We all know the feeling. It’s late at night, we’re tired, drained from the day’s events. We have a choice between sticking to our healthy habit of not eating before bed or eating that leftover cake in the fridge. The next question becomes whether or not we should wash the dish we just ate the cake off of tonight or tomorrow.
The same lack of willpower goes into the battle between working on that business idea, studying, researching, writing or watching Netflix until bed.
Why is our willpower so weak at night? Or for some throughout the entire day?
We have all these great plans that we wind up not following through on. Why?
What kills these healthy habits and these entrepreneurial dreams?
Decision fatigue is the idea that with the more decisions we make, or the more willpower we exert, the more the quality of later decisions deteriorates.
Basically, the more decisions we make (choosing to focus on something over another, choosing to suppress an emotion or impulse, or modify a behavior) the more our willpower depletes, thus leading us to make lower quality and sometimes irrational decisions.
What about when your job is to make decisions?
A famous illustration of decision fatigue occurred when researchers Jonathan Levav of the Stanford School of Business and Liora Avnaim-Pesso and Shair Danziger of Ben Gurion University analyzed 1,112 parole board hearings overseen by 8 judges over a ten month period.
What they found was astounding.
The judges have an intense schedule, they see up to 35 parole hearings a day and must make a decision whether to grant parole or not in about 6 minutes. They only get two breaks the entire day as well.
In the mornings and after each break, the judges granted parole to inmates around 65% of the time, but at the end of each period (right before the breaks and end of day) the inmates chances of being released fell to around 0%.
The judge’s decision fatigue was setting in before the breaks, so they turned to their default setting, which was no. Read more on this case study here
Here is a graph that illustrates the judges decisions.
Study after study shows that willpower is a finite resource and the more you allow decision fatigue to set in, the worse your decisions will be.
So how can we battle decision fatigue and make sure we have enough willpower to do things that truly let us live our best life? First, let’s look at what actions drain us.
What taxes your willpower?
In his book, The One Thing, Gary Keller lists out actions that tax our willpower and cause decision fatigue:
- Implementing new behaviors
- Filtering distractions
- Resisting temptation
- Suppressing emotion
- Restraining aggression
- Suppressing impulses
- Taking tests
- Trying to impress others
- Coping with fear
- Doing things you don’t enjoy
- Selecting long-term rewards over short-term rewards
Your willpower is going to be draining throughout the day, so the key is to make sure you are exerting most of your willpower on high level, important items and managing the rest of it to continue making rational decisions.
5 ways to avoid decision fatigue
1. Avoid using your willpower on small decisions
There is a reason why Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, President Obama, and Steve Jobs all wore only a handful of clothing items each day. They have way more important decisions to make than to decide what to wear each morning. My mom and fiance always make fun of me for wearing the same 4 t-shirts, but for me it saves me from draining a precious resource each day, my willpower. You can save willpower everywhere you make decisions.
Do you spend way too long picking where to eat? Or what to work on next? Find ways in your life to automate these decisions or remove them completely.
2. Do your most important work before noon
Stephen King starts his writing promptly at 9 am every morning and doesn’t do anything else until his pages get done. Tim Ferris uses this same strategy for his writing. I call this time blocking. It is what I also use to work on my most important projects. I am writing this piece right now during one of these sessions. Doing your most important work first is also important because the morning is when you have the most willpower, so you are able to use it on what matters before anything else can drain it. When you finish your most important task first thing in the morning, it puts the rest of the day to ease. No matter what happens from that point on, you got your one thing done.
3. Remove distractions and temptations
Distractions and temptations are the evil minions of decision fatigue. Choosing to avoid a distraction (like when your phone beeps) drains your willpower faster than most actions. The key with distractions is not to simply ignore them, but to remove them completely. I put my phone in my drawer when working on important tasks. I also blast music so nothing from the outside world gets in. I call this “bunker time” and I tell my team I am going in the bunker to forewarn them that I will not be checking anything. If this means you have to leave your office and go to a coffee shop to remove the distraction, do it. Temptations work the same way. Do not simply power through them, remove them completely. It’s easier to not eat the cake when you don’t have one in the house.
4. Eat right
Willpower can be replenished with rest and nutrition. If you are eating regularly and eating the right things, you will find that it is easier to make rational, high-quality decisions. Just like pro athletes who eat right because they need to perform at a high level, you should eat right to perform at your highest level. You are a pro athlete in your world, treat yourself like it.
5. Create systems in your life for decisions big and small
More than anything else, routines (or systems), will help you avoid decision fatigue and continue to perform at a high level. Having a strong morning routine is step one in this. You can read more about how to implement a morning routine here. Not having to think about what to do for the first few hours of the morning will keep your willpower tank at full and energize you the rest of your day. I personally don’t have to think about what to eat, what to wear, how to workout, or when I am starting work. This is all pre-selected and automated.
You can create a system for:
- Your food (meal prepping, meal delivery service, etc.)
- Your workouts (home workout programs, trainers, etc.)
- How to build habits or change behaviors (grab your habit builder calendar here)
- Haircuts (I have them on my calendar for every four Saturdays)
The strategies above will help you avoid decision fatigue so you can perform at your best.
In order to keep your healthy habits, achieve your entrepreneurial dreams, and ultimately live your best life, you are going to have to respect your vital resource, willpower.
Don’t let decision fatigue derail your dreams.
Fight back: focus on the important first, remove distractions and temptations, create routines.
Elevate your life.
Want to learn more about creating routines?
Check out this article about habit building!