Prioritize sleep to prevent exhaustion and decision fatigue. Peaceful sunset reflected in a forest stream, with silhouette of flying heron, and text: "I have no time for sleep. Sleep anyway."

Have you ever felt so exhausted, you couldn’t even lever yourself up off your behind in order to go to bed?  You couldn’t make  yourself turn off the TV or quit playing computer games, even though you were too tired even to see them clearly?  Exhaustion friended decision fatigue, and they both have ganged up on you.

When this happens to me, I feel a little bit like I’ve lost my mind.  Where did she go,  I wonder, the decisive, health-promoting woman I believe myself to be?  While I wasn’t looking, it seems she was somehow replaced by a perseverating, solitaire-playing wimp.

(I love the word perseverate.  I especially like the Merriam-Webster definition, because it ignores clinical implications and goes for the everyday meaning: “continuation of something (as repetition of a word) usually to an exceptional degree or beyond a desired point.”  The perfect word for this problem, which is: being too tired to quit doing whatever mindless thing you're doing and make yourself do the obviously necessary action, which is to go to bed.)

Here's the thing:  your brain requires energy to make decisions. Therefore, willpower a finite resource. As you make decisions throughout the day, your willpower gets used up, and your brain runs out of juice (otherwise known as its glucose supply.)  That is called “decision fatigue.”  Then you start to lose your self-control, particularly around food decisions, but also around your ability to make any choices.

How to Beat Decision Fatigue When You’re Tired

First, allow yourself to notice what is happening quietly in your head, probably in the background.  See if this sounds familiar:  when I am sitting at the computer, frozen inside my fatigue, I am now using emotion-focused coping. Sometimes emotion-focused coping is a good thing.  But in this case, it means I am more-or-less consciously berating myself for my perseverating, for my poor choices, or for my lack of ability to make a choice at all.

Once I  stop ignoring this self-generated noise in my head, then I can get gently curious about what the noise is saying. Once I hear the words, I can then switch the script into problem-focused coping.  When I've reached this mode, problem-focused coping, I finally can summon up enough energy to make those last few decisions, which are to turn off the screen in front of me and go to bed. Here's how that whole thing  sounds, in my head.

At first, the almost-unheard, unattended-to monologue in my head sounds like this (in the voice my friend Dr. Paula Pilcher calls “the inner mean girl”):

I’ll just play until 11:30, then I’ll quit. …

It’s 12:09 already!  Oops. I am a fool. Okay, well, I’ll just play until 12:15, then I’ll quit. …

Oh, no, it’s 12:47.  You bozo, no, don’t press Play Another Game!  Noooo! …

Ack, it’s 1:22.  I’ll just play until 1:25, then I’ll quit.  Really???  What is WRONG with me??

Once I’m aware of this unpleasant head trash, I can softly flip the script:

Oh, right, decision fatigue; hello, you sly old monster.  …

I am just going to think another thought for a minute, thank you very much.  …

Hmm, what else is happening here?  …

Oh yeah, I need to pee, too.  And I’ve got the late-night munchies.

Back when I was in practice as a nurse-midwife, there was still another noise in my head, an anxious voice:

Did I remember to call that patient back?  Did I advise her to call right away if that happens again? It’s awfully quiet tonight. Is my pager on?  When I reported to the midwife who took over my shift, did I tell her Mrs. X might be in early labor?

Whatever I’ve been ignoring, my body’s biological signals, negative self-talk, or work worries, the trick is not to let those voices and needs just be a droning background monologue. Instead, I turn the volume up a just hair, so I can hear it clearly.

Then I switch the script from a monologue into some kind of process.  Options for processes:

  • Internal dialogue. Answer the nagging questions: “Did I remember to call that patient?  Yes, I believe I did.  I made a note about the conversation.  Did I tell the next midwife Mrs. X might call?  I really can’t remember, but I know I told Mrs. X to call back in 2 hours, so one way or another the on-call midwife will know.  “
  • Journal. Writing stuff down can temporarily remove it from the worry queue. This can be a useful way to put nagging concerns to bed,  so to speak.
  • Or just Get up to brush my teeth or pee.   Even a little bit of physical movement can alter my perspective and shift my brain back into (low) gear.

Any of these processes can be enough to move my decision meter from empty to just enough gas to fuel my decision to turn in for the night.

Other ways to help prevent exhaustion and decision fatigue from ganging up on you:

  • Eat a small snack as you sit down for your evening stint at the computer. (My go-to snack is a small bowl of raisin bran sprinkled with a few walnuts. Lots of benefits.) The snack fuels the brain just enough to push back decision fatigue a little, making it more likely you’ll be able to make a decision to go bed. Drinking some water helps, too.
  • Avoid sitting down at the TV or computer for an hour before bedtime, if you can. Staring at that blue screen is a known insomnia trigger.
  • Add environmental reminders. Set an bedtime alarm. Or create a visual cue.  For example, when a friend of mine must do a computer task near bedtime, she sticks a post-it note that reads “GO TO BED” in her line of sight, right on her computer screen.
  • Call in reinforcements. Identify a non-aggravating style of reminding you that it's bedtime, one that won’t get your hackles or resistance up. Ask someone you live with to do that, at a prearranged time. Feeling a gentle hand on your shoulder, or hearing your name said softly, might be all you need.

Exhaustion and Decision Fatigue Are Not Safe

When we’re not rested, we’re not making good decisions. (Researchers running human sleep deprivation studies sometimes ask their subjects how they think they’re thinking and reacting. The subjects almost always believe they are doing way better than the tests show they are actually doing.)

In more critical situations, such as driving at night, if we’re not making good decisions, we’re also not safe, for ourselves or those around us.  What is our most important defense against the unholy friendship of exhaustion and decision fatigue?  Resolve, re-resolve as needed, and take concrete steps to make getting enough sleep a top priority.  When we are merely tired at the end of the day, instead of utterly exhausted, we stand a much better chance of arriving at bedtime with enough gumption left to actually go to bed.