Why ‘Decision Fatigue’ and COVID-19 Might Make Even the Smallest Decisions Hard
As I write this, I am eavesdropping on my daughters’ nightly practice of asking the other to rate their day on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the highest rating of a wonderful day. Once they rate their day, they then share their highs and lows. This sweet and honest conversation between sisters is all done after my husband and I tuck them in and turn out their lights.
I am often caught off-guard with how generous they are in their recollections of the day. Since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic began disrupting our lives in March of this year, I have found myself to be less patient, less creative and have less energy in general. With a teaching background, I’m not typically low on any of the aforementioned qualities. However, in this never-ending season of togetherness, I am growing weary and more anxious by the day. I often tuck the girls in at night, still burdened with guilt over some poor decision I flippantly made that day, which disappointed them in some way. So, when I hear the “8” ratings, and listen intently to their highs and lows, I am increasingly grateful for the grace that my children extend to me.
Tonight’s ratings were 10s across the board. I wasn’t that surprised because we spent the day at the beach with friends. The girls chased waves, built sandcastles, dug channels and made their own tide-pools. They ate potato chips and cupcakes, splashed, laughed and saw jellyfish. They also got sunburned.
From the time we got home from the beach, and up until they crawled into bed, they were complaining about their sunburns. Somehow, these sunburns on their backs were causing them to walk with a limp, and required ice-packs and excessive wardrobe changes — they have a flair for the dramatic. I must admit that the presumption I should know how to solve the sunburn problem felt excruciating (newsflash — this is my job). I just wanted to stop … managing, deciding, dealing.
At the time of writing this, I am also caring for my husband who has been laid up with a serious back issue for the past five weeks. While our marriage has historically been very well-divided in the responsibilities department, I am feeling his absence in our partnership. It’s so disheartening to see your partner in pain and not be able to fix it. It’s also hard to manage the emotional roller coaster and depression that comes along with chronic pain — unsure of how your decisions might rock the boat, again, adding to the anxiety of the season.
I’m not suggesting that I have it bad here. I don’t. I have a million things to be grateful for, and I am. What I am realizing, however, is that I am experiencing “decision fatigue.” Decision fatigue is a syndrome coined by social psychologist Dr. Roy F. Baumeister, and describes the deterioration of our ability to make good decisions after a long session of decision making. I might argue that COVID-19 has forced us all into a long session of decision making. What began as deciding how we’d approach distance learning leading up to summer break, morphed into examining each decision we’d make with regard to every single interaction we’d have over these past five months, and into the foreseeable future.
Will I brave the grocery store or order online? Should I actually be worried about a toilet paper shortage? Will I be safe without protective gloves, so long as I have hand sanitizer? Is it OK for my children to interact with their friends so long as they’re outside, and 6 feet apart? How can I manage their physical health and their mental health? Should I look for a new job after getting laid off, or commit to full-time home-schooling my children? Should I learn how to edge the lawn while my husband is laid up, or should I just let the yard go?
A thousand decisions every single day. Decisions we’ve never had to make before, which makes all of the mundane choices feel nearly impossible. For instance, how to manage a sunburn. I’m 42 years old. I grew up in the age of baby oil and aluminum foil … if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to manage a sunburn. And yet, at the end of a really long week — I should mention that it’s Monday — I am literally debilitated by the question. “Mom, what should I do?” Uhhhhh. I stare blankly at my kids, half-irritated that they’re forcing me toward yet another decision. They follow me around the house like wounded soldiers desperate for salve, forcing me to squeeze out the last bit of cognitive resources that I have to find a solution on the fly.
However, when the lights go out and they liberally shell out 10s, I become aware that the quality of my decisions over the mundane stuff doesn’t hold much weight around here — and perhaps that’s the goal. As former President Obama once told Vanity Fair, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits … I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing, because I have too many other decisions to make.” Obama was wise enough to reserve his decision-making senses for the stuff that really mattered.
I think that, in this unprecedented time of a global pandemic, where nothing at all is routine, I need to get into the practice of paring down my decisions. Things like extended home-schooling, and how we proceed with my husband’s health, are big things that require intentional thought and sound contemplation. Which dish towel to wet and drape over my child’s sunburn is probably not that serious. I need to reserve my energy, as there’s seemingly no end to this season in sight.
For now, I’m just going to cozy up with my dog and delegate some decisions on over to her. Naps all around!
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