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Alcohol and Mental Health

Decision Fatigue: What It Is and How To Overcome It

September 17, 2023
21 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
September 17, 2023
21 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
September 17, 2023
21 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
September 17, 2023
21 min read
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Reframe Content Team
September 17, 2023
21 min read

You’ve just pulled through a grueling workday, endured an hour-long commute, and now you're standing in front of the fridge contemplating what to have for dinner. As you open the fridge door, a bottle of wine catches your eye. Just one glass wouldn’t hurt, would it? Before you know it, that “one glass” becomes two or three, and any motivation to kick back the alcohol habit is gone for the day.

Sound familiar? In the neverending decision-making that characterizes modern life, the phenomenon known as "decision fatigue" often pulls the strings, especially when it comes to habits like drinking. But don’t worry: today we’re discussing science-backed ways to navigate this conundrum and make decisions towards a healthier you.

What Is Decision Fatigue?

Decision fatigue isn't simply confined to choosing between a glass of wine or sparkling water at the end of a long day. In fact, it infiltrates multiple facets of daily life, impacting not just personal habits, but also relationships, professional output, and overall well-being.

The Science Behind Willpower Depletion

Let's dive into the scientific underpinnings a bit. Baumeister et al. (1998) coined the term "ego depletion" to describe the idea that self-control or willpower operates like a finite resource. In their seminal study, they found that subjects who resisted the temptation of cookies and chocolate were later less able to persist in a problem-solving task. This led to the hypothesis that exerting willpower in one task depletes a general resource, leaving less of it for subsequent tasks.

For example, imagine you're on a strict diet, and you've committed to not eating any sweets or unhealthy snacks. One day, you find a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies in your office lunchroom. You love chocolate chip cookies, and they smell amazing. But you remember your diet commitment, and with a tremendous amount of willpower, you resist the temptation and walk away without taking a cookie.

Later in the evening, you find yourself needing to study for an upcoming exam. Normally, you'd aim to study for a couple of hours. However, you find it unusually difficult to concentrate. After just 30 minutes, you feel drained and decide to stop studying and watch TV instead.

In this example, the act of resisting the cookies earlier in the day depleted your reserve of self-control or willpower, making it harder for you to persist in your studying later on. Your willpower was stretched thin by the initial act of resistance, which left less of this "finite resource" for the subsequent task of studying. 

The Neurochemistry of Choices

The brain plays a pivotal role in decision-making, with specific neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin influencing how choices are made. Exerting self-control tends to lower levels of glucose in the brain, which is the primary energy source for neural activity. A study by Gailliot et al. (2007) found that replenishing glucose levels could actually restore self-control, giving a physiological explanation for why making many decisions can be so exhausting.

Daily Decisions: They Add Up!

From the moment the alarm buzzes in the morning to the final glance at a smartphone before sleep, modern life is replete with micro-decisions. What to wear, what to eat, how to prioritize work tasks — the list is never-ending. Each of these decisions, no matter how trivial, taps into the brain's decision-making reservoir. By the time evening rolls around, the well might be running dry, which often results in opting for the path of least resistance: pouring that extra glass of wine, binging on unhealthy snacks, or zoning out in front of the TV.

The Slippery Slope of Impaired Decisions

When decision fatigue sets in, the quality of our choices deteriorates — and our capacity for future planning also takes a hit. A study by Hagger et al. (2010) found that ego depletion negatively affects future planning, attention, and task performance. It's a snowball effect: poor decisions deplete resources, which leads to further poor decisions, creating a cycle that's hard to break.

Vulnerable Moments: Late Afternoons and Beyond

Research has identified certain times of day when people are most susceptible to decision fatigue. It turns out that self-control and the ability to make good choices actually follow a diurnal pattern, generally peaking in the morning and declining as the day progresses. This explains why, by the time wine o'clock comes around, the willpower muscle is not just tired — it's utterly fatigued.

Decision Fatigue and Social Context

Interestingly, the social environment can either alleviate or exacerbate decision fatigue. Supportive relationships, work settings that foster autonomy, and a social milieu that bolsters self-esteem all act as buffers. However, environments rife with stress, criticism, and high demands can accelerate the rate at which decision-making resources are drained.

Combating Decision Fatigue Through Decision Avoidance

Decision avoidance or decision simplification is a strategy to reduce decision fatigue by minimizing or automating trivial choices to conserve mental energy for more important tasks. Methods include adopting a minimalist wardrobe, meal planning, automating recurring decisions like bill payments, and time-blocking activities. By delegating, limiting options, or using heuristics for minor choices, we can streamline our decision-making process, preserving our cognitive resources and enabling better focus and performance in areas that truly matter. Overall, decision avoidance aims to improve well-being by prioritizing meaningful decisions over trivial ones.

Understanding the multifaceted nature of decision fatigue helps us implement changes that facilitate better choices, especially when it comes to ingrained habits like alcohol consumption. The objective isn't just to make fewer decisions, but to make better ones by mitigating the factors that lead to decision fatigue.

What Is Decision Fatigue? A Deeper Look at Alcohol’s Role

On the surface, the relationship between decision fatigue and alcohol consumption might seem indirect or even non-existent. However, upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that the two are intricately connected, impacting each other in ways that could either hinder or aid in the quest for healthier drinking habits.

The Willpower Trap

Alcohol consumption, especially habitual drinking, often comes under the purview of "automatic behavior," with little conscious thought involved. Automatic behaviors are regulated by the brain's reward system, which releases dopamine to reinforce actions it finds pleasurable. When trying to reduce or quit alcohol, conscious effort and self-control must override this ingrained neurological pattern. This, in turn, depletes your limited willpower reservoir. What's particularly challenging is that you’re also expending willpower in various other tasks throughout the day. When faced with the choice to drink or not to drink, the odds are stacked against you, thanks to decision fatigue.

Timing Is Everything

Time of day plays a crucial role. Many people find that their craving for a drink peaks in the late afternoon or evening — coincidentally, around the same time that decision fatigue usually sets in. This is no coincidence! It’s a synchronization of factors that work against the goal of cutting back on alcohol or quitting.

The Emotional Quotient

It's worth mentioning the role of emotions. Emotional decisions, such as those triggered by stress or negative feelings, often require higher amounts of self-control to regulate. Work-related stress, relationship issues, and regular daily hassles can compound decision fatigue, making it more difficult to resist a drink.

A Cascade of Choices

Another complicating factor is the domino effect begun by the first drink. Alcohol impairs judgment and diminishes self-control, traits already compromised by decision fatigue. After the first drink, each subsequent decision about having another becomes progressively harder to make responsibly.

The Cycle of Relapse and Resolution

Succumbing to temptation can result in negative emotions like guilt or self-blame, which (ironically) many people try to "drown" by consuming more alcohol, thus perpetuating a cycle. This entire sequence often begins with decision fatigue, which undermines the initial resolve to not drink.

Studies Speak

A 2012 study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research found a direct relationship between depleted self-control resources and increased alcohol consumption. Participants who engaged in tasks that depleted their self-control were more likely to drink alcohol afterward, supporting the concept that decision fatigue can lead to lapses in attempts to control drinking.

Decision Fatigue: How To Combat It

Understanding this link between decision fatigue and alcohol consumption provides valuable insights. It emphasizes the need for strategies designed to conserve mental energy, especially at vulnerable moments, as a part of any effort to reduce or quit drinking. Here are seven ways we can do just that.

1. Plan Alcohol-Free Days

Reserve certain days of the week as alcohol-free days. Mark these on a physical calendar, stick a note on your refrigerator, or use reminders on your phone (which you can do through the Reframe app!). The brilliance of this strategy lies in its preemptive nature: the decision to abstain is made well in advance, eliminating the need for willpower on the designated day. This ensures that no mental energy is expended in making the “drink or not to drink” decision when the day arrives. It’s already set in stone, leaving your cognitive resources available for other tasks.

2. Automate Meal Choices

Meal planning can seem like a minor chore, but every decision, no matter how small, contributes to decision fatigue. Automate this aspect of your life by planning meals for the week or opting for a meal kit delivery service. Not only does this eliminate decision making, but a well-fed brain is much better at making good decisions. Research has shown that low glucose levels impair self-control, increasing the likelihood of making poor choices like overindulging in alcohol. By automating meal choices, you remove one more variable from the equation, preserving your willpower for the more significant decisions like abstaining from alcohol or drinking less.

3. Set Up an Alcohol-Free Zone

An environment that supports your goals can be a game-changer. Designate an entirely alcohol-free space in your home: a particular room, a comfy reading chair, or even a mocktail station stocked with all your favorite non-alcoholic beverages. The psychology behind this is rooted in environmental cues that influence behavior. When the choice to not drink is seamlessly integrated into your surroundings, the decision becomes much easier. The decision is almost outsourced to the environment, reducing the cognitive load on you.

4. Fine-Tune Decision-Making With Micro-Goals

Broad goals like "I'll drink less" sound ambitious, but they often lack the actionable specificity needed for successful implementation. The brain struggles with ambiguity and, in the absence of a clear plan, it’s more likely to revert to familiar habits when fatigued. Instead of making sweeping declarations, break the goal into smaller, manageable decisions such as "I'll only have one drink at dinner" or "I'll choose a mocktail at the office party." Small, concrete decisions reduce the cognitive load, making each decision less taxing on the brain's finite pool of resources. Numerous studies, including one by psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, underscore the effectiveness of breaking down large goals into specific actions for better self-regulation. This strategy makes it easier to monitor progress and make course corrections, preserving willpower for other decisions throughout the day.

5. Embrace the Buddy System

Embarking on a journey to change your drinking habits doesn't have to be lonely. Partnering with a friend who shares the same goal offers multiple benefits. First, it cuts down on the number of solo decisions we have to make, reducing overall decision fatigue. Also, it introduces an accountability factor that can act as an additional layer of reinforcement. Studies have found that accountability to someone else can significantly improve the chances of reaching a set goal. The mere act of having to report your choices to someone else can act as a powerful deterrent against poor decisions. This dual-pronged approach provides a built-in safety net that makes each step of the journey easier to navigate.

6. Track and Reflect

In the world of behavioral psychology, what gets measured gets managed. Maintaining a simple journal or even a digital log that tracks each drinking episode (which you can do through Reframe!) — and equally important, each successfully avoided opportunity to drink — can provide a goldmine of insights. A visual representation of choices, plotted over time, serves as a continuous feedback loop. This tactile involvement with your goal provides both a record and, importantly, a sense of accomplishment, reinforcing positive behavior. It's akin to the dopamine release associated with achieving micro-goals, further strengthening resolve and diminishing decision fatigue.

7. Embrace Mindfulness Practices

While eliminating decision fatigue may not be feasible, certain practices mitigate its impact. Activities like 10-minute meditation sessions or even a brisk jog around the block act as cognitive refreshers. Research has found that engaging in mindfulness activities restores self-control and decision-making abilities. These brief moments of respite recharge the decision-making battery, providing new energy to make healthier choices about alcohol consumption.

Decision Fatigue: Parting Thoughts

Adopting these strategic approaches makes the battle against decision fatigue less daunting. Each action item complements the other, creating an interwoven defense specifically designed to outsmart decision fatigue. The trick lies not just in making fewer decisions, but in making more efficient ones — and making sure they align with our overarching goal of reducing alcohol consumption.

Summary FAQs

1. What is decision fatigue?

Decision fatigue refers to the decrease in the quality of decisions made after a prolonged period of decision-making. It's like a muscle that gets tired with use, making it harder to exercise self-control and choose not to drink.

2. How does decision fatigue affect my ability to change my drinking habits?

When you make many decisions throughout the day, your mental resources for willpower become depleted. By the time you face the decision to drink or not, you might be more susceptible to giving in to temptation.

3. What is the benefit of planning alcohol-free days?

By choosing specific days to abstain from alcohol and marking them in advance, you remove the need for willpower on those days. This pre-commitment preserves your mental energy for other tasks.

4. How can automating meal choices help me?

Meal planning eliminates a minor yet impactful decision from your daily routine. A well-fed brain is also better at decision-making, boosting your willpower for more significant choices like avoiding alcohol.

5. Why should I create an alcohol-free zone at home?

Designating an alcohol-free area makes the choice to abstain easier. The decision to not drink becomes integrated into your environment, reducing the cognitive load on you.

6. What is the role of accountability in changing my drinking habits?

Partnering with a friend who has the same goal can cut down the number of solo decisions you make and introduce a level of accountability that reinforces positive choices.

7. Can mindfulness practices help me make better choices?

Yes, activities like meditation or a quick jog can act as cognitive refreshers, recharging your mental battery and making it easier to choose healthier behaviors, such as reducing or ending your alcohol consumption.

Drink Less, Thrive More — Download Reframe!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

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The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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