It's not just quarantine that's getting us down — it's decision fatigue, too

Experts explain why decision fatigue and cognitive overload are so overwhelming, and how we can gain control.
When things are out of our control, we’re not deciding, we’re just worrying.
When things are out of our control, we’re not deciding, we’re just worrying.Getty Images

I’m finding that with this pandemic, there’s a never-ending list of things I need to think through and decide. Things like:

  • Do I have a clean mask to wear when I go shopping?
  • Is it safe to take my cats to the vet for their checkup?
  • What can we have for dinner that we can cook without running to the store?
  • How can I help my kids get ready to go back to school in the fall? What if they don’t go back?

These questions spin through my head, breaking my concentration during the day and waking me up at night. And I bet you have your own list of questions — big and small — running through your mind. All these decisions we need to make while we’re living through this pandemic are wearing us down. It’s overwhelming.

“These days even the smallest of decisions can stop us in our tracks,” says Melanie Ross Mills, a family relationship expert in Dallas.

This cognitive overload can lead to feelings of anxiety, irritability, stress and fatigue, according to Beth Darnall, Ph.D., associate professor and psychologist at Stanford University School of Medicine. “It requires adaptation to a level we haven’t experienced,” she says. “The most overused word with COVID is ‘unprecedented,’ but we don’t have a template for this level of cognitive overload.”

We can’t just go back to our old ways of doing things. But we can find ways to decrease the number of decisions we have to make. Here’s what the experts say.

Set up routines

When we have systems in place, we can eliminate some of the burden of making decisions. We make the decisions once, and then they run on autopilot. Susan Bernstein, a licensed social worker in Connecticut and Massachusetts and an adjunct faculty member at Boston University, says it’s helpful for us to automate as many decisions as possible now, because as areas start reopening, we’ll be faced with new rounds of decisions.

We can make it routine to:

  • Wash our masks as soon as we get home, and leave clean masks by the door.
  • Choose a day to go to the stores and batch our errands to minimize our trips out of the house.
  • Keep a running grocery list.
  • Pick a date for grocery deliveries. For example, Bernstein discovered she can reserve a Costco Instacart delivery two weeks in advance, and then add items to her cart before the delivery date.
  • Set a day for house cleaning. “A clean house makes a lot of people feel better,” Bernstein says. “It resets the energy in the home.”
  • Run the dishwasher at night so the dishes are clean in the morning.
  • Schedule alone time for each family member, even if that means “signing out” a room for 30 minutes or an hour.

Make lists

When we sit down and organize our thoughts, everything starts to settle, and we can make fewer decisions.

“I’m a big fan of writing everything down,” Bernstein says. That’s because information that’s swamping our brains can cause unnecessary distress. When you write something down, you have one less thing to fret about. “We can save our energy for important things like safety and maintaining our balance and our family’s balance,” she says.

Plus, it’s satisfying to cross things off our lists. “It’s always so nice to take that pen or dry erase marker and put a line through something,” Bernstein says.

Build in margins

These days, a lot of us are rushing through every minute. We’re tackling work projects, helping children with schoolwork, keeping our households running smoothly and caring for at-risk relatives.

It might be a challenge but taking a few minutes to stave off the feeling of being overwhelmed is important. “Leave space within your physical day, as well as in your mental state, so that you have enough bandwidth and energy to clearly make effective, productive, healthy decisions for yourself and those around you,” Mills says.

Factor in rewards

“In the middle of all this decision distress, where do you get a reward?” Bernstein asks. She likes the idea of routine nights when you order takeout or delivery. “If Thursday is dinner delivery day, that’s one less thing you have to ponder over, and you’re supporting a local restaurant — that’s a win-win,” she says.

Decide not to decide

When things are out of our control, we’re not deciding, we’re just worrying. We don’t know when our workplaces, schools, and shops will open, and we don’t know what those places will look like when they do. It’s frustrating — as humans, we don’t like uncertainty — but as much as we can, we need to try not to let our worries drain our mental energy.

Let it go once you decide

You’ve made your choice. Now don’t rethink it. “A lot of people have buyer’s remorse,” Bernstein says. “If you’re buying $200 worth of board games so your family functions in a happier state, that’s a good thing.”