We Don’t Just Have Quarantine Fatigue, We Have Decision Fatigue Too

by Christine Organ
Originally Published: 
We Don’t Just Have Quarantine Fatigue, We Have Decision Fatigue Too
Scary Mommy and Roy Hsu/Getty

Our one and only family car broke down the other day. Under normal circumstances (whatever those are), the decline of an old-as-dirt car creates a bunch of questions. Do we fix it or trade it in? Do we get another uncool-but-functional minivan? Or do we look into a hybrid? What can we even afford?

But in the current situation, this already-fraught decision is a breeding ground for even more questions. Are the dealerships even open? What about mechanics? Will they be wearing masks? How the hell are we supposed to do a test drive? Do we bring gloves and Purell and Lysol wipes? Will we have to encounter another human? And if so, will I have a panic attack, or be able to act like a reasonable human?

There are just so many decisions.

Researchers say that the average American makes about 35,000 decisions a day. My unscientific, but no doubt fairly accurate, assessment tells me the average mom probably makes about 10 times that many. The average mom dealing with a many-months long quarantine caused by a global pandemic? Well, that number has to be somewhere around eleventy billion. Give or take a few.

We were already maxed the fuck out with the decisions and emotional labor of running a household. Do we sign our kids up for camp this summer? One week or two? Mornings or all day? The cheaper one all the way across town or the more expensive one closer to home? Are the kids reading enough? Getting too much screen time? Should I be sneaking vegetables into their pasta? Are we all out of Doritos and ice cream?

But now every single thing we do requires careful decision-making, along with a side of plotting and scheming, so that we can avoid COVID. We don’t just have quarantine fatigue, we have decision fatigue as well. And by “fatigue,” I mean it-feels-like-our-head-might-literally-start-spinning-off-our-neck-and-fly-right-into-the-clouds delirium.

It’s too fucking much.

It isn’t just the big decisions about whether it’s safe to send our kid to daycare when it reopens or whether to reschedule that much-needed dental procedure we’ve been putting off; it’s the small decisions we didn’t even think about before. Things we used to do on autopilot now require careful deliberation and planning. We don’t just run into the grocery store for a couple bottles of wine and the expensive cheese; now we spend hours mapping out and gearing up for a voyage to the grocery store once every 12 days. Do I have my mask? Yep. Purell? Two bottles. Hazmat suit? Let me just order one up on Amazon…

All these decisions are taking a real toll too. We’re cracking under the pressure. Well, I’m cracking, that’s for sure.

Simply put: we have to think too much about too many things. We have to make way to many decisions.

This thinking too much about too much – or cognitive overload — can cause feelings of anxiety, irritability, stress and fatigue, a Beth Darnall, Ph.D., associate professor and psychologist at Stanford University School of Medicine, told TODAY. Or if you’re like me, it can turn you into a grouchy drama queen.

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

No doubt. Even a simple walk around the block is fraught with a shit ton of decisions that would never have taken up one iota of mental space before. It can be so overwhelming that sometimes it just feels easier to do nothing and go nowhere.

But we do need to eventually emerge from our cocoons. States are starting to open up. We miss our friends and extended family. We may soon need to go back to our workplace. All of this creates even more questions that require more decisions. Honestly, just thinking about it makes me want to crawl into a hole for the next 12-18 months.

So what the hell are we supposed to do about all these decisions? Other than build an underground bunker, of course.

Experts recommend relying on routines and lists as much as possible. And the more decisions you can remove, the better. Without realizing it, I’ve been wearing the same rotation of three shirts and yoga pants for the past 10 weeks. Figuring out what to wear each day is one less thing to think about.

For bigger decisions, experts say to establish criteria for big decisions, and then once you’ve made a decision, let it go. Stop fretting about whether it was the right one or not.

Cancel your August vacation instead of wondering if you’ll be able to go. Or tell your boss you’d feel safer working from home for another month instead of returning to the office. Then stop wondering if it was the right decision or not.

You could also try the 100 percent rule — coined by Clayton Christensen, a former Harvard Business School professor — which says: “It’s easier to hold your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold them 98 percent of the time.” When it comes to covid concerns, you might find it easier to make firm and unbending rules, like no playdate rules or only visits with family. Or that you will always wear a mask when you leave the house. No exceptions.

Decision fatigue is real and it is brutal. But there are ways we can cope with it. We’ve just got to find what works for us. Unfortunately, figuring that out also requires making more decisions.

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