By William Park
The disruption to our daily routines has left many of us in a spin. Having to decide how to live in lockdown, and with little guidance on the best way to do it, is mentally exhausting.
Whether schooling children at home or facing many months living alone, lockdown has proven to be challenging for large numbers of people. At the start of May people in many countries, including the US, India, Canada, Japan, France and Germany, were in favour of lockdown measures being prioritised to protect health rather than the economy. About two-thirds of Britons said they could cope well with a lockdown that lasted until July, but might struggle with much more. More recent polling, however, suggests that adherence to lockdown measures began to wane even before restrictions were eased. Clearly, people’s patience has been tested.
Video calls, bizarre dream-filled nights’ sleep and reduced exposure to daylight have all been blamed for lockdown lethargy. But another unforeseen problem could be tiring you out – the disruption to your daily habits.
With daily routines shaken up – and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future even after restrictions are eased – we are now making many more little decisions about our daily lives. This can cause “decision fatigue”.
“Making decisions is effortful, which is why we make habits. We don’t want to have to make decisions all the time,” says Sarah Tracy, who studies emotion and human communication at Arizona State University. “In this situation [of a global pandemic and mass protests] many things that were habitual are no longer habits, like commuting, how we dress ourselves in public, visiting family, and our way of shopping, so we have to make decisions about them.”
With our daily routines and way of life turned upside down, the usual habits that help ease the burdeon of decision making are no longer helping (Credit: Reuters)
Not only do we have to make more decisions, each of them comes with much more uncertainty than we are used to. Should I wear a mask in public, and if so, what kind? What will other people think of the choice that I make? Is it really making a difference? And will I prevent other people from understanding me clearly?
The worry about making the right choice, when no one has any real insight as to which choice might be best, is overwhelming, says Tracy. Furthermore, where we would normally be used to feedback on the choices we make in the workplace or at school, that is now missing. For those working remotely, professional decisions are made in isolation and might not be commented on by colleagues.
“People want to feel like they are doing something, but they are not sure if it will be critiqued,” says Tracy. Add to that the number of people who have been made redundant or have been furloughed, particularly in sectors like the service industry where immediate positive feedback from customers is a large part of feeling accomplished. Being off work can mean losing part of what makes you feel unique and valued. Without that feel-good factor, we can start to feel run down.
“Lack of feedback is a key part of burnout,” says Tracy.
Developing habits allows us to offload much of our decision making. But we also use other tricks to ease the burden. Some choices are just easier to make. “You can imagine going to a restaurant and then just choosing the special, which, yes, admittedly is a choice, but it's not one that needs a lot of thought – we're running out of those opportunities,” says Kathleen Vohs, a professor in marketing at the University of Minnesota, US, who studies decision making. “The onus for all those decisions is now all placed back on us.
“Now you're making decisions about two spheres of life that don't usually go together all that well, like you've had to turn your home into an office and school, and then also be pretty isolated there for a very extended period of time. And so when you're having to not only make decisions in a new context, but in a context that's not very well suited for those decisions to be made, supported or enacted, you're going to see people really get fatigued.”
Which decisions are the most exhausting? Vohs says research from Yale University shows that it's the kind of decisions that we perceive to involve the most psychological trade-offs, or compromises, that are really exhausting for individuals.
On the one hand is a theory that humans are “cognitive misers” who reserve their energy knowing that we have a finite amount of attention to give to a problem (like shopping) so we make compromises. This would suggest that a shopper might only be able to hold one or two considerations (like cost and colour) in mind at the expense of others when performing a taxing shopping task. The “cognitive miser” theory would suggest that humans are highly susceptible to marketing strategies that play on our inability to make decisions and compromise over time.
The order in which questions about the tailoring of suits or the customisation of a new car are posed to a customer affects the final product. Customers tend to resort to the default option towards the end of a sale as their energy levels drop, which offers marketers opportunities to exploit this weakness and leave questions about more expensive options to last.
However, the idea that we might hold back some energy in reserve is perhaps giving too much credit to our rationing abilities.
“Decision fatigue is a present-time thing,” says Tracy. “It’s about whether you have the willpower to make that decision in the moment, not about decisions you might make in the future.” It means our willpower can be exploited, but also explains why having habits is so important.
Tracy also says that the amount of time we are spending communicating online while we are stuck in our homes may also adding to fatigue. Interacting digitally means that we miss out on important non-verbal signalling. Say we have to make a difficult choice about whether to visit another family member in isolation, even if we call them to discuss it, we might miss out on paralinguistic feedback; body language, gestures, and even the meaning in pauses between speech. (Read more about why video calls are so exhausting.)
Tracy says that making decisions in isolation means it is harder to be compassionate. “Face to face we coordinate our bodies with people,” she says. “The way your camera is set up, or your screen, we literally do not know if someone is looking at us on video calls. People are very good at hiding suffering and it is harder to spot online.”
The difficulty in communicating compassion online has perhaps never been more apparent through lockdown than during the recent anti-racism protests. People in privileged positions are now constantly facing choices about how to show compassion, solidarity and willingness to change but without the face-to-face guidance of a friend or colleague normal life might afford. Compared to making the relatively trivial decision about what face mask to wear, deciding how to show solidarity alone is challenging.
Vohs says by saying that the negative experience of a global pandemic, while tiring, might bring us closer together. “The role of a very negative experience helps us to appreciate and really find more meaning in our lives,” she says. “Negative experiences, while of course not enjoyable, often can really add to the sense that life has meaning because they challenge our understanding of the world.”
Vohs says we often take for granted our place in the world, and a setback allows us to reevaluate that position. Unpleasant experiences, like a redundancy, a lost relationship or a cancelled holiday can give our lives meaning, even if they don’t bring with them immediate happiness. Reflecting on why those unpleasant things happened, and how they could have been avoided, can allow us to identify small positives that might have might have been overlooked – like thinking “I wouldn’t be where I am now had that unpleasant thing not happened”. Unpleasant life events also give us an opportunity to enjoy and take meaning from other areas of our life that are unrelated – like enjoying spending more time with your family if you lose your job. Vohs calls this “the comprehension aspect of the meaning in life”.
“When people work through those negative experiences to try to figure out what happened, why – and I don't really mean that in a scientific way, but rather their own personal narrative about what took place and how it unfolded – just to even understand those things can really help ground people, in a sense that life has more meaning and that they have more of a sense of mattering and significance in their lives.”
The worldwide, shared negative experience of lockdown might be getting us down in the short term, but if we use this time to evaluate what we have, we might come out of it with some positives. “One of the ideas that I hope we will be able to see evidence for,” concludes Vohs, “is that people will find that their lives indeed have more meaning.”
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