Decision fatigue is a fairly new term that describes a fairly new phenomenon. Modern life has brought us many choices and options. This is great, but it does have a downside.
It depends which study you read as to how many decisions a day a human is capable of making, but I’m in the camp that believes we’re all a bit different. Decision fatigue is closely linked to willpower. We’ve all got our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to decision-making. Some decisions are easier make than others, and easier for some people more than others. Offer me a shot of tequila and I can easily say no, I can’t stand the stuff, but place a piece of decadent chocolate cake in front of me and I’ll definitely be using willpower to say no (and sometimes I’d say yes, because that’s okay too).
Let’s get to the science of willpower
Skip this part if science is torture to you, but I think it’s important to understand what your brain is doing when you’re changing habits and why this might be difficult to you. There’s a little part of your brain by your temple called your anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The ACC does a few different things, but gets involved in decision-making, particularly when there is a chance of “error” with the outcome, or the decision will result in avoiding or experiencing pain.
The ACC is like a little fuel tank that empties throughout the day as you make decisions. You decide what to have for breakfast; a little bit empties. You decide what to wear to work; a little bit empties. You keep your calm in a tense discussion with a customer at work; a little more empties. When the ACC runs out of fuel, you start making errors. When you’re in a situation of pain, including emotional pain, the ACC is firing to try and help you find a way out.
This was proven in a really cool (and slightly weird) experiment where participants played a virtual game of throw and catch while having their brain scanned. The trick was, the participant was excluded from the game and not thrown the ball. The scans showed that the ACC was activated. Why? Most likely because humans don’t want to excluded from the pack. Back in caveman days, being a social outcast would have been highly dangerous to an individual. Your brain sees this exclusion as a problem that needs to be solved. The ACC fires up. Why does this matter? The less fuel your ACC has, whether it’s burning out through decisions or other activities, the worse your judgement gets.
The ACC’s participation in the exclusion experiment is significant. While noted to be important in decision making and decision fatigue, it also is involved in other processes. This might help explain why bad days can spiral you out of control with your goals and action steps. If you’ve used all of your fuel making tough decisions throughout the day, you’re putting yourself right up against it to force yourself to make the decision to work on your goal.
Knowledge is power
If you believe me that decision fatigue exists and that you have a limited amount of willpower, it’d be smart to use it carefully. Rules don’t use much willpower, so set yourself up with some rules that you don’t need to think about. Habits use very little willpower too, which is one reason it’s so important to build good ones. Changing habits does deplete your ACC fuel level. While you’re in the early stages of chasing a goal (actions steps most likely being a new habit), put some rules in place that can help stock up your ACC fuel tank. Don’t waste your limited decisions on things that can be automatic. Have you ever seen a small child fight their parents on getting dressed in the morning? That child is using a lot of energy arguing the point of wanting to stay in their pyjamas. Do adults carry on this much? I certainly hope not. When changing habits, make sure you’re not being that child kicking and screaming along the way. Do you really want to remain in your metaphorical PJs?
Simple tricks to reduce decision fatigue
- Wear the same thing every day. Remember Steve Jobs and his ugly black skivvies? He wasn’t wasting energy deciding what to wear each day. If you don’t want to go that far, have a “weekday” section of your wardrobe with some mix and match options that take little time to think about. Another option is to get organised and decide on a Sunday what you will wear each day that week.
- Schedule your day. Make a plan for what you’ll do each hour and stick to it. Use technology to your advantage and keep your calendar up to date. This should include both work and leisure activities.
- Set reminders! Become a slave to what your phone tells you. Whether that be, “get up and go for a walk”, “drink water,” or “go to bed in 15 minutes”. Enter your actions and promise yourself you’ll stick to it.
- Have a meal plan. Know what you’re cooking (or eating out) for the week so you’re not making daily decisions. This is especially important if health is one of your goals. You don’t need to eat different things every meal. Breakfast, for example, can be the same every day. (I always do Bulletproof Coffee.)
- Turn off alerts. If you’ve got limited time to get a task done, switch off distractions like email or message alerts so you can focus. Each time you see an email come in, you decide to look at it, then you decide to action it, then you’re probably thinking about it. If you don’t action it immediately you’re still going to go back to it and use energy again as you action it. That’s a lot of wasted fuel. Leave it until you have time to deal with it in one go.
- Don’t make life harder than it needs to be. If you’re an alcoholic, don’t keep vodka on your bedside table. Same thing goes if you’re trying to be healthy, don’t keep ice cream in the freezer “just in case”. That’s silly, and being unnecessarily cruel to yourself. If it’s not there, you don’t even need to make a decision not to eat it. The effort it takes to go out and buy it at the time you want it might just be enough to sway you against eating it when your resolve is weaker. If you’re trying to save money, don’t browse online shopping sites or walk into your favourite shops with your credit card in hand. Put as much space as possible between yourself and the habit you’re trying to change.
- Don’t forget to rest and replenish. ACC fuel tops up when you rest, so if you feel you’re starting to make bad choices, take a break. If possible, leave the hardest and most important decisions for the morning when you’ve got the most fuel in the tank.