Barbara's blog: Decision Fatigue
It’s been a busy few years. Actually, I feel like I have not drawn breath since forever, due to a number of things happening one after the other. It started with my mother-in-law’s death from cancer during the first lockdown, my own mother coming over to the UK to live, family members moving abroad, mum being diagnosed with dementia and passing away, and my father-in-law relocating to sheltered accommodation due to Alzheimer’s. I don’t know how we kept our sanity. Somehow, we ploughed through, and we are now at a point where we feel life has finally settled a little.
But the result of such intense stress has been twofold: first, I am now overcautious about being optimistic, preferring to quietly acknowledge successes rather than show any form of elation, in case it disturbs the already precarious family ecosystem. Second, for a while, I struggled to make decisions. Google diagnosed decision fatigue, which is defined as ‘the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision-making, which can cause irrational trade-offs’.
I have always prided myself in being switched on and resilient, but having decision fatigue affected my judgement and my ability to both juggle the BAU and deal with the curveballs. I struggled to engage in a simple conversation and constantly felt like I had to make a conscious effort to shut out the noise that was competing for my attention in order to be receptive to what was occurring in the moment. It was as if my mind was wading through treacle: all I wanted to do was stare into space and switch off my brain but couldn’t because of the demands of life. Thinking through decisions was almost painful, but the alternative – to make no decisions at all! - would have ground everything to a halt, so it was not an option.
Then, two things happened.
First, I missed vital clues to the wellbeing of Daughter. A parenting fail. Daughter is generally a sunny and happy 17-year-old, a highly social animal who uses art to express herself. She has a part-time job in a local fast-food restaurant, and studies creative subjects at college, which rely on her cup of creativity being full. But when she started feeling under pressure, she felt she couldn’t share her state of mind because she knew we were already under the cosh. I eventually noticed something was wrong as the chatty, confident girl I was used to seeing had her otherwise bright light dimmed, and a tearful conversation revealed the extent of the problem, which was thankfully manageable.
Second, I started to use work as respite from life, rather than the other way round. I am lucky to have an interesting job which combines strategic and intellectual thinking with practical delivery. Being at work felt like I was inside a cocoon that created a natural filter against the constant barrage of life demands. Some of those got through and were addressed, but most bounced off. I reflected on this dynamic, which at first didn’t sit quite right with me, and realised that the hybrid working practices had caused the personal to permeate the professional to such an extent that it had not only gone full circle, but had had a role reversal. In an attempt to re-establish boundaries, work had become a sacred space as a reaction against the chaos of home life.
My amateur psychology helped me to rationalise at least some of what was happening and probably got me on the road to recovery. But the impact of stress is cumulative, and we are still wading to get to the other side of the treacle highway. We are, however, (quietly!) optimistic that life is slowly returning to normality.
Barbara works as an environmental strategist for the aviation regulator and lives a stone’s throw from the South Downs, with her 17-year-old creative daughter, 16-year-old ingenious son and supportive husband.