How to Defeat Decision Fatigue

There are two studies that clearly depict the deficiencies of humans in regards to decision fatigue and willpower. The first study was performed on 1,100 parole decisions made by United States judges. In this study, they attempted to determine the most influential factor in determining whether prisoners were granted parole or not. What they found out was that the number one determining factor wasn’t the crime committed, the individual’s background, or the sentence in court. The number one determining factor was the time of day that their case was heard. About 70% of the prisoners were granted parole if their case was heard in the early morning. This is in stark contrast to only 10% of the prisoners being granted parole if their case was heard in the late afternoon. Why is it that prisoners were more likely to be granted parole in early morning rather than late afternoon even if their situations were near identical? Decision fatigue.

We as humans only have a certain amount of brainpower per day which we can use to make rational, well thought out decisions. As your brainpower is used throughout the day to make hundreds and hundreds of decisions, it slowly diminishes like a battery slowly draining. When this happens, our brains find shortcuts or rely on other factors to make decisions. Instead of analytically and strategically analyzing each prisoners case in the late afternoon, the judges tended to deny the prisoner parole likely because their brains would prefer to 1) make a safe decision or, 2) push the decision to a later date when their brainpower has been restored and they’re able to use better judgement. Clearly, decision fatigue can cause poor decision making because not all decisions should be the safest option, and not all decisions can be put off to a later date. And not only is decision fatigue detrimental, but it occurs to everyone. Every human is making hundreds of decisions per day like what to wear, what to eat, what route to take to work, and so on. Each of these decisions add up and slowly drain everyone of us throughout the day, causing us to make poorer and poorer decisions.

The second study was performed on 205 people in Germany, and then repeated and expanded upon with 159 students in Canada. The study would gather self-control or willpower information from the people and students throughout the day by randomly asking them about their desires, temptations, and self-control. For example, the people or student’s would rate how well they agreed to statements like”I am good at resisting temptations.” What the study found was that people or students who strongly agreed with these self-control statements, were experiencing less self-control opportunities (or temptations) throughout the day than people who strongly disagreed with these self-control statements. So, the people who felt better about their self-control abilities were using their self-control far less often. What they also found was that people who exerted more self-control, performed worse than people who were faced with fewer self-control opportunities (or temptations).

What this second study concluded was that if you’re trying to succeed in your goals, self-control or willpower isn’t the way to do it. You can pass on a brownie to improve your diet, or force yourself to the gym to improve your fitness with willpower alone every once in a while. But to achieve your goals consistently, it’s much more important to remove the self-control opportunities (or temptations) as much as possible. It’s also been found that people who seems to exert more self control, by denying a brownie, are just better at automatically thinking of a brownie in a negative light. So, instead of thinking “that brownie looks great but I should pass on it,” it’s much more effective to think “yuck, that brownie would kill my body fat percentage.” By using this method, you’re avoiding using your self-control and instead making decisions by re-framing your actions to agree with not only your goals (of having a low body fat percentage), but your identity (of being a healthy person).

From these studies, we can see that decision fatigue sets in as more decisions are made, and that using willpower as a tool for decision making fails quite often. This is very problematic for us because it means we’re prone to making bad decisions, giving in to temptations, and failing with our goals. But, for the people who preserve their decision making energy and avoid self-control opportunities, they tend to be far more successful, healthier and happier. So, if you’re looking to avoid decision fatigue and stop relying on willpower alone, here are the things I do and recommend.

Defeating Decision Fatigue

1) Reduce Decisions

The best thing you can do is reduce the number of decisions you make in a day. This requires you to make a plan in advance, and then create a schedule to follow. This can be completed for many things like choosing your outfit, deciding when to workout, and what to eat. An example of this is Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Mark Zuckerburg wear the same exact outfit almost every day. Something as simple as choosing your outfit in the morning usually has many decisions like what pants, shirts and shoes to wear, and then deciding if everything matches. But, by deciding to wear the same thing everyday, you eliminate all of those decisions everyday. This allows you to reserve your decision making energy for more important decisions.

I’ve reduced the number of decisions I make in a day by meal prepping my breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks all on Sunday of each week. That way, when it comes time to eat during the workweek, I don’t have any decisions to make. The food is prepared, healthy and readily available. I’ve also eliminated decisions with my workout routine and sleeping habits by developing plans and schedules. I follow a fitness program where I exercise after every workday, and just follow the next BeachBody video in my exercise plan. I also follow a sleep schedule, where my lights fade out from 10-11pm so that I’ll go to bed by 11. I then have my lights follow a morning routine to fade them in from 6:20-6:40am so that I’ll always wake up around 6:30. These plans and schedules eliminate decisions from my day, thus preventing decision fatigue and avoiding use of willpower.

Take some time and look at things you do each day. Are there ways you can eliminate decisions by creating a plan and schedule in advance? Just remember, every decision you make is slowly draining your brainpower no matter how small it is.

2) Reduce Options

If you can’t eliminate a decision altogether, simplifying the decision by reducing the number of options can help. For example, if you’re not ready to wear the same outfit or eat the same lunch everyday, come up with a small list of options. For example, president Obama would receive “decision memos” to his desk each day. On each memo would be three checkboxes: Agree, Disagree, Let’s Discuss. By creating this routine, he was simplifying the decision making process by limiting himself to only three options. For me, I’ve decided to limit my options for clothing. On workdays, I now only wear a single pair of jeans or khakis, have about five shirt options, and wear the same shoes. This makes it quick and easy to decide what I’m wearing in the morning. I’ve also limited my options financially. At the end of each month when I compare my budget to my actual cash flow, I decide to do 1 of 2 things with any excess cash. 1) Move the remaining money into my savings account or, 2) Invest the remaining money into a brokerage account. Simplifying the decision making process by planning my options in advance allows me to make efficient and effective decisions while worrying less about decision fatigue and relying less upon willpower.

If there are decisions you consistently make, but couldn’t eliminate in the previous step, how can you reduce your options? By limiting your options and not getting overwhelmed by the choices, you can reduce your decision fatigue and rely less on willpower.

3) Believe in Yourself

Inevitably, no matter how planned and scheduled you are, you’re going to have to make various decisions throughout the day. This means having to make decisions when fatigued and using willpower. Whether it’s deciding to save your extra cash instead of spending it, turning down your coworker’s offer for homemade cookies or staying up late to watch another episode of your favorite show, there’s another way to help make good decisions. And that means aligning your decisions with your goals and identity. For example, I know that I’m the type of person that has and enjoys a sleep schedule. It’s very hard to tempt me to stay up late for a concert, or movie, or another episode of my favorite TV show. Honestly, all of my family and friends know I’m the weird guy with a strict sleep schedule. But by uniting my goals of consistent sleep with my identity of a healthy person who values sleep, these decisions are therefore easier to make and take less of a toll. Whereas, it’s much harder to say no to a coworker’s offer for homemade cookies if you don’t enjoy staying on a diet or identify yourself as a healthy eater. When your decisions don’t match the goals you want to pursue or your personal identity, this conflict takes a much larger toll on your decision making ability.

If you want to continue making good decisions once the fatigue sets in and your willpower is tested, make sure you’ve properly set goals you want to accomplish and an identity that makes you proud. Because when your decisions align with your goals and identity, the temptations are much easier to forgo.

4) Take Care of Yourself

Your last defense against decision fatigue and willpower is your health. This may seem obvious but most of us don’t realize it in the moment. When we haven’t had proper sleep, nutrition or exercise, our decision making ability is severely diminished.

A study on sleep was performed on males age 18-28. One group got 5 hours of sleep per night while the other group got 8 hours of sleep. They then tested the participants twice daily to see if each participant would prefer to be given a certain amount of money, or gamble for a larger amount with the possibility of getting nothing. While the study was small, it was clear that not only did the participants with 5 hours of sleep select the riskier decision of gambling more often, but the participants increasingly picked the riskier gambling option as their sleep deprivation increased throughout the week. This was in contrast to the group who slept 8 hours and tended to take the safer, secure dollar amount. This would show that our decision making ability can be affected by sleep.

Another study was performed on participants that were either hungry, or had just eaten. They were then asked to take an immediate reward, or delay their reward for a larger one in the future. What the study concluded was that people who were hungry, were more likely to make decisions that offered an immediate reward. This could be due to a scarcity mindset where even though you’re wanting food now, you’re more likely to make other decisions that are immediate even if they don’t solve your hunger issue. This would show that our decision making ability can be affected by food too. And, there are a number of other studies that show how healthy eating helps you make better decisions than unhealthy eating.

Lastly, another study was performed regarding fitness to test participants ability to select an immediate reward or a delayed larger award (example: $10 today or $15 tomorrow). The study used a control group and a group that participated in a 7 week running program. The participants that completed the 7 week running program were more likely to choose the delayed gratification compared to the control group. This would show that our decision making ability is also affected by exercise.

There’s a lot that goes into making decisions on a daily basis. It’s not as straight forward and logical as we like to think it is. So, if you’re looking to make informed, good decisions by avoiding decision fatigue and willpower then make sure you’re taking care of your health. Proper sleep, nutrition and exercise allows you to make logical, good decisions.

Final Thoughts

We make hundreds and hundreds of decisions each day. From small ones like which shoe to put on first, to larger one’s that effect our work and health. Each one of these decisions drains our brain and causes decision fatigue. On top of that, without a plan in place, many of us make a lot of decisions on a whim and rely on our willpower for help. But, our willpower isn’t as strong as most of us think. If we want to make good, informed, logical decisions then we need to avoid decision fatigue and willpower. We can do this by eliminating decisions altogether, or at least simplifying and limiting our options. We can also align our decisions with goals we want to accomplish and an identity we’ve set for our-self. And as a last defense, let’s make sure we’re healthy. Sufficient sleep, exercise and nutrition facilitates the ability to make sound decisions.

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Hey, I am Brandon Zerbe

Welcome to myHealthSciences! My goal has always been to increase quality-of-life with healthy habits that are sustainable, efficient and effective. I do this by covering topics like Cognitive Health, Fitness, Nutrition, Sleep, Financial Independence and Minimalism. You can read more about me here.


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