The Science of Willpower and Bad Decision-making
We all want to make better choices and spend our time more wisely.
We might want that for any number of reasons. We might want to grow an online business, enjoy more leisure time, or even just be able to finish the day feeling satisfied and fulfilled.
Better decision-making makes us more productive, it boosts our energy, and it helps us make progress toward our goals.
But it won’t come as a shock to you that, even with all those benefits, we don’t always make the best choices.
Instead, we spend most our days putting out fires, running around desperately trying to get things done. And when that happens, some of the most important stuff falls by the wayside. We’re quick to sacrifice our hobbies, our health, and, worse, our creative and spiritual needs. The last thing we’ll do in those frantic states is engage in the meditation and play that bring us inner balance and allows us to be attentive to the things that make us feel good.
Why do we make unhealthy and unproductive choices when we know precisely how to do better?
It turns out that science has an explanation for this phenomenon.
And it’s not because humans are just silly creatures. It’s far more interesting than that.
What Scientists Have Discovered about Fair Trials
Psychologists at the University of Columbia studied 1,112 legal trials over a 10 month period. They evaluated, specifically, whether a committee designated to personally evaluate criminal cases would grant probation to the convict under review.
It’s the sort of thing you’ve seen in hundreds of movies: the protagonist is put in jail even though he didn’t actually commit the crime and his lawyer tells him he’s going to have to make an appeal to the courts so they grant him probation. That kind of trial.
And of course the judges in this committee were all very sensitive to the important factors of the case, like what kind of crime was committed and what laws had been violated. Obviously, they wouldn’t grant probation on the same basis to a non-violent offender as they would a rapist, right?
That’s precisely the assumption that the researchers debunked.
What they found was that the judges’ decisions had very little to do with what happened inside that room or with the type of case they were assessing.
What really mattered was—get this—the time of day.
The researchers discovered that trials evaluated at the beginning of the day had a 65% chance of resulting in parole. But as the day wore on and the judges started to grow fatigued from their work, the odds of parole gradually dwindled until they bottomed out at 0% by the end of the day.
There was one exception: lunch. When the judges came back from their lunch breaks, presumably rested and refreshed, the odds of them awarding parole shot back up to its peak rate of 65%, only to be whittled down to zero once more.
And you might be tempted to say that this was just a fluke but, remember, this is a clear pattern that emerged from analyzing over 1,000 cases.
Someone’s freedom hung on the line and it didn’t matter if that person was a rapist, a robber, or minor first-time offender. What really mattered is whether they were lucky enough to be scheduled first thing in the morning or right after lunch.
That’s a very dramatic and troubling finding. It’s almost tempting to think that the judges were just a cruel and callous bunch. But not if we really understand how the brain works.
The brain, it turns out, acts just like a muscle. And just like the muscles we have throughout the body, using it over and over again without letting it recuperate leads to fatigue and poor performance.
Each decision we make, although it might seem miniscule, consumes part of our mental energy. When our mental energy is almost depleted, our brain tends to go into survival mode and become intensely suspicious and critical. Given that, it’s no surprise that the judges would eventually default to “no” after using up all of their cognitive resources.
And that survival mode is a state of mind that makes it much easier to make bad decisions. The brain is desperate to conserve whatever shred of energy it has left, so it automatically jumps on whatever choices require the least effort. And it does so even when we’re consciously aware that there are better alternatives.
This is what in psychology and decision making call “decision fatigue.”
How Decision Fatigue Affects You
Our entire days are swarmed with decisions we have to make. Some are important and some are trivial, but all of them consume our mental fuel.
The trouble is that there’s a huge disproportion between those two: we spend far more of our mental energy making trivial decisions.
In fact, if we’re not vigilant, our entire reserve of Doer Energy can easily be wasted on endless series of small decisions.
Everything from what you’ll have for lunch, to what you should wear to work, what time you should go to the gym, whether you should go shopping for new pants today or tomorrow, and a host of other tiny choices eat away at our cognitive resources.
It’s no wonder that people who have to spend their days making important decisions find ways to avoid making trivial decisions. Like Barack Obama, for instance, who always wears the same suit so he can keep his mind sharp for the things that matter.
Stop Wasting Your Energy on Trivial Decisions
A big part of the problem is that we really want to make the “right” decision.
It doesn’t matter what kind of choice we’re making. Whether it’s a small decision like what kind of sauce to order for our pasta or a big one like whether to move to a new city, we are plagued by worries that we’ll make the wrong choice.
Add to this the huge number of trivial decisions we make throughout the day and the vast number of options we have available to us and we have a recipe for chronic cognitive fatigue.
And that’s a problem because mentally exhausted people make bad decisions about things that really matter.
Believe me, I know it from personal experience. If I don’t keep myself under control, I’m going to end up opening ten browser tabs to figure out which blender I should buy, or I’ll spend hours and hours trying to nab the cheapest plane ticket just to end up saving $20 (really poor hourly rate there).
But I know that there are better ways to invest my Doer Energy and I’m sure you do too.
How to Better Manage Your Cognitive Energy
If this problem seem daunting to you, there are two simple steps you can take to better manage your brain’s energies and avoid decision fatigue.
Step One: Plan
Design your daily life in a way that will minimize the number of insignificant decisions you have to make.
You won’t be able to avoid every trivial decision—they’ll still pop up here and there—but believe me, just 5 minutes of planning the night before can let you start your day with 80% of your small decisions already resolved. Decide ahead of time (or better yet, make it a habit) what route you’ll take to work, at what time you’ll work out, what you’ll have for breakfast, and what you’re going to wear.
You can even give your productivity an extra boost by pre-planning your entire week.
For example, you could draft a meal plan that you can follow each day of the week. That way, you’ll stop wasting your time and mental energy thinking about what to eat, along with all its associated mental exercises (you know, like trying to remember what you ate yesterday, trying to figure out what you feel like eating [which can be oddly difficult], or scanning what’s in the fridge and dreaming up ways of combining them).
As an added bonus, you’ll have a healthier diet and you’ll know precisely what you need to buy when you go to the grocery store.
It’s the same when it comes to your business or your job. If you let all the miniscule daily decisions direct you, you’ll end up running around trying to solve tiny problems day after day, never making much progress.
If you want to grow your business, finish your projects, or improve your on-the-job skills, you’ll have to dedicate some time to planning, delegating, and setting up systems that will help you avoid wasting time on insignificant details.
If you do that, you’ll be amazed at how much energy you have to tackle all of your significant tasks.
Step Two: Stop Looking for the Best
I mean, seriously, what’s going to happen if you don’t buy the best blender in the world?
Not much. Heck, you might even save some money by getting an inferior model.
Besides, it’s a fool’s quest. You’ll never get any choice 100% right.
Learn to be content with 70% right and stop wasting your time going around in circles.
You don’t need to study twenty reviews just to buy a blender. Give yourself a time limit, dedicate it to learning what you need to know so that you can make an at least 70% good decision.
Then stop thinking about it and move on to the next thing.
We spend most of our time struggling to make the best decision and finding the perfect option for things that aren’t even going to have a big impact on our lives. They won’t help you reach your goals or make you feel better, so they don’t deserve more than a tiny fraction of your time and energy.
The Next Step
So, you’ve set up a plan and you stop chasing after the best and started being content with things that are good enough.
That’s great, but what comes next?
The next step is to be conscious and judicious with your Doer Energy so that you don’t expend it all on decisions that have high costs and almost no reward.
Do you want to be able to start a new venture in your free time?
Do you want to write the book that you always knew you had in you?
Do you want to enjoy more free time?
Do you want to grow your business?
Well, you won’t be able to do those things without first becoming a decisive and conscious doer.
Look for areas in your life and parts of your day that are full of decision-making that just wastes your Doer Energy. Plan and stop looking for perfection, give yourself a time limit and stick with the 70% right option and you’ll discover levels of Doer Energy you didn’t even know you had in you.
- Thanks to James Clear, Ramit Sethi and John Tierney for exposing me to the *decision fatigue* concept.