The latest fascinating bit of science uncovered by psychologists that affects all of us in one way or another is decision fatigue. This powerful phenomenon slowly erodes our willpower and decision making ability on a regular basis. It can make a NHL goalie prone to dubious choices late in the game and C.F.O.’s prone to disastrous dalliances late in the evening. Its why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, skip exercise and buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. It can routinely warp the judgment of everyone, rich and poor, executive and non-executive and in fact, it can take a special toll on the poor. Yet few people are even aware of it, and researchers are only beginning to understand why it happens and how to counteract it.
It doesn’t matter how rational you try to be, you can’t make multiple decisions without paying a biological price. Far different from ordinary physical fatigue, you’re not consciously aware of being spent but you’re low on mental energy.
The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, Facebook or tweet that photo! What could go wrong?)
Cutting corners even when exercising is the ultimate energy saver: do almost nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. You start to resist any change, any potentially risky move like releasing a prisoner who might commit a crime.
So the fatigued judge on a parole board takes the easy way out, and the prisoner keeps doing. In simple terms, we have a limited capacity for making decisions, and the more decisions we have to make, even simple ones, such as plastic or paper, weights or cardio can slowly wear us down and send our exercise willpower into a tailspin until it is crumpled and cowering in a corner.
Roy Baumeister a social psychologist, conducted experiments aimed to measure and study mental discipline. His studies results surprised many as it showed that individuals have a finite amount of willpower, or mental energy, for self-control. When people resisted one temptation, such as eating candy or warm chocolate-chip cookies, they were less able to resist other subsequent temptations.
Another experiment of his had people resist getting emotional during a tear-jerker movie. After succeeding on this task, however, they gave up more quickly while working on tasks requiring self-discipline, such as solving various puzzles and squeezing a hand-grip fitter.
Baumeister’s conclusion was that willpower was actually a type of mental fitness, and no different than a muscle, it could be driven to exhaustion. Previously, researchers focused on acts of self-restraint draining willpower, but over time the theory became more generalized, and it turns out that all sorts of decision making can empty these mental energy stores.
The hundreds of decisions we make each day (what to wear, what to eat, what to buy, what project to start first, what route to choose, or optimal workout to do…) result in a sorts of mental fatigue.
Knowing that we have a limited amount of available mental energy, we learned that if you use up your stores of willpower on little, or lesser important decisions, there will be no chance of making a good decision at the end of the day. This may be a concern to you if you find that you choose eat clean all day but cave in to resist temptations at night, or can’t make yourself go to the gym after work.
Having done dozens of small decisions during the day, you may find that by 5pm you can’t decide if you want to exercise, get take-out, cook at home, call your mom, or walk the dog. Eventually considering to give up, and do nothing.
This research can help you recognize that it’s not necessarily related to your lack of willpower; it may be related to the number of decisions you’ve already made in a given day. Baumeister points out, “Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low.”
That’s why the truly wise don’t restructure the company at 4 p.m. They don’t make major commitments during the cocktail hour. And if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach. “The best decision makers,” Baumeister says, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”
Tips to Prevent Decision Fatigue:
• Hire a personal trainer. A certified personal trainer can be the source of a tremendous amount of motivation when you have none. An elite personal trainer allows you to use their willpower to tap into your own. All you need to do is show up and they can make the rest of the decisions for you.
• Be aware of how you use your willpower reserves each day. Just recognizing this phenomenon can help you conserve your decision-making energy for the most important decisions.
• Have self-control. Baumeister found that people with high levels of self-control actually structure their lives in a way that conserves willpower. They don’t put themselves in situations that require making lots of decisions or exerting willpower. They don’t take on numerous responsibilities and resist endless temptations. They plan ahead and make intentional choices.
• Reduce the daily number of decisions you make. Next, become mindful of the number of decisions you are making. Consciously choose the ones that are most important to you, and let go of those that aren’t worth your mental energy.
• Exercise first thing in the morning. You heard it from INFOFIT! In addition to the fact that those in the morning tend to be more consistent, if you workout in the morning, you are more likely to have more decision-making energy available.
• Add fabulous music. Music has been shown to increase exercise motivation, so plan a great playlist and plug into some ready-made willpower.
• Take on big decisions early. Make your most important decisions in the morning; take on less important decisions later in the day.
• Plan your day. Especially for personal trainers and athletes, it’s important to make decisions about your training early in the day. So decide what exercise and when you’ll do it first thing in the morning, and put it on your calendar.
• Plan your week and set goals. Better yet, set up a weekly training plan so you don’t have to decide what to do, or when to do it. The decision will have already been made, so you, as Nike says, “just do it.”
• Take time for rest. If you find you have decision fatigue, recognize that you’re more likely to act impulsively or do nothing at all. Learn from this and make small adjustments for the next day.
Plan ahead and be mindful of the many decisions you make each day, and as the saying goes, “don’t sweat the small stuff.” Adopting a few simple strategies makes it much more likely that you’ll be able to save your willpower for the decisions that really matter most to you.