How decision fatigue can affect your recovery

by Julie Myers, PsyD, MSCP

Licensed Clinical Psychologist in San Diego


Recent research on the topic of willpower shows that we, as human beings, have limited decision making capacity.  That is, in any given day, we may simply run-out of the mental energy that is required to make decisions.  Researcher Roy Baumeister, PhD calls this depletion of mental energy “decision fatigue.”

Every day, we make hundreds of decisions, from large to small.   Even something as simple as eating breakfast may entail many decisions, such as what, where, and how much to eat.   We need to make decisions about our personal selves, our work, our relationships, how we move about and relate in the world, and how to resist a temptation.  The more decisions we must make, the more mental energy we use up.  Making decisions, particularly making good decisions, becomes harder over the course of a day as our mental energy wanes.

So why is this important for recovery from substance abuse?   Because the choice to not use is a decision. Much of drinking/using is automatic, that is, we use simply because it is our habit to do so.  We step into the house after a long day, we have a drink or we get together with friends, we smoke a joint.  It may cross our minds not to use, but to not use requires a decision.  To say no, we must think about the consequences.  When our mental energy is low, we tend to act impulsively or do nothing different than usual.

We need to give ourselves the best chance at making good decisions, particularly when we are trying to change our relationship with drugs or alcohol.  Baumeister has shown that people with the best self-control set themselves up for success by conserving their mental energy.  For example, they may arise at the same time daily, eat the same breakfast, eliminate temptations, and delegate authority.   They don’t expend their mental energy on trivial decisions, instead preserving their mental energy for making important decisions.

If you want to give yourself the best chance of saying no to addictive substances or behaviors, here are eight simple tips to conserve mental energy for decision making success:

1.  Turn-on your brain.
Become more aware of when and where you are most vulnerable to automatic use or when decisions are needed.

2.  Restore your mental energy with good sleep.
Make your important decision in the morning, when your mental energy is at its peak.

3.  Fuel your brain.
Your brain requires energy from food to make decisions.  When blood glucose drops, our decision making capacity decreases.  Keep your body fueled to increase your mental energy.

4. Employ relaxation strategies.
A calm state increases our decision making capacity.  Relaxation techniques, such as slow breathing or meditation, will help to decrease the stress response.

5.  Conserve your mental energy.
Decrease the number of decisions you must make in a day by creating healthy habits.    Delegate some decision to trusted others.  Reduce situations where you need to make decisions, such as shopping.

6. Reduce temptations
Move temptations out of your reach, when you have the mental energy to do so.

7.  Recharge your mental energy throughout the day.
Exercise has been shown to increase mental energy.  Exercise regularly, on a set schedule.  Even 5 minutes of daily exercise will help recharge your mental energy.

7.  Reduce the number of times that you need to say no.
By planning ahead, you can avoid those situations in which your habit to use requires mental energy to say no.   If you know when you are most vulnerable and plan ahead, you will need to make fewer decisions about whether or not to use.

By employing the strategies above, you will give yourself a better chance for recovery success by reducing your decisions fatigue.


If you would like to read more about this topic here are two books you might enjoy

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney (2012).

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal (2011)

Copyright ( 2012) Julie Myers, PysD:  Psychologist in San Diego.  All Rights Reserved.



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