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Stop Buying into “Decision Fatigue”

Millions of tiny decisions throughout our day can drain our willpower and mental resources — if we let them.

“Making decisions uses the very same willpower that you use to say no to doughnuts, drugs, or illicit sex,” says Roy Baumeister, a researcher who studies decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue is the idea that your willpower is finite, like a muscle that gets tired when you use it too much. We feel drained thanks to the infinite decisions that require our attention during the day, and start picking the easiest default options like the shoes the salesman suggests, or slip and eat that doughnut we’ve been trying to avoid. It’s why Obama only wears gray or blue suits: he wants to focus his decision-making energy on bigger things.

Photo Credit: Kathy Smith

Once studies started to suggest that decision fatigue has very real effects, a font of productivity advice sprung up to help people maximize their mental resources and self-control. Tips like these abound:

  • Tackle tough projects and important decisions at the start of the day. If you keep procrastinating your book project, use your morning willpower to get it done. Save the little decisions for the end of the day. Choosing cereal brands at the grocery store may seem like an easy, light decision, but the idea is that even small decisions like these add up and drain your mental resources.
  • Make strong commitments to pre-scheduled routines. Don’t decide whether you’re going to the gym today. Commit beforehand to a predictable schedule that takes no decision-making. Know that you always go at 11:30am before lunch, and place your shoes and outfit at the door the night before so you can just grab them.
  • Keep your blood sugar steady. Replenish your glucose levels with a snack or lunch to restore your willpower after it’s been depleted. A study that examined the parole decisions of a group of Israeli judges showed that they were more likely to grant parole at the start of the day — a decision that required careful thought. As time went on and they got more mentally fatigued, they were more likely to deny parole, which was the default decision. Until they got back from lunch. In the time right after their meal, their likelihood of granting parole jumped back up to morning levels.

The Best Tip of All? Stop Believing in Decision Fatigue

Perhaps the best way to protect yourself from decision fatigue is to change your mindset.

Remember researcher Carol Dweck, pioneer of the growth mindset in education? She also studied decision fatigue and found that it does impact decisions, but only for people who believe that willpower is a finite resource.

Most people believe this, which might explain why past studies showed such strong decision fatigue effects — the participants probably were skewed toward believing in fatigue. But look closer and there is a smaller subset of the population that doesn’t believe willpower is so easily drained.

Instead, they believe in the power of momentum: once you get started with a tough project, it’s easier to keep going. Once you refuse one slice of cake, it’s easier to refuse it the next time. That is, they believe that willpower is like a muscle that strengthens when it is exercised, instead of quickly draining. As Dweck explains, “In some cases, the people who believe that willpower is not so limited actually perform better after a taxing task.”

So decision fatigue doesn’t affect this group and, interestingly, a glucose boost doesn’t either.

It’s as if the decision fatigue group constantly monitors how they feel: “If they feel fatigued, they show a deficit [in decision making]. If you give them sugar and they get a surge of energy, they don’t show a deficit.” But if you don’t believe your fatigue hurts your willpower, you don’t get much benefit from eating a bit of sugar.

(Of course, neither group believes that willpower is infinite. If you want to keep making good decisions, you need to eat eventually.)

Importantly, Dweck found that you can change your beliefs about decision fatigue and therefore become more immune to it. In her research, one group of students learned that willpower is not finite and wrote an essay convincing others of this viewpoint. They showed more willpower during stressful finals exams while the control group engaged in more impulsive behavior like eating junk food, procrastinating, and spending recklessly.

So if you want to practice self-control around writing a book or eating a doughnut, consider the idea that your momentum in the right direction will help you out.

And in light of this finding, maybe Obama can spice up his wardrobe a little.




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