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How Willpower Works: The Science of Decision Fatigue and How to Avoid Bad Decisions

How Willpower Works: The Science of Decision Fatigue and How to Avoid Bad Decisions

Why do we make unhealthy and unproductive choices — even when we know we should do better?

If you ask most people, they will say that poor choices are a result of a “lack of willpower.”

But research from Columbia University is beginning to reveal that willpower doesn’t quite work that way.

In fact, you may be surprised just how much small daily decisions impact the willpower you have for important choices. And most importantly, it turns out there are simple choices you can make that will help you master your willpower and make better decisions on a more consistent basis.

Here’s the deal…

Why Some Criminals Don’t Get a Fair Hearing

In a research study published by the National Academy of Sciences, psychologists examined the factors that impact whether or not a judge approves a criminal for parole.

The researchers examined 1,112 judicial rulings over a 10-month period. All of the rulings were made by a parole board judge, whose job was to determine whether or not to allow the criminal to be released from prison on parole. (In some cases, the criminal was asking not for a release, but rather for a change in parole terms.)

Now, you might assume that the judges were influenced by factors like the type of crime committed or the particular laws that were broken.

But the researchers found exactly the opposite. The choices made by judges are impacted by all types of things that shouldn’t have an effect in the courtroom. Most notably, the time of day.

What the researchers found was that at the beginning of the day, a judge was likely to give a favorable ruling about 65 percent of the time. However, as the morning wore on and the judge became drained from making more and more decisions, the likelihood of a criminal getting a favorable ruling steadily dropped to zero.

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After taking a lunch break, however, the judge would return to the courtroom refreshed and the likelihood of a favorable ruling would immediately jump back up to 65 percent. And then, as the hours moved on, the percentage of favorable rulings would fall back down to zero by the end of the day.

This trend held true for more than 1,100 cases. It didn’t matter what the crime was — murder, rape, theft, embezzlement — a criminal was much more likely to get a favorable response if their parole hearing was scheduled in the morning (or immediately after a food break) than if it was scheduled near the end of a long session.

The figure below depicts the odds that a judge will make a favorable ruling based on the time of the day. The dotted lines signify food breaks taken throughout the day.

willpower-judges
    This graph displays the odds that a criminal will receive a favorable response from the judge based on the time of day when the hearing occurs. Notice that as time goes on, the odds of receiving a favorable response decrease. (Graphic by James Clear.)

    What’s Going on Here?

    As it turns out, your willpower is like a muscle. And similar to the muscles in your body, willpower can get fatigued when you use it over and over again. Every time you make a decision, it’s like doing another rep in the gym. And similar to how your muscles get tired at the end of a workout, the strength of your willpower fades as you make more decisions.

    Researchers often refer to this phenomenon as decision fatigue. When the judge on a parole board experiences decision fatigue, they deny more parole requests.

    This makes sense. When your willpower is fading and your brain is tired of making decisions, it’s easier just to say no and keep everyone locked up than it is to debate whether or not someone is trustworthy enough to leave prison. At the beginning of the day, a judge will give each case a fair shot. But as their energy starts to fade? Deny, deny, deny.

    Here’s why this is important for you…

    Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?

    Decision fatigue happens every day in your life as well. If you have a particularly decision-heavy day at work, then you come home feeling drained. You might want to go to the gym and workout, but your brain would rather default to the easy decision: sit on the couch. That’s decision fatigue.

    The same thing is true if you find it hard to muster up the willpower to work on your side business at night or to cook a healthy meal for dinner.

    And while decision fatigue is something that we all deal with, there are a few ways that you can organize your life and design your day to master your willpower.

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    5 Ways to Overcome Decision Fatigue

    1. Plan daily decisions the night before.

    There will always be decisions that pop up each day that you can’t plan for. That’s fine. It’s just part of life.

    But for most of us, the decisions that drain us are the ones that we make over and over and over again. Wasting precious willpower, these decisions — which could be automated or planned in advance — make up one reason why many people feel so drained at the end of the day.

    For example, decisions like…

    What am I going to wear to work? What should I eat for breakfast? Should I go to the dry cleaner before or after work? And so on.

    All of those examples above can be decided in 3 minutes or less the night before, which means you won’t be wasting your willpower on those choices the next day. Taking time to plan out, simplify, and design the repeated daily decisions will give you more mental space to make the important choices each day.

    2. Do the most important thing first.

    If there was the most important court case in the world, when would you want the judge to hear it?

    Based on the research above, first thing in the morning. You’d want their best attention, energy, and focus to go toward the decisions that were most important.

    The same thing goes for your work and life. What’s the most important thing for you right now?

    Is it getting in shape? Is it building your business? Is it writing that book you have inside of you? Is it learning to eliminate stress and relax?

    Whatever it is for you, put your best energy toward it. If you have to wake up 30 minutes earlier, then do that. Start your day by working on the most important thing in your life.

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    I’ve written previously about the importance of morning routines and time management, this research on willpower is just another reason to work on the most important things first.

    3. Stop making decisions. Start making commitments.

    I think advice like, “you just need to decide to do it” gets dished around too much.

    Yes, of course you need to decide to do the things that are important to you. But more than that, you need to schedule them into your life.

    We all have things that we say are important to us.

    “I really want to scale my business.”

    “I really want to lose 40 pounds.”

    “I really want to get started on XYZ.”

    Unfortunately, most of us simply hope that we’ll have the willpower and motivation to make the right decisions each day.

    Rather than hoping that I’ll make the right choice each day, I’ve found much more success by scheduling the things that are important to me.

    For example, my schedule for writing is Monday and Thursday. My schedule for weightlifting is Monday, Wednesday, Friday. On any given Monday, I don’t have to decide whether I’m going to write. It’s already on the schedule. And I’m not hoping that I’ll have enough willpower to make it to the gym. It’s just where I go on Mondays at 6pm.

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    If you sit back and hope that you’ll be able to make the right decisions each day, then you will certainly fall victim to decision fatigue and a lack of willpower.

    4. If you have to make good decisions later in the day, then eat something first.

    It’s no coincidence that the judges became better decision makers after eating. Now, if you cram french fries into your veins every day, then I doubt that you’ll enjoy the same results. But taking a break to feed your brain is a wonderful way to boost willpower.

    This is especially important because although it’s great to do the most important thing first, it’s not always possible to organize your day like that.

    When you want to get better decisions from your mind, put better food into your body.

    5. Simplify.

    Whether you are trying to reach the highest level of performance or just want to start eating a healthy diet, the biggest frustration for most people is the feeling that you need to use willpower on an hourly basis.

    Find ways to simplify your life. If something isn’t important to you, eliminate it. Making decisions about unimportant things, even if you have the time to do so, isn’t a benign task. It’s pulling precious energy and willpower from the things that matter.

    Willpower is one area of life where you can most certainly improve your output by reducing the number of inputs.

    The Bottom Line

    Willpower isn’t something you have or something you lack. It rises and falls. And while it’s impossible to maximize your willpower for every moment of every day, it is possible to make a few changes to your day and your routine so that you can get the most of your decisions and make consistent progress on the things that are important to you.

    James Clear writes at JamesClear.com, where he shares science-based ideas for living a better life and building habits that stick. To get strategies for boosting your mental and physical performance by 10x, join his free newsletter.

    This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

    Hat tip to John Tierney and his article for the New York Times, where I originally learned about decision fatigue.

    Featured photo credit: Garrett Coakley via flickr.com

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    15 Best Organizing Tips For Office Organization and Getting More Done

    15 Best Organizing Tips For Office Organization and Getting More Done

    You may think that you don’t have time for office organization, but if you really knew how much time that disorganization cost you, you’d reconsider.

    Rearranging and moving piles occasionally doesn’t count. Neither does clearing off your desk, if you swipe the mess into a bin, or a desk drawer.

    A relatively neat and orderly office space clears the way for higher productivity and less wasted time.

    Organizing your office doesn’t have to take days, it can be done a little at a time. In fact, maintaining an organized office is much more effective if you treat it like an on-going project, instead of a massive assault.

    So, if you’re ready to get started, the following organizing tips will help you transform your office into an efficient workspace.

    1. Purge Your Office

    De-clutter, empty, shred, get rid of everything that you don’t need or want. Look around. What haven’t you used in a while?

    Take one area at a time. If it doesn’t work, send it out for repair or toss it. If you haven’t used it in months and can’t think of when you’ll actually need it, out it goes. This goes for furniture, equipment, supplies, etc.

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    Don’t forget about knick-knacks, plants (real or artificial), and decorations – if they’re covered with dust and make your office look shabby, they’re fair game.

    2. Gather and Redistribute

    Gather up every item that isn’t where it belongs and put it where it does.

    3. Establish Work “Zones”

    Decide what type of activity happens in each area of your office. You’ll probably have a main workspace (most likely your desk,) a reference area (filing cabinet, shelves, binders,) and a supply area (closet, shelves or drawers.)

    Place the appropriate equipment and supplies are located in the proper area as much as possible.

    4. Close Proximity

    Position the equipment and supplies that you use most within reach. Things that you rarely use can be stored or put away.

    5. Get a Good Labeler

    Choose a label maker that’s simple to use. Take the time to label shelves, bins, baskets drawers. Not only will it remind you where things go, but it will also help others who may have a need to find, use, or put away anything in your workspace.

    6. Revise Your Filing System

    As we move fully into the digital age, the need to store paper files has decreased.

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    What can your store digitally? Are you duplicating files? You may be able to eliminate some of the files and folders you’ve used in the past. If you’re storing files on your computer, make sure you are doing regular back-ups.

    Here’re some storage ideas for creating a smooth filing system:

    • Create a meeting folder – Put all “items to be discussed” in there along with items that need to be handed off, reports that need to be given, etc. It’ll help you be prepared for meetings and save you stress in the even that a meeting is moved up.
    • Create a WOR folder – So much of our messy papers are things that are on hold until someone else responds or acts. Corral them in a WOR (Waiting on Response) folder. Check it every few days for outstanding actions you may need to follow-up on.
    • Storage boxes – Use inexpensive storage boxes to keep archived files and get them out of your current file space.
    • Magazine boxes – Use magazine boxes or binders to store magazines and catalogs you really want to store. Please make sure you really need them for reference or research, otherwise recycle them, or give away.
    • Reading folder – Designate a file for print articles and documents you want to read that aren’t urgent.
    • Archive files – When a project is complete, put all of the materials together and file them away. Keep your “working folders” for projects in progress.
    • File weekly – Don’t let your filing pile up. Put your papers in a “To File” folder and file everything once a week.

    Learn more tips on organizing your files here: How to Organize Your Files for Better Productivity

    7. Clear off Your Desk

    Remove everything, clean it thoroughly and put back only those items that are essential for daily use.

    If you have difficulty declutter stuff, this Declutter Formula will help you throw away stuff without regretting later.

    8. Organize your Desktop

    Now that you’ve streamlined your desktop, it’s a good idea to organize it.

    Use desktop organizers or containers to organize the items on your desk. Use trays for papers, containers for smaller items.

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    Don’t forget your computer desktop! Make sure the files or images are all in organized folders. I’d recommend you clear your computer desktop everyday before you leave work.

    9. Organize Your Drawers

    Put items used together in the same drawer space, stamps with envelopes, sticky pads with notepads, etc.

    Use drawer organizers for little items – paper clips, tacks, etc. Use a separate drawer for personal items.

    10. Separate Inboxes

    If you work regularly with other people, create a folder, tray, or inbox for each.

    11. Clear Your Piles

    Hopefully with your new organized office, you won’t create piles of paper anymore, but you still have to sort through the old ones.

    Go through the pile (a little at a time if necessary) and put it in the appropriate place or dump it.

    12. Sort Mails

    Don’t just stick mail in a pile to be sorted or rifle through and take out the pieces you need right now. Sort it as soon as you get it – To act, To read, To file, To delegate or hand off. .

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    13. Assign Discard Dates

    You don’t need to keep every piece of paper indefinitely. Mark on files or documents when they can be tossed or shredded.

    Some legal or financial documents must be kept for specified length of time. Make sure you know what those requirements are.

    14. Filter Your Emails

    Some emails are important to read, others are just not that important.

    When you use the filter system to label different types of emails, you know their priority and which to reply first.

    Take a look at these tips to achieve inbox zero: The Ultimate Way to get to Inbox Zero

    15. Straighten Your Desk

    At the end of the day, do a quick straighten, so you have a clean start the next day.

    Bottom Line

    Use one tip or try them all. The amount of effort you put into creating and maintaining an efficient work area will pay off in a big way.

    Instead of spending time looking for things and shuffling piles, you’ll be able to spend your time…well…working and you’ll enjoy being clutter free!

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    Featured photo credit: Alesia Kazantceva via unsplash.com

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