Willpower is not about resisting, forcing, or controlling — it’s about choosing. — Penney Peirce

The marvelous journey to excellence can be terribly unfair.

Unfair in that we are constantly under the influence of vicious enemies that lead us astray.

Worse yet, we are oblivious to these enemies. They hit us, but we don’t know where from.

One of these sinister enemies is decision fatigue.

What is Decision Fatigue

If you have ever been to a gym pulling up weights, or if you have ever been out running, you probably have reached moments where you’re so tired that you cannot simply continue.

Thus, you Give Up.

In other words, you are physically fatigued and you lose performance drastically.

muscle fatigue
Fig 1. Fatigued Muscle is Analogous to a Fatigued Willpower — picture by Stephen Wood

The precise same thing can occur to your mental faculties.

Decision fatigue is the state where you are drained of all your willpower due to making decisions.

Decision fatigue hunts everyone from ordinary prisoners to the prestigious supreme court judges.

The Hefty Costs Of Decision Fatigue

There are too many people, and too few human beings. — Robert Zend

Most of what we consider the feats of the human brain — imagination, self-control, analytical thinking, decision making, etc. — is regulated by a brain region called prefrontal cortex (PFC).

Your PFC needs a specific fuel to work and that fuel is glucose — A simple sugar that your body manufactures from the food you eat.

When you make decisions, you are burning this limited fuel.

Hence, your PFC — the region that gives you the power to think and decide, monitor your behavior, and control your impulses — is now left with an empty fuel tank.

As a result, after a decision-heavy workday, you come home feeling depleted and you simply procrastinate on whatever you had promised yourself to do.

You might have wanted to go running around the block but now, you don’t feel like it.

You might have wanted to muster up your willpower to attend to your side hustle and craft your next blog post, but your brain defaults to the path of least resistance and you find yourself sitting on the couch rewatching another episode of Game of Thrones.

Penalty on productivity is one of the consequences of decision fatigue. There are darker impulses can be left unchecked in a state of decision fatigue.

When governor of New York, Eliot Spizer hired a hooker that led to his downfall, when governor of South Carolina snuck off to Buenos Aires to visit his girlfriend, and when Bill Clinton indulged in making up with his intern, they were all subject to the occupational hazard that comes with being, as President Bush once described himself, “the decider.”

But, fortunately, you can outsmart your willpower and avoid the traps of decision fatigue.

How to Prevail Decision Fatigue and Increase Willpower

1. Routines: Automate the Garbage Decisions

I put it so bluntly because there are daily decisions we have to make which are utterly unimportant and yet, they consume from the very same precious and limited willpower supply we have for a day.

Such decisions are: What do I wear? what do I eat? Do I take the bus to work or taxi? Which task should I work on?

decision fatigue
Fig 2. Extraordinary Achievers Eliminate Daily Unimportant Decision Making

This is why all extraordinary achievers like Obama, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, etc., always wear almost the same clothes and they all have very specific morning routines. So, make a list of such decisions and plan for them once and for all. Save your precious willpower for more important tasks.

You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. — Barack Obama

2. Circumvent Decision-Fatigue by Committing

Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort — Paul J. Meyer

The sheer thought of wanting to do something is profoundly fickle. If you want your thoughts and resolutions to crystallize into action, schedule them and write them down.

Whenever I find myself procrastinating on some idea, I guarantee its execution by writing it down and providing it with a precise schedule.

 

The effectiveness of writing my plans down is bombastically fascinating. So much so that I went a step further and adopted the bullet journaling system which is now an extension of my brain.

bullet journal
Fig 3. My Bullet Journal — Blurred Due to Privacy

It is now my conviction that writing down elicits commitment and commitment crystalizes into action.

3. Prioritize Your Commitments and Remove Micro-Decisions

“If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.” — Jim Collins

If you make a list of tasks, make sure you prioritize them. Otherwise, you will fall back into the same trap: having to decide which task to carry out first.

Thus, prioritize your tasks, preferably the night before. This will minimize the decision you have to make regarding your productivity.

4. Bypass Decision-Fatigue by Precommiting

I have taken a solemn, enduring oath, an oath to be kept while the least hope of life remains in me, not to be tempted to break the resolution I have formed, no living man, or men, shall stop me, only death can prevent me, But death — not even this; I shall not die, I will not die, I cannot die! — Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer

Precommitment is an effective strategy that would prevent you from having to rely on willpower in the first place.

The Essence of the strategy is to lock yourself into a virtuous path.

You anticipate that you will face lucrative temptations to stray you from your path; so, you make it impossible — or somehow make it disgraceful, sinful, or unthinkable — to leave the path.

Precommitment is what Odysseus did to get passed the luring and deadly songs of the Sirens. He had himself lashed to the mast with orders not to untie him regardless of how hard pleaded to go to the sirens.

His men precommited differently, by plugging their ears that would make them oblivious to the enchanting songs of the Sirens.

 
precommitment decision fatigue
Fig 4. Precommit to Stay Immune to Temptations as Did Odysseus

Do you want to prevent yourself from indulging in the social network while you have to focus on your projects? Precommit by blocking your access to them.

Do you want to make sure you go to the gym? Precommit by promising a friend that you will be at the gym.

Keep precommiting and you will be endowed with something valuable that relieves from having to precommit or rely on willpower anymore: A HABIT.

5. Eat Your Way Out of Decision Fatigue

Never trust a glucose-deprived brain for anything important.

If decision fatigue is the result of making decisions and losing glucose, then we can refuel our willpower by providing more glucose.

Studies on willpower show that drinking a coke swiftly boosts willpower and thus, provides the brain with the fuel it needs for analytical thinking, decision making, etc.

But, sweets are the worst in terms of providing willpower fuel because they provide a quick boost followed by an immediate crash which will leave you craving even more sweets.

The better options are the foods that will provide you with a gradual and steady fuel such as most vegetables, nuts (e.g. peanuts and cashews), many raw fruits. (e.g. apples, blueberries, and pears), cheese, fish, meat, olive oil, and other good fats.

So, if you had a decision-heavy day and still have more important decisions to make, eat your way out of the decision fatigue.

6. Leverage Your Environment Against Decision Fatigue

A man is not rightly conditioned until he is a happy, healthy, and prosperous being; and happiness, health, and prosperity are the result of a harmonious adjustment of the inner with the outer of the man with his surroundings. — James Allen

If you are about to go on a diet, and if your home is filled with lots of tempting sweets and snacks, you are going to have to constantly make the decisions to avoid eating them.

This will immediately lead to decision fatigue and leave you wide open to the claws of upcoming temptations.

Ironically, studies show that people with the most self-control spend less time resisting temptations than others. That’s because they’ve leveraged their environment to empower them by removing the temptations.

7. Remove the Required Micro-Actions to Ensure the Real Action

Whenever you entertain the thought of doing a task, your subconscious mind quickly measures the sum of all the required mico-actions towards that task.

Let’s break down a popular action to its comprising micro-actions: practicing music, let’s say Guitar. Here are the required micro-actions:

  1. Grabbing you Guitar case
  2. Opening it up
  3. Pulling out the Guitar
  4. Putting away the case
  5. Setting up to note sheets
  6. Holding the Guitar
  7. Starting to play

Micro-actions 1–5 add up to a lot of decisions to be made and your subconscious dissuades you by inducing a feeling of resistance.

Thus, to ensure execution, simply remove as much micro-actions as possible. In the practicing Guitar example, put your Guitar, out of its case, and put it on its stand in your room.

Next time you decide on playing guitar you only have to take two micro-actions: Grab it and start to play.

Final Words

Willpower is not something you can wrestle with. To tap into its endless benefits, and also to avoid its perils, you will be better off outsmarting it.

Happy thriving

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