Beat brain fog with a daily routine

Image of lamp on a desk shining over text board with message about daily routines.

Key takeaways

  • Decision fatigue is mental exhaustion caused by the pure volume of decisions we make on a day-to-day basis.
  • New research suggests it could be linked to a build-up of glutamate in the prefrontal cortex.
  • Daily routines can be a helpful strategy to reduce decision fatigue.
  • They can also promote wellbeing and productivity.
  • Tracking progress, planning for obstacles, being compassionate and rewarding yourself are just some ways to help implement routines.

In today’s workplace, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by increased pressure, workloads, and information overload. It might even be the norm for you to stretch your brain to the limit with deadlines, and overload it with endless task lists. We’re always ‘on’ and pushing ourselves to perform at our best. However, there’s a point we reach where it can be challenging to maintain consistently high levels of quality output, as we are limited by our finite energy and focus. What’s the solution? After all, no one wants to burnout.

Well, the answer might be a lot simpler than you think! It all starts with a bit of science……

Humans have a decision making limit…

Studies suggest that we make up to 35,000 decisions a day. These can range from consequential decisions like which candidate to hire, to everyday choices such as which mug to use for coffee in the morning. But, there is a limit to our decision-making capabilities. You probably know the feeling — after a long day at work your brain feels sluggish, and the thought of even making a minor decision such as what to cook that evening, feels exhausting.

Well, you’re not alone! In fact, research shows that after a long period of deep thinking, our decision-making capabilities reduce. We are more likely to make impulsive decisions  that lead to instant reward, (but are not necessarily strategic).

The effects of what’s commonly referred to as ‘decision fatigue’, have even been analysed in real-time. In research studies, participants who were given too many choices avoided making a choice altogether, while fatigued judges were less likely to give parole to prisoners after day of decision making in court.

What causes decision fatigue?

New research has recently begun to attribute decision fatigue to a neurotransmitter called glutamate. As we make more difficult decisions, glutamate builds up in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, an area that regulates our thoughts and actions. Glutamate can be toxic in high levels — and so our brain needs to find a way to get rid of this glutamate. Feeling exhausted after a day’s work? It is thought that the associated fatigue that comes with decision-making may be linked to the ways in which the brain clears this glutamate.

How do I combat decision fatigue?

The key is to reduce the number of decisions you need to make in a day. According to an article by the AMA, “The more decisions you have to make, the more fatigue you develop and the more difficult it can become.” 

Famously, Barack Obama went to the gym at the same time every morning and wore the same coloured suits so that he’d have fewer decisions to make and could focus his decision-making energy on what really mattered. And there is a key lesson we can take from this — the importance of daily routines. Yes, routines really can be the key to reducing decision fatigue!

How can daily routines reduce decision fatigue?

  • Having a daily routine can take away some of our ‘what to do next’ decisions.
  • It can ease some of our cognitive energy — by taking away some of our focus from recurring tasks, we can shift this focus and energy to other tasks.
  • It can act as an opportunity for us to introduce practices that support wellbeing and  productivity, e.g. mindfulness, exercise or screen breaks.
  • Daily routines can be used to support other aspects of your day e.g. a routine of having deep focus time to promote effectiveness, or even something as simple as making a habit of drinking a glass of water to stay hydrated.

Ok, so we’ve established the importance of daily routines. And that is where a lot of people stop, because the tricky bit is making them a part of your day.

How to embed your daily routine

Whilst the time it takes to set habits can vary depending on the habit itself and the individual, studies have suggested that it could take anywhere between a couple of weeks and three months. But don’t be disheartened — once you start to implement your habit, it will become easier and easier to do. To the point where it becomes a natural part of your day!

6 tips to establish a daily routine

Here are some tips that are handy for when you are just beginning to establish your daily routine.

1. Start small and build up

Try a few simple routines first. This could be giving yourself 15 minutes of do not disturb time or stepping away from your desk for a break. Once you have mastered these, you’ll have more confidence in yourself — and you can add to them gradually.

2. Track your progress

Use a habit tracking app. Some good ones are Productive, StickK and Way of life. This can be a fun and effective way of making sure you stick to your new habit.

3. Plan for obstacles and form a strategy to overcome them

For example, if you know you are tempted to check your phone first thing in a morning, turn it off and leave it in a drawer. Make things easier for yourself!

4. Be compassionate

If you miss a day, don’t beat yourself up! Remember forming a routine takes time — simply get back on track the next day.

5. Reward yourself

Recognise your efforts and celebrate them! Reinforcing positive behaviour will make us more likely to continue. What’s YOUR motivation?

6. Adjust your routine as needed

Persistence is key, but so is recognising when a routine is just not working for you. Being able to change, adjust, or simply swap your routine for a different one is much healthier than continuing with one that just isn’t right for you.


A daily routine can be an anchor in a stormy sea of decisions. A welcome break from the torrent of task lists, that provides continuity and certainty. And, once we have begun to implement them into our day, they can also promote wellbeing and productivity. So with this in mind, perhaps it’s time to start considering where you can implement some healthy habits in to your day.

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