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How Willpower Works: Decision Fatigue and 10 Ways Reduce It

how to manage decision fatigue and improve willpowerHow Willpower Works: Decision Fatigue and 9 Ways to Reduce It

Have you noticed as the day progresses you become mentally tired and it is harder to make good decisions? By the end of the day, you do not understand what happened with your willpower. You are running on empty, often making poor choices and feeling cranky. This happens because of decision fatigue, also sometimes called choice fatigue, decision exhaustion or willpower fatigue. So today we going to speak about discuss 10 ideas to help you reduce making small and mundane decisions throughout the day, and in turn, reduce decision fatigue.

Dr. Roy F. Baumeister: Willpower, Ego Depletion and Decision Fatigue

This is a syndrome coined by social psychologist Dr. Roy F. Baumeister, which is based on the Freudian hypothesis of what he called “ego depletion.” Through his experiments (decision fatigue research), Dr. Baumeister came to a conclusion: our willpower is finite. The more challenging and stressful the day, the more decisions we have to make, the faster we get to a point where it is very hard to make any additional good decisions. And this is when we start making unproductive and unhealthy choices. Decision fatigue is closely related to a phenomenon called ego depletion, which essentially refers to the fact that if you have to force yourself to complete a task you don’t want to do or if you have to keep from engaging in an activity you want to engage in, you will be less able to have enough willpower for your next task/decision.

One of Dr. Roy F. Baumeister experiments showcases this very well. Hungry participants entered the room. Some of them were given 2 cookies and some of them were given 2 radishes. After participants finished eating they had to solve a puzzle. Those who eat the radishes gave up on solving the puzzle much faster than those who eat cookies (more satisfactory food). Participants who had recently resisted cookies were less able to persevere through a puzzle than their peers who enjoyed cookies before starting solving the puzzle.

What is Decision Fatigue and How it Impacts Your Willpower

Why do we make unproductive and unhealthy choices, even when we know we should do better? Why we make those choices mostly in the second half of the day? 

Decision fatigue is one of the many things that can kill your focus. Every day we have to make a seemingly endless stream of decisions. Small decisions. Big decisions. They all add up, leaving us cognitively impaired and drained. This is why in the evening we tend to skip gym way too often, spend hours at a time watching the latest series on Netflix and succumb to the temptation of finding the bottom of yet another bag of potato chips.

The constant switching between tasks makes matters even worse. How many times a day do we open a new browser tab to Google something quickly or to take a look at your email inbox? 10 times? 40? 100? According to some studies, an average person switches 300 times per day between tasks during working hours. And this is just during working hours! Every time you switch you make a decision to switch. Every time you look through emails you make many decisions on whether to answer or not, answer now or later, where to file it once it is answered. 

Simply put, decision fatigue is the deterioration of our ability to make good decisions after a long session of decision making. We are basically talking here about willpower. We don’t have unlimited resources of it per day. It gets drained as we use it over and over again as the day continues. 

decision fatigue and willpower

Decision Fatigue: Impact on Willpower of Consumers

Decision fatigue also results in bad purchases. Jonathan Levav (Stanford University) through experiments showed how decision fatigue can leave a person vulnerable to sales and marketing strategies designed to time the sale. “Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people…can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car.” In other words, decision fatigue can influence irrational impulse purchases. 

This is also why supermarkets stock checkout counters with all sorts of impulse buy products. So when you are about to check out set a programmed decision for yourself not to grab any unhealthy impulse purchase items near the checkout counter.

Decision Fatigue and Recruitment

Some people don’t get a fair hearing if their case is reviewed later in the day. In a decision fatigue study published by the National Academy of Sciences, psychologists examined the factors that impact whether or not a judge approves a criminal for parole. The researchers examined 1,112 judicial rulings over a 10-month period. They found that the likelihood of a favorable ruling is greater at the very beginning of the workday or after a food break (e.g. lunch). Take a look at the exhibit below from that study. 

decision making fatigue and willpower

Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 108 no. 17

And the difference is meaningful. The researches had found that at the beginning of the day a judge was likely to give a favorable ruling ~65 percent of the time. As the morning progressed the judge experienced decision fatigue from making so many decisions and the likelihood of favorable ruling was trending towards zero. After a lunch break, the judge would return to the courtroom rested and the likelihood of a favorable ruling went back to about 65 percent. But as the day progressed the likelihood of favorable rulings again started trending towards zero. And this trend held back for more than 1,100 cases, with a crime as diverse as murder, theft, embezzlement, and rape.

This makes sense. At the beginning of the day and right after lunch the judge has enough willpower to give everyone a fair shot. Each case is carefully considered. As decision fatigue creeps in, due to the inability to review the case properly the easiest and safest decision is to deny, deny, deny.

Take a look at the exhibits below from the same study.

decision fatigue impact on decisions and willpower

decision fatigue impact on willpower

Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 108 no. 17

The same logic works for job interviews (also sales calls and many other things), including consulting case interviews. Try to make sure your interview is ideally first thing in the morning. If that is not possible, try to ensure it is right after a food break. Usually, the only food break you can predict with some certainty is lunch. However, during my days in consulting (and in banking) not eating lunch or eating it at 5pm was not so rare of an occurrence. So if you can, try to book your interview first thing in the morning.

Decision Avoidance

Decision fatigue can result in people avoiding decisions later in the day. This is called decision avoidance. A form of decision avoidance is selecting status quo or default options if those are available.

Does Decision Fatigue Impacts Your Willpower?

Do you suffer from decision fatigue? Of course, you do. Everyone does.

Does decision fatigue impacts your willpower? Of course, it does.

Decision fatigue and its impact on willpower is something we all deal with. However, there are things you can do to significantly reduce decision fatigue and intentionally use your willpower resources for things that matter.

10 Ideas to Reduce Decision Fatigue and Improve Willpower

Poorly managed decision fatigue results in low productivity, unhappiness, and poor decisions. And we need to keep ourselves productive and in good spirits to reach our goals and dreams and make an impact. So let’s discuss 10 ideas to help you reduce making small and mundane decisions throughout the day, and in turn reduce decision fatigue.

#1 – Do the Most Important Things First

Try to complete the most important tasks when your mental energy is at its highest level. If you sleep at night, like most people, you have the highest level of mental energy early in the day so use that time to do the most important things. The same goes for important decisions. Whenever possible make vital decisions in the morning. And the same, of course, is also applicable to meetings. Book all crucial meetings for the beginning of the day.

This is particularly important for key work you do. Make sure you do that work first thing in the morning and after you eat. In a study of business analysis forecasters became less accurate as the day wore on. When you run low on energy you will make safer choices and unlikely to do your best work. 

#2 – Plan Your Day the Night Before

Ask yourself, what do I need to do tomorrow to be happy with my day? This is the question I try to ask myself every night before bed as I am planning my next day. I try to limit those “MUST DO” items to a maximum of 5, to make sure it is feasible to achieve. I also try to get them done first before doing anything else, while my cognitive resources are fresh.

Finally, I plan out less important activities for later in the day so I can just follow my schedule without having to use up my mental energy making constant decisions.

#3 – Reduce and Automate Decisions

Some choices you think about regularly, so decide once, make a commitment and stick to it. Those choices become your rules or you can call them programmed decisions. This will save you time and will conserve your limited cognitive resources so you can use it for more important tasks.

For example, for anything work-related, I have outfits lined up in the closet and, often, I just go through them one by one in order, with some adjustments based on my schedule. When I get to the end of the line I return to the first outfit. This saves me a lot of energy in the morning, which I had previously used trying to figure out what I was going to wear that day.

Some successful people took this approach even further by wearing the same thing every day. Think about Steve Jobs and his signature black turtleneck with jeans and sneakers, or Mark Zuckerberg’s T-shirt and hoodie.

suits business willpower

profile of President Barack Obama mentioned that he only wears gray or blue suits. Why? “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing…you need to routinize yourself.” 

Of course, a monotonous wardrobe is harder to pull off if you are not a world-famous business leader! Yet, you can certainly simplify your life to some degree to ensure you don’t waste time and mental energy thinking about pointless aspects of your day. One alternative here if you still want to pick your outfit every day is to do it the night before. That includes accessories and shoes.

Free up your mental space so you have the capacity to build a big life for yourself!

#4 – Develop a Decision-Making Strategy

Make small decisions fast and don’t look back. Make big decisions slowly and keep adjusting.

If a decision is not particularly important, such as picking a restaurant for an anniversary dinner or selecting a shirt to buy, once you decide where to go or what to buy, take action and let it go. Second guessing yourself just wears you down.

On the other hand, for important issues, there are times when you see what is the right thing to do only after you have made a decision. In fact, sometimes you need to temporarily decide and take a few steps forward to see more clearly what is the best choice and only then decide. Don’t be afraid to change your mind if the stakes are high. Only you know what is the right thing to do. And sometimes you need to take a few steps along the wrong path to see clearly what is the right path for you.

For example, some time back I wanted to buy a house in Oakville, a lovely town in Canada, about 40 minutes by train from Toronto. Many of my banking and consulting colleagues lived there and they absolutely loved the lifestyle.

I went through the entire process of engaging the real estate agent, selecting a house, making an offer, negotiating a great deal on the house, and doing an inspection.

And then it hit me – I was making a huge mistake. I could not lose 2 hours on the commute every day. I did not have time to take care of the house. And I did not want to live an isolated life in the suburbs. I loved the convenience of living in Downtown Toronto. And, I did not like the house enough to make a commitment. Yet, I could only see this clearly once I made a few steps in the wrong direction, but fortunately, it was not too late to course-correct. So I turned around that giant ship just before it was too late and got out of the deal.

Of course, I tried to make things right. I gave my inspection results to the seller so they could use it to entice other buyers with a free inspection. When I made an offer there were no competing offers, so I knew the owner did not lose any offers. In fact, the real estate agent said there were no other offers on the horizon so we had a strong position to negotiate the price. And I wrote up a flattering recommendation for the real estate agent so he could use it to entice other clients. Yet the key is, I reversed a key life decision when I realized I made a mistake. And if you are in a situation like that, so should you.

The same thing happened with my transition to banking. I went into banking after MBA intending to build my career there but quickly realized that banking was not the right path for me so I switched back to management consulting after two years.

I know a lot of bankers who did not like their job but stuck with it for decades. Yet your career and your life’s work is not a light matter. It is a crucially important decision where pivots should be taken as many times as necessary until you feel you have hit the jackpot.

#5 – Feed and Rest Your Brain

As you know, nurturing your brain will boost cognitive performance. So make sure you have nutritious food throughout the day, stay hydrated, sleep 7 to 8 hours a day and take regular and refreshing breaks away from your desk every 60 to 90 minutes.

#6 – Design a Morning Ritual

Tip number 6 to help you reduce decision fatigue is figuring out what you need to do in the morning to start off the day well. Set up a morning ritual for the first hour of your day so it is decision free. Work out what you need to do during the first hour of your day to set yourself up for a successful day and execute it.

For example, my morning ritual is usually drinking a glass of hot water with lemon and a spoon of apple cider vinegar to detox, doing some yoga, reading Financial Times, Wall Street Journal and New York TImes, shower and grooming. I don’t even need to think about it.

#7 – Eat Something First

If you need to make a decision later in the day and you are feeling that you are experiencing a decision fatigue, eat something first. Try to take a few minutes break, relax, have some tea or decaf coffee, or smoothie. I usually have herbal tea with a healthy breakfast bar.

#8 – Meditation or Nap

A great way to restore your willpower is to do about 10-20 minutes of meditation. You can use guided meditation from YouTube to help someone guide you through it. There are so many wonderful ones available on YouTube. My recent favorite is this meditation by Ekhart Tolle. If you do not like meditation, consider taking a power nap (about 20 minutes). Set an alarm so you don’t go into deep sleep.

#9 – Simplify Your Life

Remember the Pareto principle? Also known as the 80/20 rule. It states that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. What is 20 percent of activities in your life that cause 80% of results? Try to focus primarily on those and eliminate all nonessential tasks and decisions. Are there things in your life that are not important to you? Eliminate them. The less time you spend on things that are not important the more willpower, energy and time you have to spend on things that matter. Focus on making consistent progress on things that are important to you and eliminate as much of not important things as possible.

#10 – Develop the right mindset

A recent study by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck found that simply believing you have more willpower can improve your ability to make good choices, even when you are experiencing decision fatigue. “We’re not saying people don’t need fuel for strenuous work, they just don’t need it constantly,” Dweck explained. “People have many more resources at hand than they might think.”

So remember to keep yourself in the right state of mind. Your mindset is a very powerful thing. Establish effective habits. Routinize mundane decisions.

Final Thoughts

Finally, don’t forget about helping your loved ones, your children, your spouse, your parents, your friends, with managing decision fatigue and its impact on willpower. They are struggling with it too. So if you want them to conserve their mental energy and make better decisions encourage them to adapt some behaviors above to help them manage decision fatigue, preserve their willpower for important things and take some pressure off them when you feel you can. For example, by deciding what to eat for breakfast.

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Cheers, Kris

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