We have all been at that point in our lives: we have made a commitment to eat better, to exercise more, to lose weight or work towards that career goal, only to make an unhealthy and unproductive choice during the day and blow all of our hard work.
Is it that we made poor choices because of a lack of willpower?
New research is starting to reveal that willpower does not work that way. Every active, intentional choice we make during the day has a cost, and these daily choices have a serious impact on our willpower. Too many intentional choices will shred our willpower and make us much more vulnerable to impulse decisions, like eating that Twinkie, flopping on the couch in front of the TV, or doing anything to avoid work.
But fear not, there are some simple steps you can take to boost your willpower and make better decisions on a more consistent basis.
First, let’s tackle some of the causes of weakened willpower and the effects on our ability to make decisions.
Decision Fatigue and Willpower
In a 2008 study by Kathleen D. Vos and others, the researchers found that self-regulation, active initiative, and effort-filled choosing all draw on the same psychological resource. To use their words, “making decisions depletes that resource, thereby weakening the subsequent capacity for self-control and active initiative.”
To put it plainly, willpower is like a muscle that requires energy to work properly. Making thought-intensive decisions depletes that energy and diminishes our ability to exert self-control. Researchers often refer to this phenomena as decision fatigue.
While it is not entirely known what fuels willpower, research has shown that glucose (sugars we receive from food and drink) and focus on a reward have the ability to refuel our willpower and help us make better decisions.
In a research study published by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers examined 1,112 judicial hearings over a 10-month period. All of the rulings were made by parole board judges, determining whether or not to allow a criminal to be released from prison on parole.
While you might assume that judges were influenced by factors like type of crime committed or laws that were broken, researchers found that the biggest influence on rulings was the time of day when the ruling occurred.
Judges were likely to give a favorable ruling 65 percent of the time at the beginning of the day. This rate dropped to 20 percent just shortly before lunch. After lunch, favorable rulings jumped back up to 65 percent. By the end of the day, favorable rulings occurred less than 20 percent of the time.
Just prior to lunch and again at the end of the day, the judges were suffering from decision fatigue. Making decision after decision exacts a biological price – decisions sap your mental energy.
When your brain is depleted of mental energy, it starts to look for shortcuts in one of two ways. The first shortcut might be to become reckless – to act impulsively without expending the energy to think through the consequences – to be careless and impulsive. The second shortcut might be to do nothing. Make no decision in the moment – even procrastinate. This might be a short term fix for mental strain but could create bigger consequences in the long-run. This was the route the fatigued judges chose – deny the prisoner parole and he keeps doing time with no harm to society.
Willpower to choose against certain things, like denial of eating certain foods, or refraining from laughter or an angry outburst, or even suppressing thoughts or sexual feelings all require the expenditure of energy. We start out strong in the morning, when our energy levels are high, but we decline as the day moves along, growing weaker towards resisting temptation. We are experiencing decision fatigue, and have to take steps to re-energize and reinvigorate our willpower.
Overcoming Decision Fatigue
There are certain steps we can take to minimize decision fatigue and start making better decisions and become more productive.
1. Plan the night before – certain decisions can be planned the night before. For example, what to wear the next day, what to eat for breakfast, when to leave for work and should you run errands before arriving at work. Making decisions the night before will help you avoid wasting precious resources needed for those unplanned-for decisions that arise during the day.
2. Make the most important task the first one of the day – conquer the most important thing on your list during the first part of the day. Whether you plan to exercise more, write a book, improve your prayer life, or build your business, your mental energy resources are highest at the beginning of your day. If you need additional time to tackle your task, then rise 30 minutes earlier from sleep to get a head start on your day.
3. Eat smaller meals throughout the day instead of three large meals – many doctors and nutritionists will argue that our bodies are designed to eat six small meals per day instead of three large meals. Eating smaller amounts more often throughout the day will replenish the glucose your brain needs to keep making those important decisions, helping you avoid decision fatigue.
4. Meditate or pray – take a break in the middle of your work day. Research shows that meditation or prayer, even for short periods of time, can reinvigorate you and restore some of your self-control and willpower.
5. Make commitments – set things to a schedule. If you want to start a new exercise regimen, then schedule it with a partner instead of making the decision on a daily basis. Having a friend or buddy hold you accountable for an undertaking can help alleviate daily decision fatigue.
6. Simplify your life – focus your decision-making energies on important areas of your life and give yourself some breathing room in other areas of your life. Being vigilant over every decision, no matter how small, will deplete your reserve of energy earlier in the day. And if something isn’t very important to you, then remove it from your life. Too many distractions from the important things will drain your precious resources.
Willpower is not a skill – it is not something you either have or lack. Willpower is a resource which rises and falls. By maintaining an awareness of your energy levels and replenishing yourself when you start to feel low, you can provide your brain with the resources it needs to make better, more consistent decisions and avoiding impulsive, careless decision making. Making a few changes to your daily routine and eating habits can help you get the most out of your decisions and make progress on things that are important to you.