Family, Kids & Relationships

Mentally exhausted? 7 Ways parents can overcome decision fatigue

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Ever noticed that your mind is constantly racing as a parent? That’s because you’re responsible for a staggering number of big and small decisions every day, from what to feed kids for multiple meals, to what time to wake them up, to what brand of diapers to buy, to how (or whether) to respond to every single thing the kids say or do.

Parents may be feeling this way even more during this years-long pandemic when there are bewildering health and safety decisions to be made on a daily or weekly basis, on top of all the expected ones: Should you go ahead with this playdate or postpone it? Should you keep your kid home from school again today? Should they wear a mask in this situation? Should you buy more kid-sized masks?

It’s overwhelming, to say the least. Having to make too many decisions in a row, or grappling with particularly difficult decisions, causes mental and emotional exhaustion. This phenomenon, called decision fatigue, can cause decision-making to seem even more impossible.

Even if you’re normally a decisive person and even if you typically make tons of important decisions in your job, you can still experience occasional or frequent decision fatigue as a parent. Psychiatrist Rashmi Parmar, MD, told Real Simple, “More often than not, it leads to one of two endpoints: You either give up and stop making decisions completely, or you’ll make impulsive or irrational choices.”

Some of the common signs that you’re experiencing decision fatigue include:

  • Feeling irritable, overwhelmed or hopeless
  • Inability to concentrate on anything
  • Drawing out the decision-making process or avoiding it altogether
  • Making impulsive choices
  • Exhaustion, difficulty sleeping, headaches or stomach aches
  • Being dissatisfied with whichever choice is eventually made

The good news is that decision fatigue is temporary (as opposed to an indecisive personality, which could take a bit more work to overcome), and can often be self-managed so that you don’t have to experience it too frequently. Here are some strategies to help parents who’ve been faced with one too many hard decisions lately:

  • Streamline your routine: With some prep work ahead of time, you can probably trim down the number of small decisions you’ll have to make in the coming week—thus saving mental energy for the bigger decisions that are bound to come up. For example, work with your child to agree on a weekly breakfast schedule so that there’s no question about what to make each morning. Pick out your work outfits, and your child’s school outfits, on the weekend and line them up in order.
  • Categorize your priorities: Make a to-do list for your day or week, and separate the tasks out by easy and hard. Then, when you’re feeling too overwhelmed by a big task (like figuring out a week’s worth of dinners to make that the kids will actually eat), you can gravitate towards a less mentally taxing item (like sorting the recycling) and not feel as defeated.
  • Make bigger decisions early in the day: When you’re feeling energized from breakfast, coffee, and a decent night’s sleep, you’ll be able to make smarter, faster decisions than when it’s past your kids’ bedtime. So instead of saving important decisions for later in the day, try to tackle them first thing.
  • Fuel up before decision-making: If you know you’re about to have to make some decisions but you’re feeling tired already, consider providing yourself with a healthy snack or glass of water, a quick walk around the block, a dance break to your favorite song, or even a power nap first. Then you’ll be ready to address your next set of decisions with a greater sense of focus and purpose.
  • Call on your support network: Make a list of people you can text or call to talk through hard decisions or when you’re just feeling low on mental energy. Put these people on a “favorites” list on your phone. Making decisions with someone else helps them feel like less of a burden.
  • Redistribute the mental workload: If you’re co-parenting, living with family members, or have older kids, ideally you could unload some of these decisions onto others on a regular, ongoing basis. If they don’t understand why you need help, make a list of all of the small and big decisions you make every week and then have a discussion about who should be responsible for each one, and which ones should be shared decisions.
  • Journal or tell someone how you feel: Just saying out loud (or on paper) that you’re exhausted from making too many decisions can provide you with the validation you need to start to move past the bout of decision fatigue. You can even make up a code word with your partner or friend to say just that in fewer words. Let yourself sit in your fatigue for a little while—and even congratulate yourself, because you’re doing a lot for your family every single day!

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.