Expats and decision fatigue

The Expatability Chat Podcast

Decision, Decisions, Decisions!

Making the decision to move overseas in the first place is huge; it starts with ‘should we stay or should we go?’ And just spirals from there.

All this decision-making pressure can become too much, particularly when we are moving overseas and there are so many unknowns to factor in. 

We make between 1000-5000 decisions every single, normal day. Which is why making extra, life-changing choices on top of leads to O.M.G ARRRGH! Or, to give it an official name, decision fatigue. It’s a form of mental exhaustion and ultimately causes you to either stop making decisions or making poor choices.

Making good decisions is something that can be lost in the mix of overthinking and over analysing: you get into a state of ‘Can’t see the wood for the trees’ – you’re looking at the tiny details instead of the big picture.

Are you confident in your decision-making skills? Or would you like a little help from someone who’s been there and done that – several times? Someone who can help you see the big picture and help you cut through the wood so you can see the trees?

If you need someone neutral to chat it all over with, in complete confidence. I’m here for you! Let me help lighten your mental load. I can help you discover everything you need to make the best decision for you and your family. Find out how I can help you here.

While I can’t make your decisions for you, I can offer honest advice, experience-based suggestions, recommendations, tools and tips to lighten your mental and emotional load.

I’m dedicated to helping you simplify your expat decision-making process, so you have clarity and confidence in the major life choices you’re making.

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Hi, welcome back to Expatability Chat, I'm Carole and in this episode, I want to talk to you about decision making, and more importantly, what happens when we have to make too many decisions in too short a time, which leads to something called decision fatigue.

For most of us it starts before we even get out of bed. Oh, what day is it? Am I supposed to do something in particular today? Shall I get up now or shall I just have a few more minutes? What shall I have for breakfast? What shall I wear? Do I need a coat? What's the weather doing? Shall I walk or shall I drive? What should I make for dinner later? And so on and so on.

Decisions. Decisions. Decisions. The small decisions that we take for granted are seemingly endless. Studies on numbers are inconclusive, but the suggestions range from between 1000 to 5000 decisions daily. Being accurate doesn't really matter in this case. What does matter is understanding that we make a lot of decisions, many of which are subconscious, or at the very least easy enough not to cause problems.

Our lives with Internet these days, cell phones and permanent connectedness have become increasingly filled with tiny decisions. Should I check my email now or later? Should I reply to that email now or later or tomorrow or never? Shall I check social media now or later? Netflix or TV? We have too much choice these days.

And that busyness, that choice, has a price. The more choices we're faced with, the more likely we are to fall victim to decision fatigue. To make good choices, we need to listen to our thoughts, recognise when our energy is dropped and react accordingly. The trouble is that there are just too many decisions that we have to make, and you can't swap one set of decisions for another. All you can do is keep adding them up, so when we face something that is potentially life changing, such as moving overseas with our family, it's little wonder that we start to feel overwhelmed with the number of decisions that we have to make.

Interestingly, this year of COVID in lockdown has had an effect on some people's daily decision making, as many of our day to day choices were taken away from us literally overnight. No need to decide what to wear to the office - not going in; no need to get dressed from the waist down if you're only on Zoom calls... Please do! No need to decide who to see, where to go and when and so on, because we weren't allowed to.

For many people, this was incredibly freeing and for others it became hell on Earth, for different reasons I won't go into now, as that's not the remit of this episode. This episode is about decision fatigue and how it relates to expats and how you can get through it to make better decisions.

So it's a proven fact that people facing a larger number than average decisions start to suffer from a form of mental fatigue, which ultimately impairs their judgment. A famous study looked at some judges and they, for example, are more likely to hand out harsher sentences later in the day. And also, perhaps doctors are more likely to miss something important at the end of a busy surgery. Corporate bosses often release bad news emails on a Friday afternoon. Now that might be decision fatigue or it might be something else completely. But you get the idea.

Basically, decision fatigue is a real thing. Decision fatigue makes us feel out of control. And we don't like feeling out of control, so therefore, our brains do whatever they can to regain that control.

How do they do that? Well they do their best to stop you making decisions. The symptoms of decision fatigue are different from feeling physically tired. You might think you're full of energy and raring to go, but with every decision you make, your brain becomes a little more fatigued and you lose a little more mental energy. Each subsequent decision becomes harder and harder. We start to feel frustrated, under pressure and our short term memory becomes impacted. Which when you already have a ton of things to think about, becomes a bit of an issue.

I reckon the brain has only space for a finite number of thoughts at any one time, maybe about seven. But that's just my thinking. And so when there are too many thoughts in your head, some fall out. It's that feeling that when you walk into a room and have no idea why you went there in the first place and what you were meant to be doing. You retrace your steps, do something else on the way back and whatever it was you were supposed to do in the first place, just has gone. You've no clue. This is when you find the kettle in the fridge or your shoes in the bath!

Now, speaking as a scatter-brained menopausal woman, this is generally a normal state of affairs for me. But for the rest of you, this is mental fatigue, decision fatigue. And if left unchecked, it can cause problems. The problems it can cause are, for example, a lack of energy, a loss of enthusiasm, depression and potentially disastrous outcomes that may be affected by poor judgment. What I mean by this is you may make the wrong decisions.

When we are physically tired, we can go to sleep and our bodies rest and recharge. Unfortunately, the brain doesn't do that, it doesn't always take advantage of the down time because it remains active all night and mulls over the lessons learned in that day and decisions made during that day. And this is why we dream and why we sometimes wake up in the morning still feeling absolutely shattered.

Now expats and decision making. How do I even start? Making the decision to move overseas in the first place is huge. Massive, absolutely huge. And it starts with, 'should we stay or should we go?' And what's the best age to move with the kids? Is it now or later? Oh, and from that point on, the decisions simply don't stop. Where to live, which school to choose, who do I need to tell? What do I need to take with me? What do I do with the rest of my stuff? How do I choose a removal company? How does all that work? Who do I tell? When do I tell them? How do I tell them? And what do I do about great Aunt Mabel who really isn't going to be happy with this? And what to do with the children who are going to be a bit difficult about leaving their friends?

So, it's no wonder that expats often suffer from decision fatigue in the run up to the move, and that mental exhaustion takes a heavy toll. And that's just with the relatively straightforward decisions, don't even go there with the 'what ifs'. What ifs, create a whole series of other decisions that don't even exist.

Now, making all these decisions can become too much, especially when there are so many choices. And when it comes to moving overseas, there are a lot of choices to make and most of them include unknowns that you need to factor in. And you may be afraid of making the wrong decision, especially when that decision affects other people. You may end up taking shortcuts, carelessly and impulsively deciding, "Oh that one will do" or, "No, we don't need that" and throw it away.

The amount of times I've done the latter and then forgotten about it because, like I said, too many thoughts in my head at the same time. I end up spending ages searching for a book that I know that I definitely have - or had in my last country.

Another symptom of decision fatigue is something called analysis paralysis. This is when you over research, overthink and over analyse every single aspect of every single decision. And then you find yourself unable to make any decision at all. Your brain says enough! And chooses the ultimate energy saver and shuts down and does nothing at all. Which isn't really great when you move out in a few weeks.

Imagine you're choosing something like, say, a new bathroom floor covering. Yeah, I'm right in the middle of this right now. The stuff you have to consider just for a floor in a bathroom... What size, what price? What's it made from? Is it properly waterproof? Which colour? Which pattern? Do I even want a pattern or is plain better? Is that one better than the other one? Where's the cheapest and easiest place to get it from? When will arrive? Can I fit it myself or do I need to get somebody in to do it? If so, who?

Just a soupçon decisions compared to moving overseas. And these are active, conscious decisions on a single particular day. And that's on top of all the other slightly subconscious decisions I mentioned earlier, like getting up now or getting up later.

How long before you give up on all those choices and leave what's already lying on the floor in the bathroom, even if it doesn't go with anything new? Or just buy the one that's easiest? And that's just making a decision on one thing, where you can see where it's got to go and you know roughly what to expect. Very opposite from moving overseas.

As I said before, there are so many unknowns that you have to contend with when making a decision about moving overseas, especially if you haven't done it before.

You're having to make decisions based on a lot of unknowns and a lot of uncertainties. And these decisions will impact other people in your family. It's no wonder overwhelm and decision fatigue rolls on in. The truth is, when we're facing a massive change in our lives, we can't avoid decision fatigue altogether, but there are some steps we can take to reduce the negative impact. So I want to talk now about ways that we can avoid decision fatigue.

Many people recommend making big decisions in the morning when the brain is as fresh as it's going to get, in order to help avoid errors of judgment.

Now, I don't know about you, but for me in the mornings, I can barely make a decision on whether I want a second cup of tea or just dive straight into my massive coffee habit. I simply don't do mornings. My brain certainly doesn't do mornings. My brain actually fires fast at around 10:00 or 11:00 at night, which isn't particularly practical in normal life. So I would find a happy medium and start doing important stuff around about midday. Find a sensible time where your brain works well.

A way to help your Decision-Making process in the build up to making your move abroad is to plan. Yeah, that again! You know that's my favourite thing! Planning before you move overseas makes life so much easier for you all. Schedule your days. Don't try to do too much in one day. Focus on one thing at a time and don't get bogged down in the details. Getting too bogged down in the details is a kind of a procrastination method, and it stops you making a decision.

Limiting your options is a great technique. Do your research and narrow it down to just a handful of choices for every major decision. So, for example, narrow it down to three removal companies and get quotes from just those three. Narrow it down to three schools, for example, if you have the choice, rather than a whole city full of them. OK, maybe schools is not the best example because they are really important but if you do have the choice of dozens, choose your top three preferences and work on them to start with. You can always change your mind later.

Maybe you'll find a small set of decisions that you can simplify in your life so that you can focus on the more complex ones. A weird sort of example from me just to try and illustrate what I mean by finding a small set of decisions to simplify.

Back in April 1993. Yeah, a long time ago, I was working in IT in the city of London. On Saturday, 23rd April, a huge bomb blew up the building I worked in.

I had made the decision the day before not to go into work on that Saturday. That was actually a lucky choice, and not really the point of this aside, but just setting the scene. I was, however, involved in the clear up and relocation of the hundreds of people, offices and tech affected by this massive explosion. As you can imagine, it was a highly unusual, incredibly stressful, messy and filthy dirty time. I was manually moving shattered computers around, coordinating clear ups and day to day support and all sorts of other things.

Now, while I couldn't control the environment at all, and we were all functioning on a very different level than normal, I could reduce the number of choices I made on a daily basis. It wasn't a particularly conscious decision, but it did work. They were all very simple and basic. I bought a pile of identical t-shirts and extra jeans, so all I had to do was pick up a fresh pair each day. I didn't need to consider which 1990's power suit I was going to wear that day.

En route to work, I would call into the same coffee shop each day and order the exact same breakfast and lunch. Every single day. Soon the shop owner had them waiting for me, so I didn't even need to queue. And it saved a lot of time, a lot of thinking, no small talk, that kind of thing. Simply removing a few very basic decision making tasks enabled me to function and focus on the traumatic and important stuff during that day.

Remember, decision fatigue makes us feel out of control. I was kind of in control of my practical life back then. The mental effects hit us all later. Again, that's all by the by.

Back to planning and preparing for your move abroad. Grouping tasks together helps a lot. Build momentum by working through a series of similar tasks at a time and it's one of the fastest way to get a feeling of control back. If you can link related tasks together there's less chance you'll be faced with having to make a decision to get started, and also it stops you getting everything all muddled up in your head.

So one day or one week, simply focus on, for example, finding a removal company and organising the packing day. The next set of tasks could be school based. Another set of tasks, perhaps organising the pets and getting rid of old furniture. So if you mix them all up - doing a bit here and a bit there, it will all become too much, too chaotic and you may make mistakes. So focus really helps.

Simplify your choices and set priorities. Go and listen to my episode on Overcoming Overwhelm again for more tips on how to do that.

One technique I find especially helpful is to limit my daily to do list to only five items. Or three when it's intensely pressurised. And writing the list the night before. Always writing my to do list in the evenings. As I mentioned just now mornings are not my best time, so it helps me have a plan for my day that was made when my brain was actually working.

Focus on momentum, keep going and make and lock in big decisions when your motivation and willpower are high. Because when we hit decision fatigue, our self-discipline and willpower disintegrate completely. It's why we turn to the packets of biscuits and bottles of wine after a busy or stressful day. It's easy. We don't have to think about it. And we have no willpower to say no because we've made too many decisions and the decision to activate willpower has gone.

Or we could go online, late night shopping for stuff we don't need. That seems to be mine, along with a packet of biscuits, as I seem to have a giant cactus arriving soon. Hmm. No willpower.

Our willpower our, self-discipline wanes more when our decision making brain has been in overdrive.

Take the easiest option wherever possible. Choose the house or school that's geographically convenient. This might mean compromising a little bit on your perfect ideal, but think about how many other decisions you'll avoid making in the future. Having a school close to your home makes it easier for your child to make new friends in the neighbourhood. It may not be the best school, but if you're going to be living there for a long time, maybe that is the right decision for your child.

So I mentioned that sometimes overthinking can be a procrastination method. Analysis paralysis can be caused by overthinking, just over researching, over-analysing, and it's a way of stopping us making decisions. As I say, our brains are pretty clever of this kind of thing. Sometimes it's perfectionism. Often it's perfectionism, actually. A lot of our reluctance to make a final decision comes from FOMO, the fear of missing out. We fear missing out on the often mythical 'perfect option' that we believe may present itself after we've hit the Big Red Decision-Making button.

Nothing's perfect. Another part of our reluctance and decision making fear comes from having to make decisions on behalf of other people. Those we love most; our kids. Now, while it's right to acknowledge that children have no choice about moving overseas and to support them in all we can, as adults and parents, we have to make decisions on their behalf. Can you imagine if big choices were left to the kids? They'd never go to school. They'd go to school dressed as T-Rex. They'd eat only sweets and never go to bed.

OK, that's stereotyping and simplifying, but you get the picture. As a parent, you make the best decision you can for your child based on the options available at that time. I bet if you look closer, there are actually fewer options, for example, schooling, than you think, which will help you narrow it down a little bit.

Maybe the most important advice of all is not to beat yourself up if things go wrong. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to your brain. Don't ask too much of it. Rest when you can. Learn to meditate. And eat well. Blood sugar levels are one of the key aspects to a well oiled brain. So don't forget to eat and make wise food choices. Steer away from the biscuits! Perhaps take yourself away from it all for a while. Switch off your phone, go for a walk, visit some supportive friends, try and switch off from the relocation planning and you'll find it remarkably refreshing.

Have a bit of a reset; reboot your brain, switch it off, switch it back on again! Everyone has the occasional lapse of judgment and makes a poor decision, but nothing needs to be forever. There is nothing you can't change and nothing you can't improve on. Nothing much is set in stone, and there's always an alternative if you find it's necessary later. So relax, take a deep breath and just take one decision at a time.

Making good decisions is something that can be lost in the mix of overthinking and overanalysing. You get into a state of' can't see the wood for the trees'. You're looking at the tiny details instead of the big picture.

And I know how easy that is. I've been there, I've done it. You have a lot to think about. Some of the questions plus many more may be worrying you because they worry most potential expats. How can I be sure I'm making the best decisions for my family? Should I even make this move abroad at all? How do I handle family making me feel guilty? What happens if this all turns out to be a huge mistake? When's the right age to move overseas with my children? How do I choose a school? How do I help my children prepare for this move? How do I support them? And how do I manage everything that I need to get done when there's only me?

So how confident are you with your decision making skills? Maybe you'd like a little help from someone who's been there and done that several times. Someone who can help you see the big picture and help you cut through the wood so that you can see the tree. If you need somebody neutral to chat it all over with - in complete confidence of course - I'm here for you. That's what I do!

Let me help lighten your mental load. I'm really good at it. I can help you discover everything you need to make the best decisions for you and your family. Now, I cannot make your decisions for you; I know it would be really cool to pass the buck to somebody, but you do need to make them for yourselves. But I can help you with that. I can offer honest advice, experience based suggestions, recommendations, tools and loads of tips to help lighten your mental and emotional load.

I'm dedicated to helping you simplify your expat decision making process so that you have clarity and confidence in making your own major life decisions.

When we talk one to one, we can really dig through your thoughts and clear up any worries and concerns you may have. We can discuss your dreams and you can get my suggestions on how to make them all come true. I can help you work through this complex decision making process to help you understand all the important factors involved in moving overseas with children.

I just want to say that there are four things that I cannot help you with. I cannot find you a job overseas. I cannot give you legal advice. I cannot get you a visa. And I cannot guarantee you a fabulous expat life. That's all up to you!

If you want to talk with me and if you want my help in getting through your Decision-Making process or anything to do with expat life, I'm here. I'll pop a link in the show notes so that you can book a one to one, call with me. Come and pick my brains, get it all off your chest, and let's focus together on the challenges and decisions you have right now.

If you don't know where to start or what to do first, or next, or if you're getting overwhelmed, stressed, worried, get in touch with me. That's what I'm here for. I will help you move forward. Let's make your expat life a success, as a priority.

I do hope you'll get in touch with me. Good luck with your decision making. Remember, you're making the right decision for you at that time with the information you have, so please don't beat yourself up.

And if there's anything I can help you with, reach out.

I look forward to chatting with you again soon. Bye bye.

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