Advertising

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

Advertising
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.

Advertising

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.

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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

    More by this author

    James Clear

    James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

    How to Stick With Good Habits Even When Your Willpower is Gone How to Change Your Beliefs and Stick to Your Goals for Good Plan for Chaos: How to Stick to Your Health Goals When Life Gets Crazy How to Stay Focused on Your Goals When You Are Worn Out One Simple Trick That Helps You Reach Your Goals Successfully

    Trending in Productivity

    1 20 Essential Apps And Websites For Digital Nomads 2 20 Online and App Resources to Help You Boost and Improve Productivity 3 Does the Pomodoro Technique Work for Your Productivity? 4 Eat the Frogs First – A Guide to Prioritizing 5 15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising

    Last Updated on November 25, 2021

    20 Essential Apps And Websites For Digital Nomads

    Advertising
    20 Essential Apps And Websites For Digital Nomads

    Living a life of perpetual travel is pretty exciting – new destinations, new cultures and new incredible people to meet and hang out with! However, working on the road can get pretty hectic at times. As a digital nomad I have found myself in rather awkward situations a lot – from missed deadlines due to incorrect time zone conversion to a nearly missed plane when I forgot to print out my booking and confused the time (I did catch that plane though!).

    Being your own boss is equally awesome and hellish. Juggling numerous tasks at once and getting things done super-fast with a terrible wi-fi connection requirea killer organizational skills and zen-like concentration. Try using the next 20 websites and apps to make your life as a digital nomad easier, less stressful and even more exciting!

    1. Trello

    Trello is your go-to website to stay organized and work super-efficiently on the road. It’s a free service that allows you to create numerous boards for your ongoing projects and plans. Tired of having numerous notes scattered around different apps and lengthy email threads with your clients or team? Just drag and drop them all to Trello, where you can easily collaborate, quickly exchange ideas and notes in the form of cards, leave comments and track the overall progress of the project. You can create numerous boards and organize them the way you like, upload files to each, set deadlines and notifications, plus easily share everything with one click.

    My Trello contains two sets of boards – personal and business. I use the first to keep all my travel plans neat and make sure I won’t confuse the flight time or overstay my visa; the second to keep a visual account of my personal goals and various arrangements. The business board is where I have a list of ongoing projects composed into simple to-dos with their current statuses –  along with all the comments from my clients and a separate column for follow-ups.

    Trello is an incredible free alternative to similar project management softwares I used before and it can be used for tackling any job – from house renovation to multi-stage marketing campaign! Also available as an app for iOS and Android devices to get updates on the go.

    2. f.lux

    As a digital nomad you often find yourself working late at night or early morning to keep up with your clients’ time zones. Love checking your email or reading a few articles from your iPad before going to bed? (I do!). Even if you don’t feel it yet, your eyes are seriously suffering from those habits and you can end up having troubles with sleeping as the blue light from your devices negatively impacts your sleeping patterns. Use f.lux – a handy software that will automatically adjust the color of your computer’s display to the time of day – warm at night and like sunlight during the day. F.lux allowed me to be more productive in the mornings and made it easier to slow down my activity in the evenings. As a digital nomad it is essential to stay refreshed as your income depends solely on your productivity. Besides, haven’t we escaped the cubicle to have a better work/life balance and more rest in the first place?

    Advertising

    3. Focus@Will

    As we often find ourselves working at various places around the globe – from a crowded bus station to a jam-packed bar (the only place that has decent wi-fi in the area) – concentrating on your work gets extremely difficult. That’s where Focus@Will comes to rescue. The service offers a wide selection of white noise and simple tunes selected according to a neuroscience-based approach. It seems to work pretty great as I stayed way more concentrated on my work compared to the times when I just blasted my favorite tunes and murmured along. A 30-day free trial has a limited selection of tracks and will stop playing them in an hour (although it could be restarted immediately). The paid service will cost you around $10 for three months. Also available as a free app for iOS and Android devices.

    4. Shopify

    Let’s admit it, being a digital nomad and working solo gets challenging at times. There are days when you feel like a Renaissance man trying to tackle all things at once and getting expertise in numerous areas. That’s especially true when you are just about to launch your business website, blog or an online store. If you are a creative, you have only basic knowledge (if any) in CSS, HTML or integrated payment systems, so you spend endless hours figuring out how things work instead of doing what you are really good at and earning money.

    Try Shopify – a service providing custom no-hassle ecommerce solutions. They offer everything from secure hosting and mobile-optimized websites to secure check-outs with some 70 payment getaways to choose from and assistance with running your online marketing campaign. The rates are incredibly affordable and start from just $29 per month for unlimited access to all their services and features or opt for a 14 day free trial to test them out first!

    5. Rescue Time

    Proper time management is another great struggle all digital workers face. How many times you have found yourself spending over 12 hours a day in front of your screen and not having all things done? Yeah, it happens to me quite in a while, so I’ve started using Rescue Time – to stay on top of my productivity while still having a normal work/life balance. Install it on your computer and all devices to have an accurate picture of how much time you spend doing certain activities or browsing certain sites (khm..cat videos on YouTube). At the end of each week you’ll receive an email with a fair statement on your (un)productivity.

    Rescue Time enables you to give more accurate deadlines to your clients; create accurate hourly invoices as you know exactly how much time you’ve spent doing a certain task and adjusting your rates accordingly and eliminate random activity during your working hours. You can use Light Rescue Time version for free or opt for the premium plan at $6 per month.

    6. Every Time Zone

    As you probably work with people based anywhere from New Zealand to the West Coast keeping an eye on the deadline or updating them on your progress at 9 am each day may get tricky. Just as sending follow-ups, project proposals and invoices at the right time of the day. Every Time Zone is another great solution for keeping proper track of the time – your client’s time. Add all time zones you need, add your time in the marker at the top and see where this lands in everyone else’s day. No more crazy maths with figuring out when do you need to ring up Joe on Skype if he asked to do that at 11 am EST.

    Advertising

    7. XE Currency

    How many currencies do you have in your wallet? My guess is more than two. As a digital nomad and perpetual traveler you have to keep track on the conversion rates and different currencies all the time. To make sure you are charging an equally fair price in USD/EU/GBP or any other currency out there use XE Currency. Get live conversion rates instantly or add up a list of your preferred and sync ahead of time to have instant offline access from any device. XE Currency is available as a web service, iOS, Android, Windows Phone apps and more.

    8. Trail Wallet

    My second essential money app for digital nomads is Trail Wallet (currently iOS only). It’s a beautifully crafted and easy-to-use app for tracking your expenses across multiple countries and currencies. You can organize your spendings by country or my month, set max daily budgets and add each dollar you’ve spent on the go. At the end of the month the app will tell you if you gone over your budget or where exactly did the cash flow. It’s perfect for analyzing the cost of living and working at different cities and countries, thus finding the optimal home-base for you when you get tired of being on the road and need to settle down for a while.

    9. Xero

    And to keep better track of your business-related expenses try Xero. Arguably, the best online bookkeeping and accounting service out there for all the non-accountants. It’s perfect for sending invoices, keeping track of the cash-flow and setting payment notifications on credit cards and recruiting payments. It neatly categorizes all your bank transactions and reconciles them with the transactions you have made in Xero to keep things even more simple. Available for numerous iOS and Android devices, so you can always have access to your data at no time.

    10. Tripit

    Tripit is one of the best travel planners out there! It’s free, fast and most importantly – works off-line. Just say no more to papers and lost emails. Forward all your booking confirmations – hotels, flights, car rental etc and let the app do all the magic for you by turning it into an easy-to-follow itinerary. You can set up notifications and get access to your data from any device without internet connection. Tripit reduced my frustration of arriving to the wrong terminal or roaming around the new city with my baggage as I haven’t written down the hotel address correctly. It’s a great app I seriously recommend using it to basically anyone who travels.

    11. 1Password

    Sharing sensitive data, especially passwords with your clients or team and keeping track of them can get challenging. That’s why I’ve started using 1Password – a super secure password-sharing service that allows you to create special vaults with a set of passwords to tools and services only accessible to the people you’ve shared it with. Available for numerous devices, the service gives you peace of mind when sharing anything sensitive via unprotected networks. Speaking of which…

    12. Private Internet Access

    Keep all your data and computer protected by opting for Private Internet Access. Often we need to make those last minute payments or credit card purchases and the only internet available is a suspicious unprotected network your device somehow found. By using an anonymous encrypted VPN and a private IP you can be 100% sure none of your payment data will be fished or passwords stolen.

    Advertising

    13. Workfrom

    Find the best coffee shops and cafes in your area with this service. Workfrom has a great pool of venues in major US cities – New York, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle – and more destinations worldwide to be added soon! The service is free to join and you’ll get access to numerous cool spots with unbiased opinions of wi-fi connection and cappuccino quality from digital nomads just like you. Reviews also include price range, meals available, general atmosphere and noise range, along with some pro-tips on where to find sockets and which table is the most secluded. I have discovered some of my all time favorites this way like Mr Bean in Amsterdam.

    14. Spotted by Locals

    Another awesome service to discover good meals and thrilling events at your current base. Spotted by Locals is not that typical city guide with boring touristy routes, but an amazing resources with awesome recommendations from the locals on things to do and places to check out. After all, you’ve chosen a location independent lifestyle to explore the world more, not just spend hours tapping on the keywords in a different environment.

    Currently, the website has numerous recommendations for all major European cities – Paris, Madrid, Vienna, Warsaw and many more, plus it gradually expands into North America with Boston, LA, Toronto and Montreal guides recently added. You can browse around the free categorized selection of activities at the website or pay$ 2.99 for a PDF guide with all tips and places neatly listed on the map. Or opt for iOS or Android app ($3.99 each) to gain offline access to one of the city guides along with a detailed map.

    15. Jawbone UP

    Now when you know where to go and what to see, here’s a handy app that will help you get unstuck from your laptop. Jawbone UP will gently nag you when it’s time to get up and unwind a bit. Install the app and connect it to all your hardware, than let the Up Activity Tracker (a lovely bracelet) analyze your sleeping and activity patterns to help you creating a better lifestyle. The app will monitor and analyze all your actions and suggest you a healthier schedule, help you sleep better and keep up with the exercise routine (which gets erratic when you are on the move). Why do we need more time if we don’t spend it wise, right? The app is free for iOS and Android, however you’ll have to pay 129$ for the bracelet tracker or 49.99$ for the clip.

    16. SugarSync

    Some like DropBox, others opt for Google Drive, yet my go-to cloud storage service is SugarSync. It’s simpler, more powerful and has a really slick design. After you install it, you just need to right-click the file/folder to instantly back them up at the cloud. Besides, any further change you make to that data will be automatically synchronized. Large files get uploaded extra fast and you can get 250 GB storage space for just $99.99 per year. Also you can access, share and edit all your files via free iOS or Android app supported on numerous devices. Now, I’ve finally stopped worrying what should I do if my laptop gets broken/stolen.

    17. Contactually

    If you don’t like to get broke and return home, you have to invest a fair share of your time in building ongoing relationships with your clients, vendors or customers depending on what do you do for a living. To avoid this whole thing becoming a huge pain try using Contactually – a simple, yet powerful service that will tell you when and whom you should keep in touch with and how you could maximize your ROI by connecting with the right people at the right time. It will send you notifications when you’ve fallen out of touch with certain contacts (which can mean missed opportunities in the perspective) and prompt when you should reconnect with the most important contacts from your network by providing helpful context clues like social updates and recent conversations to make the whole thing look more genuine. The service boasts that their users get up to 40% more referrals after using their service (backed by case studies) which is kind of essential for you if you’d like to live the nomadic life and work for yourself!

    Advertising

    18. Schedule Once

    If you are working on multiple projects with multiple clients at a time – Schedule Once is your kick-ass service to schedule online meetings and conferences. Create a sleek pre-set calendar when you are available and send people a unique link that allows them to select a suitable time for both of you to connect. The service is fantastic for anyone offering consulting services or coaching sessions and costs just 5$ per month!

    19. Spaxtel

    Sometimes the internet gets so crappy that calling by Skype is impossible. Or you have a very-very important conversation scheduled and you don’t want any possible glitches to interrupt you. That’s when it’s worth using Spaxtel – a cool service that enables you to make land-line quality phone calls via callback. You don’t need to install any software or have internet access. The rates depends on the quality of call you choose (the lowest discount is pretty great) and the countries from/to you are calling. So far, the price proved to be nearly Skype-affordable for a better overall quality of connection.

    20. Earth Class Mail

    Snail mail isn’t that popular these days, but you still get some important stuff via it. Say bills and some paychecks. If you don’t want to bug your parents or friends’ to deal with your mail while you are out, try using Earth Mail Class – an affordable mail forwarding service that scans and forwards your mail to the e-mail address of your choice, deposits your checks (for a fee), saves PDFs of your postal mail online and offers in-person pickup and package signing.

    Featured photo credit: Avi Richards via unsplash.com

    Read Next