Decision Fatigue

By Justin Rossow

Well, I think this Covid-19 nonsense has gone on long enough, don’t you? It seems past time for things to get back to normal.

And they are not. At least, not yet.

And I am getting kind of tired of it. Can I get an amen?

I’m tired of not seeing my friends. I’m tired of learning new things. I’m tired of the same unanswerable questions about the future. I’m tired of wondering what day it is. I’m tired of being tired.

I’m even tired of making decisions, large or small. How are we going to try and get groceries this week? What do we do about a failing computer when we need 7 (!) in the house so everyone can home school or work from home simultaneously? Whose turn is it to make dinner? How much screen time is acceptable this week? Who is helping whom with what homework today? What decisions do we need to make about this summer right now? What decisions can we make right now? And on and on and on and on and on and on and on…

I recently heard a pastor friend refer to it as “decision fatigue.” I get that. I remember busy times in an active ministry when it seemed like you had to make a dozen important decisions every day for a week. It gets exhausting. Compound that by a factor of Covid-19 and you can see why some congregational leaders might be feeling a little overwhelmed.

Shoot; overwhelmed was like 3 weeks ago–this is completely new territory.

But you don’t have to be a pastor or principal or small business leader to feel decision fatigue. Every individual and family is facing more decisions than usual with less information and less reliable expectations for next week, let alone next year.

Whether you are dealing with a congregational budget or your personal finances, the future of your ministry or your family, how do you deal with a very legitimate decision fatigue?

#1 Tell it Like it is

Recognize decision fatigue for what it is. Notice how tired you are. Admit to yourself and your team that this is hard. You are not a bad leader or a bad parent because this shelter in place crap is kicking your butt. You are just a leader and a parent; and this is a really difficult time. Notice and admit that your decision making skills are not at their best right now. That’s OK. In fact, it’s to be expected. You aren’t a failure for being tired. So admit where you are and don’t act super-human. Just be a tired human being who needs help.

Luther said that a “theologian of the cross” can “call a thing what it is.” If you are functioning with a “theology of glory” where you have to look good to be sure of God’s favor, then you can’t admit to decision fatigue, as if “good Christians” wouldn’t feel something as unholy as that.

But if you want to function under grace, and therefore under the cross of Jesus, you can say, “I am so sick and tired of making decisions!” Because that reality of a sinful, fallen world, and your hurt and shortcomings and failures as a fallible human being, don’t alienate you from God’s approval or disqualify you as a leader and decision-maker.

In fact, that honesty–with yourself and others–brings the kind of vulnerability that allows you to lead with integrity and character, whether you are leading a small group, a large congregation, or a pack or elementary kids.

#2 Ask for Help

One of my new favorite prayers is a simple one: “Jesus, help!” Start there. And keep coming back there, again and again and again. Ask for Jesus to help you with every decision, large or small. Be aware of how much you need Jesus and lean into that need as if it were a blessing–because it is. There is nothing better for you than to desperately need Jesus. Don’t cover up that need; rejoice in it.

And then ask others for help, too. If you are tired of making decisions, see if the person bringing you the question already has the answer. It’s not on you to figure out the best way forward at every turn, all by yourself. The people God has put around you get to be part of making decisions, too. Don’t abdicate your responsibility. But don’t take ownership of every detail, either.

If your ten-year-old asks for ice cream at 1:00 PM, feel free to push that decision back on him: “What do you think? Why would it be good to have ice cream right now? Why might it be good to wait?” Of course, you can bring the Law down from Mount Sinai on this or any issue. Instead, let others take some ownership of the decision. And then live with their decision. It will be OK if he eats ice cream now. And maybe he won’t get any later. But that was his choice. And you didn’t have to add to your list of decisions for the day.

The same thing applies to more important ministry decisions. “Do we need to postpone or cancel VBS this year?” That’s not a question you have to answer. It’s important, but it’s not on you. Ask, “What do you think? Why would it be good to have VBS right now? Why might it be good to wait?” Let your staff and lay leaders share some of the ownership of the decision. And then live with their decision. It will be OK if you have VBS this year. It will be OK if you don’t. It will be OK to try online VBS. It will be OK if online VBS is a miserable failure. Not every decision needs to be yours. And not every decision needs to be right. It will be OK.

#3 Check Your Filter

I think we all have a kind of built-in filter, that will, under normal circumstances, prioritize our decisions pretty much automatically. You don’t have to spend any cognitive energy on whether deciding what kind of toothpaste you order online is as significant as deciding if your college student should change majors or deciding if you can afford to keep all the staff you currently employ.

But if you are suffering from decision fatigue, that filter stops working. Your feelings tell you every decision carries the same weight. And whether the emotion you are experiencing is panic or disinterest, your emotions are lying to you.

Some decisions actually do matter more than others, even if it doesn’t feel like it right now. If you are tired of making decision, prioritize based on something besides your emotions. Phone a friend if you have to. But make a list of decisions worth your time and brain power. And make sure you have another list of decisions that someone else can make or that are not worth investing your energy in right now.

One reason you are tired is because any decision takes energy. Ration your decision energy. Maybe even fast from decisions for a day or two to build up your depleted decision-making reserve. Treat the mental and emotional energy it takes to make a decision as if it were a finite commodity–because it is. Spend your mental and emotional capital on the things that matter most.

That’s hard to do when everything feels like it matters the same. But that feeling comes from being tired. Maybe you need to take a break from making decisions before you can even decide which decisions you need to make. That’s OK.

Find some way to prioritize and therefore limit what’s on your decision-making agenda. If it can wait six months, let it wait. If you don’t have enough information to make a decision right now, stop using up energy thinking about it. If you have to make a decision right now and you have the information and input you need for that decision, and that decision is important, spend energy on that.

#4 Be Confident in Grace

The problem is, you don’t always have the information and input you need to make an important decision that you need to make right now. That sucks. But it’s not your fault.

A natural part of decision fatigue is feeling personally responsible for decisions that are outside of your control or that you could not reasonably be expected to make in an informed way. It’s still your decision. And you feel bad about making it without all the information. The fact that you can’t have all the information right now feels like an excuse and will certainly not make you look good if the decision goes bad.

That’s a lot of energy you are spending on anxiety about things you can’t control. I mean, it’s totally natural to feel that way. But once again, your feelings are adding a burden rather than helping you find a solution. How in the world are you supposed to know when the school year should start next year or how tuition should change? But people are counting on you to figure that out, without the information that you need to make a healthy decision. So now what?

Here’s where Luther’s idea of “sinning boldly” becomes really helpful. Contrary to sophomoric belief, “sin boldly” does not mean if you are going to have three beers, you might as well have seven. Instead, Luther is inviting confidence in the face of unusual or uncertain circumstances. If you just can’t tell; if you aren’t sure; if the decision is clearly yours to make but there is no clear word from Scripture that informs the decision; if it could go either way, don’t stress about getting it “right” or “wrong.” Instead, trust in God’s power and provision and move forward in faith that God can use even your “wrong” decisions in ways that you don’t expect.

Don’t live in fear; live under grace.

So if you are feeling a little exhausted lately and every decision feels major, you are not alone. Take a deep breath. It’s going to be OK. Then Tell it Like it is, Ask for Help, Check Your Filter, and above all, Be Confident in Grace.

Jesus is not surprised or anxious about any of this. Jesus has you and your family and your ministry in strong and faithful hands.

You get to be tired of making decisions. And you don’t have to stay there. You can do this. And even when you can’t, God’s grace is sufficient. It’s going to be OK.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks, I needed to read this today! I had asked my pastor to make a decision about something, and I now realize that it is definitely not a priority with all the craziness that is going on around us! I forwarded this article to him and rescinded my request for the time being! 😁

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