How Do I Avoid Decision Fatigue?

In a given day you make hundreds of decisions. What time to wake up. What to wear. What to eat for breakfast. New research published in the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has discovered that each decision taxes our brain’s ability to make decisions, so that as the day wears on and we make more and more decisions, our ability to ponder different options and choose wisely becomes hindered.

In the NAS study, they offered the following example (via the New York Times). Three Israeli prisoners went before a parole board on the same day. Prisoner 1: An Arab Israeli serving a 30-month sentence for fraud. Case was heard at 8:50 a.m. Prisoner 2: A Jewish Israeli service a 16-month sentence for assault. Case was heard at 3:10 p.m. Prisoner 3: An Arab Israeli serving a 30-month sentence for fraud. Case was heard at 4:25 p.m. Of the three prisoners, can you guess which one was paroled? The researchers analyzed 1,100 decisions over the course of the year. In their research they found a pattern: prisoners whose cases were heard early in the morning received parole 70 percent of the time.

Prisoners whose cases were heard late in the day were paroled 10 percent of the time. True to this statistic, the prisoner whose case was heard at 8:50 a.m. was the only one who was paroled, despite his case being very similar to that of the prisoner who appeared at 4:25. For the late prisoner, the judges’ brains had given up. Their ability to make tough decisions had been sapped. Studies similar to the above have been duplicated time and time again. In another instance, for example, people on a diet were offered M&Ms and chocolate-chip cookies throughout the day. A control group was offered nothing of the sort throughout the day.

Later both groups were given difficult geometry puzzles to solve. Researchers found overwhelmingly that the group who hadn’t forced themselves to turn down chocolate-chip cookies and M&Ms all day, the group who hadn’t sapped their will power, were able to stick with the problems and more likely to solve them than the other group. The M&M- and chocolate-chip-cookie group simply gave up more easily. So what can these findings teach us about making decisions in our own lives? Here are a few things to try

  • Schedule important decisions in the morning – In the morning your mind is fresh and ready to think. Your decision ability hasn’t been drained.
  • Make decisions on a full stomach – Giving your brain a dose of glucose, which is contained in food, can recharge your decision-making ability and your willpower. (Unfortunately, a catch 22 for dieters!)
  • Establish habits which avoid things that test your willpower – For instance, schedule a workout time so you go every day, no matter what. This makes it a habit, something you don’t have to force yourself to do, which eliminates the mental effort of making choices.
  • Schedule downtime in between important decisions – Simply allowing your brain some time to idle will give your willpower a chance to recharge.