where else can I apply to?  Am I getting enough exercise?  Should I hang out with a friend to ease the depression or stay home and clean?  Or if I stay home, maybe I should job hunt?  But if I hang out with a friend, we could go for a walk and exercise.  Is that more important then a job or clean house?  This is usually about the time I end up doing something stupid like eating ice cream… *Sigh*

I know that the answer is a balance of all of it… I’m just not sure what that balance is.

The light at the end of the tunnel though, is knowing I AM NOT ALONE.  Being so grateful for this community where I can ramble on for 1500 words and know that someone out there is going to tell me I’m not alone.  They might make me laugh, they might have some great insight that makes me think, but I know without a doubt they will lift my spirits.  So today, my happiness is having all of you guys.  I love you all, and I’m enjoying ICLW, reading all these blogs and feeling connected.

Day 12 of 100 Days of Happiness.


10 responses to this post.

  1. Maybe you should set aside one morning per week to make up the meal plans for the week. That afternoon you grocery shop for the week. Then each day when you wake up, you know you’re having “x” for breakfast, “y” for your snack, etc. etc. and you already know the calorie count and nutrition into and you’re set.. and the next day, you’ll have “m” for breakfast, “n” for your snack, etc. etc. Takes all the decisions out of things for the next 6 days. so at least food decisions aren’t a daily stressor. just an idea!

    glad you liked the article – i totally related to it on so many levels as well!!


    • I absolutely love that idea. Admittedly I’ve had a hard time planning meals living alone. I am just very engrained to make meals for multiple people? If that makes sense? Not so much in quantity (I have no problem eating leftovers) but more in the entertaining aspect. If I’m going to go to all the trouble to plan a meal, it should be for someone else…. like I’m not important enough to plan a meal for just me? How did you handle meal planning when your husband was gone for work?


  2. Wow hon – what an absolutely fantastic, thought-provoking post. Thank you so much for sharing this! I’m emailing it to shmerson and it’s certainly given me some food for thought.


  3. […] Tulip has a great post about decision fatigue up on her blog. It has made me realize that I suffer from a new disease that I have just invented: […]


  4. Hello, I’m here from Mo’s blog and I just wanted to say thanks for introducing me to that article. It was fascinating. And I loved your post too. I’m definitely going to take all of this to heart when I catch myself on amazon or at the store after work.


  5. It’s funny, until I read this and started thinking about it, I never realized that I systematically minimize decisions in my life so that I do a lot of thing on autopilot. Example, all of my clothes are black/grey/white. I just have to reach into the closet for whatever is clean and hasn’t been worn yet that week. I almost never THINK about what to wear.

    As far as the food-plan-for-weight-loss decisions… I’ve managed this by forming a daily habit of:

    Breakfast = Smoothie
    Lunch = Salad
    Dinner = Whatever Sounds Tasty

    My breakfast smoothie is a banana, some OJ plus some frozen fruit. The only decision I have to make is which frozen fruit to use that day. Monday-Friday, I include a shot of wheatgrass.

    My lunch salad is lettuce, tomatoes, low-cal dressing plus either feta or nuts. I keep one dressing to pair with feta, one to pair with walnuts and one to pair with almonds. I only have to decide which dressing/protein appeals that day. If my CSA delivers cucumbers or radishes, I add that in too.

    Between them, the smoothie and salad are sufficiently low-cal that I don’t have to be *too* concerned about the dinner count.

    I manage not to snack by exerting willpower at the grocery store and NOT buying snack food to take home. I have willpower at the grocery store by only shopping immediately after eating (even it means dinner at the store before I hit the aisles). I also never carry cash, so vending machines have no power over me.

    I just realized how long this comment is… sorry!


    • Posted by BleedinTulip on August 27, 2011 at 3:13 pm

      No, don’t feel sorry! I love the long comment! What great feedback, I got a lot of great ideas! Thank you so much!


  6. […] think a lot of my stupidity can be acknowledged from Decision Fatigue.  (If you aren’t familiar with that post, do read it.  I can’t really sum it up)  The […]


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