Michelle Bellamy: Getting a case of decision fatigue

Have you ever had one of those days where you make it through the day with no real issues, everything was fine on the surface, but you just feel like your brain has decided to stop processing new information? There’s this thing called Decision Fatigue that is known to affect teachers- We make so many decisions every minute of every day that by the time we get home our brains just try to take shortcuts, fall asleep, or simply stop working at all. The result can also include being irrationally angry with loved ones, making unhealthy food choices, and splurging on retail therapy, which is my go-to. I imagine that it affects all walks of life to some extent.

In my case, it comes in the form of a million and one questions every day, from “Can I use the restroom?” to “What’s the answer to problem seven?” I also have to make decisions at the drop of a hat based upon things that could not be foreseen. Our school was back in session today, and we had very low attendance. I had literally one student show up for one of my classes.

The first day of school is a great time to get some classroom management and expectations taken care of, and that had been my initial plan. The problem is, If I had done my initial plan today, then I’d be repeating it all tomorrow or later in the week- whenever I have higher attendance. That wouldn’t really be fair to anyone since my students and I set rules and expectations together, and this one lone student doesn’t need to hear everything twice OR make up all the rules himself.

So I had a choice- either completely waste our hour together or come up with a new plan at the drop of a hat. We ended up basically talking about his goals for the school year and how we can help him get there. I used a SMART Goal setting graphic organizer I happened to have on hand, and we started a plan. That stuff works out, right? But the fact is, those types of decisions and spur of the moment creativity leave me absolutely burned out by the end of the day. Then I come home.

I come home to three intelligent and loving daughters who all also need to ask me questions, make plans, and tell me about their days. I have to make dinner and ensure they complete chores. Basically, I’m drained, completely and utterly, but I still have a whole evening left, and I need to be present for it.

I started thinking that there must be some ways to curb the effects of decision fatigue, so I did some research, and because I want to help out fellow readers, I’m sharing some of what I found helpful here.

The first idea is to simply minimize everything possible. For me, that means clearing out my shoes and wardrobe. Yes, decision making starts with getting dressed in the morning. I have about 60% of my wardrobe that doesn’t get worn. If I get rid of the extra stuff, my decision is 60% easier. Another way to minimize is to recognize the questions that get asked a lot or the decision that has to be made more than once a day, and come up with a blanket answer. One example of this is that I never say no to a restroom break request. That’s one decision I don’t even have to make any more. It used to be an issue at least ten times a day.

Set daily routines and expectations that remove the need to make choices. Wake up at the same time every day. Determine what things you normally do at which time, and make your plans for the rest of the day early in the morning. That way the hardest work is already done. After that, just follow the routine. This is especially helpful with exercise. I’m not deciding whether or when to exercise; it’s simply in my routine that I exercise directly after I get home, or at four o’clock, or after dinner- whatever fits the schedule. As part of this, set up daily to-do lists, and if a decision needs to be made that is not on the to-do list for the day, feel free to add it to tomorrow’s, allowing less chance of spontaneous decision making and a little bit of freedom to choose which decisions are really worth the time.

Once a decision has been made, stick with the plan. Keep working with that decision. I know that sometimes things aren’t super easy. The challenges that one path opens up might lead to remorse or mind changes. Simply keep moving forward. Do not revisit the initial decision. I actually made this mistake today. I started writing three different articles because I didn’t really know what I wanted to write about. My brain was refusing to cooperate even after I went shopping. I wrote five whole paragraphs and used absolutely none of them, wasting approximately 45 minutes of my life. If I had done this research before today, I’d have stuck with my initial article idea, and I’d be done by now.

Planning ahead seems to be a sort of cure-all for decision fatigue. These decisions must be made, but if they’re made from a place of relaxed planning and contemplation, they will run far more smoothly. Write those lists and plan clothes and lunches the night before or even the week before. Try batch cooking. Deal with common decisions before they come up and save that energy for those unexpected and unavoidable true emergency decisions.

We need to eat. We need to do our jobs, we need to get dressed. We have people and obligations in our lives that have been there for years. These things aren’t a decision that should stress us out.

Now that I’ve done my research, I think perhaps I’ll go set out my clothes for tomorrow. I have a lot of work to do and positive routines to set up before I’m even close to getting out of the fatigue zone.

Bellamy is a 35-year-old mother of three girls. She’s a teacher at a high school, which serves students with mental health and behavioral issues. She also guides walking tours in Over the Rhine. A couple of her favorite hobbies are a “little unusual,” such as ghost hunting and special effects make-up. In her free time, she likes reading, writing, drawing, or hunting thrift and antique stores for odd things.