How To Stop Decision Fatigue And Burnout Hurting Your Writing

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To launch a productive writing career, self-publishing authors need every advantage going. Inspiration is fleeting, free time seldom remains free, and success hinges on being your own editor, marketer, and publisher, all after you’re done being an author. Under such conditions, it’s important to make life easier – to set yourself up with a space conducive to writing, to work with other indie authors to make marketing easier, and to shed as much decision fatigue as you can.

Decision fatigue affects us all every day – it’s almost impossible to escape entirely – but there are ways you can make life easier and grab back some energy to spend on your writing. In fact, later in this article I’ll be providing a single, effective tip that authors can use to super-charge their writing efforts.

Before that, of course, we need to make sure we’re on the same page. Let’s begin by asking…

What is decision fatigue?

‘Decision fatigue’ refers to the process by which people exhibit poorer decision-making skills after making other decisions. If you haven’t heard of it before, it may sound like armchair philosophy, but if so, it’s armchair philosophy with a lot of money behind it.

Ever wondered why specific items are by the sales counter in a store? It’s because someone somewhere is willing to bet that having traipsed through a store making decision after decision, you’re more likely to be tempted by a small impulse purchase than if you saw the same products on your way in.

Decision fatigue is factored into major business deals, and some of the most successful people in the world consider it in how they run their lives. Figures such as Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and President Barack Obama have deliberately removed small decisions from their lives in the interests of leaving more mental energy for larger decisions.

“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… ” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

– Barack Obama to Michael Lewis, ‘Obama’s Way’, Vanity Fair

While the extent of decision fatigue is up for debate, it’s generally agreed that it’s harder to make a given decision when you’ve already spent mental energy on making several others. This is especially true in ‘trade-off’ decisions – those where both options have positives and negatives to recommend them. ‘Shall I slap you?’ isn’t a particularly hard decision to make, but ‘Do you want to go home the long way and take care of a task en route, or do you want to go the quick way but have to do the task tomorrow?’ is more difficult.

What’s especially worth noting about decision fatigue is that it’s not that some decisions are so hard they tire you out, it’s that making any kind of decision depletes your mental energy. The regular process of making decisions gradually empties the well, and it’s a well that you need for many different tasks.

The present findings suggest that self-regulation and effortful choosing draw on the same psychological resource. Making decisions depletes that resource, thereby weakening the subsequent capacity for self-control. The impaired self-control was found on a variety of tasks, including physical stamina and pain tolerance, persistence in the face of failure, and quality and quantity of numerical calculation.

– Kathleen D. Vohs et al., ‘Decision Fatigue Exhausts Self-Regulatory Resources

That statement, from a study on the effects of decision fatigue, has direct implications for authors. A day full of decisions makes it harder to commit to writing, it makes it harder to actually do the writing, and it makes it more likely that you’ll stop sooner and be more exhausted by the effort.

The dangers of burnout

Decision fatigue is a pain, but it’s also a gradual path to what many writers call ‘burnout.’ Burnout can be understood as the point at which the well runs dry. You reach the point where you don’t have the mental resources you need and you stop being able to resist inertia. You get home from work and sleep or watch TV all evening rather than writing. When you do try to do something creative, you can’t produce anything, and trying to do so only seems to get harder.

Burnout is a gradual process that can sneak up on you. Energizing activities such as exercising, eating well, or relaxing can top up your energy for a short time, but if you’re overdrawing on a daily basis, you’re still depleting your store of energy.

Creative endeavors draw on this type of energy, and they’re the first things to fall by the wayside when burnout strikes and priorities shift to the essential decisions that keep your life livable.

Dr. Amy Imms identifies seven common signs of burnout:

  • Dread – An obsessive, nagging worry about work, even when not engaged in it,
  • Irritation – A lack of patience with the people in your life, and especially with people related to your work,
  • Fatigue – A lack of energy, especially in relation to activities you previously enjoyed,
  • Distraction – The inability to concentrate and a degradation of day-to-day memory,
  • Isolation – A reluctance to socialize with others, especially those whose company you previously enjoyed,
  • Apathy – The feeling that everything is going wrong, and especially the belief that things won’t improve,
  • Detachment – A sense of disconnection from others, your work, and your environment.

Avoiding decision fatigue and burnout

Avoiding burnout is about lifestyle – ensuring that your life replenishes energy such that you’re not slowly exhausting yourself over time. Sometimes that’s within our control and sometimes it just isn’t. If you live a stressful life full of essential decisions, you’re already doing your best to improve it, and I’m not here to tell you there’s no room for art in your life. There is – it may even be something that replenishes you – but keep in mind that even a great writing experience requires energy.

If you’re teetering on the brink of exhaustion, don’t feel bad about giving yourself the night off – there’s no point forcing a few productive hours if you ruin yourself for the next few weeks. Remember that exercise, diet, and rest really are the deciding factors, and before you commit to writing X number of words per night, you need to first commit to a lifestyle that doesn’t render those hours a type of self-harm.

Happily, decision fatigue is far more granular. Making your life less demanding is a big job, but decision fatigue happens on a decision-by-decision basis, and that’s a game you can play to win. Barack Obama did it with his wardrobe, removing a set of early decisions to free up some crucial energy, but you can do it in other ways.

First, consider what decisions you can remove from your writing life. Obviously, it’s better to apply this to everyday living, but this isn’t a living blog, it’s a writing blog, so we’re cursed with the gift of focus. When is your writing happening? If it’s late in the day, keep in mind that that’s the point at which you’ve undergone the most decision fatigue. Perhaps you can’t move your writing earlier, but you may be able to move other decisions until later. Can you choose what to eat or wear the next day after you write? Can you put off making plans until you’ve hit word count? If writing is your priority, treat it as such, removing every little decision you can in order to make your writing easier. And, where you can’t move the writing itself, move the decisions in your writing.

Here, then, is the simple tip I mentioned earlier: plan your writing session the day before. Figure out what you’re going to write about, how long you’re going to do it for, what you hope to achieve (perhaps word count, perhaps the completion of a scene,) where you’re going to do it – every little decision involved in the writing process.

This way, your writing involves as little decision fatigue as possible. There’s no extra effort to making yourself write – you just obey all the decisions you made the other day. Likewise, making decisions about tomorrow is rendered easier because you don’t have to enact them immediately – they’re hypothetical, and while there’s still a little fatigue there, it’s significantly lessened.

The same goes for marketing; decide what you’re going to do before you do it, breaking your marketing up into batches. You could even create your marketing copy and actually distribute it (via email, social media, giveaway sites, etc.) another day. Editing is harder because it’s nothing but decisions, but you can still decide which sections of text or types of editing you’re going to handle ahead of time, and this is yet another argument for divorcing your editing time from your writing time.

A little less conversation, a little more action

Decision fatigue is a factor in everyday life. It’s something we can’t escape, but we can make it more manageable, and by setting up a pattern of convenient, low-stress behavior, we can improve our creative output without taxing ourselves into burnout. The key is not to be governed by the moment, but rather to put in just enough planning to stay ahead of the curve.

What are your experiences of decision fatigue and burnout? Let me know in the comments and, for more tips on writing behavior that’s both productive and healthy, check out Nobody Beats The Triangle, But You Can Be Prepared For It, The Three Lies Writers Tell Themselves Every Day (And How To Stop), and Why You Need A Dedicated Writing Space And How To Find It.


2 thoughts on “How To Stop Decision Fatigue And Burnout Hurting Your Writing”

  1. A timely topic for me personally. I’m 60% done writing a mystery novel set in Alaska…and have been 60% done for two months. In other words, frozen solid. Really vexsome, because the plot, including the final reveal, is quite clear in my mind. Fact is, I unintentionally wrote a dialog-heavy screenplay when I thought I was writing a novel. Prior to that simple insight, I concocted one seemingly logical “solution” after another but could never decide which to use. Endless analysis absorbed my creative energy and side-stepped the obvious solution: rewrite it.

  2. Hi John,

    Thanks for sharing your experience – I’m glad you found the answer to your problem, even if it was one that’s usually difficult to embrace.


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