This 1 Thing May Be Wearing Parents Out Everywhere

This 1 Thing May Be Wearing Parents Out Everywhere

It starts before the baby is even born: Where will you give birth? Who will be in attendance? Bottle or breast? Co-sleeper or crib? The choices you have to make accumulate, forming a huge, intimidating snowball that threatens to flatten you. The potential consequences of each decision weigh heavily, as they are no longer simply about your own preferences, but your child’s future.

The average person makes more than 35,000 decisions each day, Dr. Lisa MacLean, chief wellness officer at Henry Ford Health in Michigan, told HuffPost. “And each decision — no matter how small — requires time and energy,” she said.

If you find yourself so overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices you have to make on a given day that you feel unable to make even one more decision, you may be experiencing what is known as “decision fatigue” ― though it can be tricky to separate this phenomenon from the general stress of parenting.

Here is what you need to know about decision fatigue, and some tips on how to minimize its impact in your life.

How does “decision fatigue” happen?

Studies have shown that people’s capacity to make thoughtful decisions diminishes as the day wears on. A 2011 study involving an Israeli parole board found that board members were more likely to grant parole requests in the morning, and after breaks for food. The theory is that people’s minds expend energy, like a muscle, when they make decisions, and that after a lot of decisions, an exhausted mind works less effectively. In the case of the parole board members, when they were hungry or tired, they seemed to skew toward the “safe,” or default choice of keeping the prisoners incarcerated.

“Decision fatigue occurs when decision making becomes increasingly difficult,” MacLean said. “Essentially you make so many decisions that you become drained.”

The result can be an inability to decide — decision or choice “paralysis.” People may defer to a default option, like the members of the Israeli parole board, or they may start to make choices impulsively. Others might procrastinate or attempt to avoid making a decision at all, MacLean said.

How do parents experience “decision fatigue”?

If you’re stymied by deciding what to make for dinner, it’s possible that decision fatigue is to blame.

“Just think about the number of decisions a parent makes in the morning alone before their children [go to] school. They then work all day — both within and often outside the home and then pivot back to trying to effectively parent after a full day’s work,” MacLean said, noting that this stress may be multiplied for single parents.

“You might notice that your own tank is on E before your kids even get home from school,” she continued.

But the stress you’re experiencing may not simply be a product of the quantity of decisions you’re making.

“While I believe that the mind can fatigue, I don’t think this is always due to the specific number of choices made or the specific time of day,” Eva M. Krockow, professor of psychology at the University of Leichester in the U.K., told HuffPost.

Other factors, she explained, can also make decision-making difficult. “When it comes to parenting, there are lots of different sources of information out there, including information on internet forums and social media. Some of this information is conflicting. It’s a hugely complex cognitive task to make sense of all this information and reach decisions around parenting styles, school choices or even food choices.”

Given these challenges, it’s not surprising for “parents to feel overwhelmed and paralyzed,” Krockow continued.

In other words, if you’re struggling with a choice, it may be that the number of decisions you’ve already made that day is to blame — but it might also just be a tricky decision. No amount of minimizing choices throughout the day will help you decide what to do about child care when all of the options are too expensive, for example.

What can you do to minimize the impact of decision fatigue in day-to-day life?

You can’t always make the work of parenting any easier, but you can sometimes give your brain a break by limiting the number of choices you have to make each day, or trying to schedule them strategically.

Krockow and MacLean made the following suggestions:

  1. Set up routines. “Creating routines will allow you to move throughout your day without having to think about a decision,” MacLean said. You might wake up at the same time every day, eat the same breakfast every day, exercise and go to bed at the same time every day, for example.
  2. Make big decisions in the morning, or at the time that’s best for you. Since the research shows that our decision-making capacity diminishes as the day goes on, it makes sense for most of us to hold off on big decisions until the morning. But some people might find that they are too tired in the morning, and another time of day is best for them. “It’s important to understand personal decision tendencies and realize when one’s own willpower is at its lowest – this is likely to be different for different people,” Krockow said.
  3. Use a decision-making strategy. “One common heuristic would be to rely on ‘social feedback’ or reputation,” Krockow explained. If choosing a school, for example, you’d rely on the word of trusted parents instead of reports and rankings online. You can simplify your process “by focusing on a number of key criteria rather than trying to weigh up lots of different advantages and disadvantages,” she said.
  4. Limit the number of choices. This is a great strategy for helping kids make decisions — and managing their behavior. If you’re serving breakfast, instead of saying, “What do you want to eat?” you might say, “Would you like cereal or a bagel?” Instead of asking what they want to do (knowing it probably involves an iPad) you could say, “Would you like to play a game or color now?” You can use this strategy to make your own life simpler, too. MacLean recalled that her son liked to eat salami and cheese, so that’s what she gave him for his lunch. “He ate salami and cheese every day of high school! It made it easier for me and cut down on the number of decisions I had to make.”
  5. Plan in advance. This can look like a grocery list or a weekly meal plan, and can also involve your kids. They can lay out their school clothes, set the table for breakfast or pack up their lunches the night before, for example.
  6. Delegate when possible. In MacLean’s family, her husband and children are in charge of making dinner one night per week. “Thursday is my day off from making dinner. They can make anything and I don’t complain. We eat pizza a lot on Thursdays, but it is so freeing to think to myself, ‘It’s Thursday, I don’t have to decide what to make for dinner.’”
  7. Don’t neglect your own self-care. If you’re feeling worn out, decision-making will feel harder. “Get enough sleep, avoid skipping meals, get sunshine, move your body, use social media in a thoughtful but limited way,” MacLean advised.
  8. Go easy on yourself. Remember that parenting is hard, and not everything can be made easier with a hack. “One of the best things we can do is give ourselves — and others — the benefit of the doubt,” MacLean said. “We’re doing the best we can, and we can’t ask for much more. Take a deep breath when you need it. Recognize you don’t have all the answers.”

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