May 28

Decision Fatigue: Why Smart People Make Bad Divorce Decisions


It’s your worst nightmare. Six months after your divorce you look at your divorce decree and wonder, “What was I thinking?!!” The truth is … you probably weren’t really thinking at all. You were just suffering from an unfortunate case of decision fatigue.

What’s Decision Fatigue?

Decision fatigue is the mental and emotional drain you feel after you’ve made too many decisions in a short period of time. It’s the reason why, after a long day at the office, you can’t figure out what to eat for dinner.

It’s also the reason why you’re more likely to stick to an exercise routine in the morning than you are at night. Whether you realize it or not, by the time evening rolls around, you’ve made hundreds of small (and maybe some big) decisions. If you expect yourself to decide to go to the gym at that point, you may be expecting too much.

Decision fatigue explains why seemingly rational people sometimes do irrational things. It explains why you sometimes splurge on crazy purchases, crave sugar and chocolate when you’re emotionally spent, and let car salesmen talk you into buying upgrades you thought you didn’t want.

It’s NOT that you’re stupid, lazy, crazy, or weak-willed. It’s just that at that moment you’ve used up your quotient of decision-making energy.

Whether you realize it or not, making decisions takes energy – mental and emotional energy. So, even if you’re not physically tired, once you’ve depleted your mental and emotional energy, you’re more likely to make bad decisions … or no decisions at all.

Divorce Judge banging a gavel.

A Case Study in Decision Making

In 2011 researchers Shai Danziger, Jonathan Levav, and Liora Avnaim-Pesso studied the parole decisions of eight Jewish-Israeli parole boards. The boards consisted of a judge, a criminologist and a social worker. The researchers analyzed the percentage of prisoners who were given parole based on a variety of factors.

What they found was astounding.

Contrary to what people think is “supposed” to happen, the judges did not consistently grant or deny parole based upon the type of crime or the length of the prisoner’s sentence. They weren’t influenced in their decisions by the prisoner’s ethnic background.

The one factor that made the biggest difference in whether a prisoner got paroled or not was the time of day in which his/her case was heard.

Prisoners whose parole hearings were held first thing in the morning had a 65% chance of being granted parole. By lunchtime, that percentage dropped to nearly zero.

After lunch, or after a food break, the prisoners once again had a 65% chance of being granted parole. By the end of the day, their chances of getting paroled were again close to zero.

The researchers didn’t find that the judges were biased. They did find that the more decisions the judges made in a day, the more inclined they became to maintain the status quo. (i.e. to keep the prisoners in prison.)

After making decisions all day, the judges simply got worn down. They experienced decision fatigue.

Upset man in a trench coat on a couch experiencing decision fatigue in his divorce.

What Happens When You’re Experiencing Decision Fatigue

Psychologists and social scientists have found that decision fatigue has three primary effects:

1. We experience a reduced ability to make trade-offs.

Comparing options that have both positive and negative attributes takes a TON of energy! When your emotional reserves are depleted, you’re less likely to spend the energy it takes to compare options properly. That means that you end up making decisions out of convenience more than out of any kind of rational thought process.

2. We have less willpower and therefore tend to make decisions with poorer long-term outcomes.

In his studies on mental discipline, social psychologist Roy Baumeister found that when people resisted eating freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies after fasting, they were then less able to resist other temptations. They had less mental energy available to solve complex problems. According to Dr. Baumeister, decision-making used a form of mental energy that could be depleted. If we continue to make decisions once our mental energy is depleted, we make worse decisions.

3. We avoid making decisions altogether.

Decision fatigue also can cause us to throw up our hands and avoid making decisions altogether. We opt for the default option or ask someone else to make a decision for us. (For example, we ask the waiter for a dinner recommendation, then simply order that.)

Woman staring at a computer experiencing decision fatigue in her divorce.

How Decision Fatigue Affects Divorce

When you’re going through a divorce, you will be asked to make more major life decisions than you will at probably any other time in your life.

You will have to decide everything from when you see your kids to how much money will change hands in child support. You will have to analyze your finances and negotiate a divorce settlement. (NOTE: Even if your lawyer does the actual negotiating, YOU still have to decide what you want. You still have to decide what you will accept … or not.)

What’s more, you’ll be making your divorce decisions during a time of huge uncertainty. You may not have full information. Your lawyer may not be answering your questions well. What’s more, your spouse is likely to muck up the whole process by either changing his/her mind every ten minutes, or not making any decisions at all.

(Oftentimes, getting someone to commit to ANY decision during a divorce is like trying to pin Jello to the wall!)

The end result is that, not only will you be expected to make a lot of important life-decisions in a relatively short time, but you will also likely be making the same decisions over and over again as life changes or your negotiations take a turn.

7 Ways to Make Better Decisions in Your Divorce

1. Avoid marathon negotiation or mediation sessions.

Some mediators like to do day-long mediations – especially if you and your spouse live in different states. Logistically, it’s better to try to hammer out a deal in one single marathon session than it is to have someone pay to fly in and out for multiple two-hour sessions.

Marathon mediators consider day-long mediations to be more efficient. They also lead to more deals.

The question is, however, what kind of deals get made?

Mediating or negotiating for hours on end can take a real toll on your psyche. After spending eight or nine hours arguing about everything from your 401(k) to the Tupperware, you’re much more likely to “give up the farm” just to be done.

While doing that WILL end your divorce (at least for now) it won’t necessarily end it on terms you feel comfortable with. What’s more, when you sign a deal you feel like you were forced to make (out of exhaustion or pressure) you’re much more likely to end up in court AFTER your divorce fighting over that deal.

2. If you’re going to meet for more than an hour, bring snacks.

There’s a reason that the Jewish-Israeli judges granted more paroles after they’d eaten than they did at other times.

Low blood sugar will make you irritable and edgy. It will cloud your ability to think clearly and negotiate well. Because of that, having a few snacks in your pocket or your purse whenever you’re meeting for more than an hour (especially if you haven’t eaten in a while!) is essential.

It’s also helpful to bring both sugary snacks and protein rich snacks.

Eating sugary snacks will cause your blood sugar to spike, then crash. That’s fine (and maybe even good) if you’re only going to be meeting for another ten or twenty minutes.

But if your meeting is going to run longer than that, opting for nuts or some other protein rich snack will probably be a better option.

Black chalkboard with "Priorities" written in red. White chalk numbers 1,2,3 are underneath.

3. Establish your priorities before you negotiate anything.

Negotiating anything before you have a clear idea of what you want is like playing Russian roulette with a gun full of bullets. Sure, you might get lucky and end up with something that matters to you.

… but the odds are against you.

What’s more, establishing your priorities (preferably in writing) before you negotiate helps to protect you against decision fatigue.

We humans have an amazing capacity for convincing ourselves that we want “A” when we really want “Z.” That’s especially true when we’re under pressure.

So if, in spite of your best efforts, you find yourself getting emotionally beat up when you’re talking to your spouse, it’s way too easy to agree to give him/her the sun, the moon and the stars just to get him/her to shut up.

What’s more, once we do that, we tell ourselves that we really didn’t care about the sun, the moon and the stars. We intended to give it all to our spouse anyway. (Ummm … not!)

Having a written list of priorities will help remind you of what really matters to you. If you find yourself wanting to chuck your list and settle for anything just to be done, you’ll know that you may be suffering from decision fatigue. That’s a great time to end your negotiations for the day and try again later.

4. Simplify your life.

The more decisions you make in any given day, the more you deplete your decision-making reserves. That’s why Barack Obama and Steve Jobs wore the same outfit (or one of two outfits) every single day. By always wearing the same thing all the time, they eliminated the need to decide what to wear.

(NOTE: This doesn’t work quite as well for women. But, if you’re a woman, decide what you’re going to wear the next day – including shoes, jewelry, and accessories – and lay them out before you go to bed. Not only will that save your decision-making energy, but it will also save time in the morning.)

This strategy also can apply to the food you eat, your morning and evening routine, and anything else in your life you can simplify.

That’s not to say that you want to turn yourself into a robot who does the same thing, wears the same thing, and eats the same thing every single day. But for the moment, while you’re going through a divorce, the more things you can simplify, the better.

The more daily activities you can turn into habits, the less you will have to think about them.

5. Schedule important conversations when you’re fresh.

If you know you’re going to have an important conversation with your spouse or your attorney, do your best to schedule them as early in the day as you can. In a perfect world, that would mean having those conversations first thing in the morning.

… of course, the world isn’t always perfect and all of us aren’t necessarily at our best early in the day.

If having an early conversation doesn’t work for you, then at least make sure that when you talk later in the day, you’re physically, mentally and emotionally prepared for it.

That may mean you take a nap in the afternoon so that you’re not exhausted when you’re trying to negotiate with your husband at 9pm.

It may mean radically simplifying everything else you do that day so that you preserve as much of your decision energy as possible. (e.g. Pre-plan what you’re going to wear, what you’re going to eat, and what you’re going to do from the time you get up until the time you meet with your spouse.)

Being physically prepared means doing your best to eat right, exercise, and get plenty of sleep and avoid consuming alcohol the night before you’ve got an important conversation scheduled.

Being mentally prepared means making sure you know what you want to talk about – and what you refuse to talk about – in advance. If you’re talking to your attorney, it means preparing a list of questions in advance so that you don’t forget to ask something that matters to you.

Finally, being emotionally prepared means doing your best to get your emotions under control before you have your meeting. Do your best to stay strong … but also bring Kleenex!

Woman Shopping, holding up money and purchases.

6. Set a tripwire to avoid impulse decisions.

In her fascinating book, Thinking in Bets, former professional poker player Annie Duke describes how she rose to the top of a game that involved making upwards of 20 decisions in every hand that was played. Like in divorce, most of the decisions you make in poker involve assessing risk when you don’t have full information.

As Annie explained, even the most skilled poker players had bad nights. What divided those who lost big, from those who lost it all, was NOT simply their self -control.

It was the systems they put in place in advance to make sure that they didn’t do stupid things.

For example, Annie was a member of an elite group of poker players. They routinely got together and discussed their games. They also knew each others’ limits.

One night, Annie lost her limit. But she wanted to keep playing … to “win back” her losses.

What stopped her from making a mad dash to the ATM machine was her group. She KNEW that if she violated her own rule and played past her limit, she would have to answer to the group for it. Even if she WON after that, she would still take heat from the group for playing past her limit.

So, she didn’t do it.

The same thing works in divorce.

We’re all tempted to make impulsive decisions we’ll regret later. The question is: what kind of tripwire (like Annie Duke’s peer group) can you use to set to keep yourself in check?

How can you set your limits in advance of your conversation, so that later you respect the limit you set?

Maybe you have a friend who will hold you accountable. Maybe keeping a picture of your goal or your limit on your phone while you talk to your spouse will help.

Do whatever works. But the idea is to find a way you can check yourself in advance before you do something you’ll regret later.

7. Master Your Mindset

While psychologists and social scientists have proven in study after study that decision fatigue is real, one psychologist, Carol Dweck, has also proven that there is a simple yet effective technique for eliminating decision fatigue. That technique is to master your mindset.

If you have a fixed mindset, and you believe that you only have a certain amount of decision-making energy available to you, then, after making many decisions, you will experience decision fatigue.

On the other hand, if you have a growth mindset, and you don’t believer your decision-making capability is limited, you won’t experience decision fatigue.

The problem is that most people believe that they only have a certain amount of energy available to make decisions. They believe that their willpower is limited. They believe that THEY are limited.

So, they are.

But for those who dare to believe that decision-making ability is like a muscle, and the more you use it, the stronger it gets, those people don’t suffer from decision fatigue.

Those people simply don’t experience the same limitations.

Word "Regrets" with a red x over it

No Regrets

Despite what many people will tell you, it is possible to make good decisions in your divorce. It is possible to make decisions that you won’t regret later.

But making good decisions doesn’t happen automatically, or by accident. It takes practice and it takes planning.

The most effective way to continuously make good decisions is to believe that you can.

Yet, because no one is at his/her personal best while going through a divorce, it also helps to have a fallback strategy.

It helps to take care of your physical body, and schedule time to make important decisions while you’re fresh. It helps to keep the rest of your life simple so you can focus on the decisions that matter most. Finally, it helps to establish your priorities early on, so that you can make decisions that are consistent with those priorities.

If you do all of those things, then whether you experience decision fatigue or not, you will at least have put yourself in the best possible position to beat it.



decision-making, divorce blog, divorce strategy, divorce tips

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  • I used to be a great decision maker.
    Seriously. I am a licensed professional.
    Made critical decisions for years. But since my husband filed for divorce 6 months ago, My decision ability is on JAM. Covid Has closed and thus back logged the courts. And I am not even sure if I have the right attorney either. Mediation keeps getting moved, house values will be dropping…. plus I still have no temporary maintenance to live off of.
    my spouse and I now live in separate states. He is now keeping all of his pension, which was our income. He Is currently paying most of our joint bills, with the exception of my Any of my bills ( my housing, car payment, everyday living expenses. ) I am 71 and retired. I am just Plain utterly stunned in place.

    • It sounds like your ability to think clearly has been short-circuited. That may be because you’re still trying to work through your grief. Or you just may be too overwhelmed by all the changes in your life and the decisions you now need to make. The problem is, you need to get your head back on your shoulders if you want to get through your divorce in the best way possible.

      I strongly suggest working with a therapist on your emotions. You need to be able to cut through the fog so you can see clearly right now. That will help you make critical decisions again with confidence.

      I also suggest you work with a financial planner. S/he will help you understand your finances so you can make more informed financial decisions in your divorce.

      Finally, I would ask your attorney WHY s/he hasn’t filed for temporary support for you yet. Listen to his/her response.

      The truth is, many courts are closed right now, or at least working under their capacity. It’s a strange time all around the world. Maybe your attorney can’t file for support for you right now.

      Or, maybe your attorney has other reasons for not filing for support yet. They may be good reasons … or not. But first you need to understand what your attorney is doing and why s/he is doing it. Then, you may want to get a second opinion from another attorney in your area about what you should or shouldn’t be doing right now. That will help you evaluate your current attorney.

      Finally, I know all of this is hard. It’s overwhelming. Don’t be hard on yourself for not being able to make a decision. You’re going through a lot. At the same time, you want to go through this wisely and well. Getting the right professional help will enable you to do that.



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