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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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    James Clear

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

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    Last Updated on October 5, 2020

    10 Best Calendar Apps to Stay on Track in 2020

    10 Best Calendar Apps to Stay on Track in 2020

    The success of our day is largely dependent on the quality of our planning. Not to miss out anything in their to-dos, some people prefer to make a list of upcoming tasks in a notebook, while others have long started using digital technology solutions.

    Calendar applications are some of the main tools that are worth using to organize our life and plan your time carefully.

    Many people have switched to specific tools; however, there are still some who do not use calendars on a daily basis. They may find some applications uncomfortable to use, non-functional, or expensive.

    In this article, we are going to check out the best calendars apps to help you stay organized.

    Before You Download

    As you are no doubt aware, there are all kinds of calendar apps available. Instead of you sifting through the hundreds of them, we’ve handpicked 10 of the best calendar apps you can get. On top of glowing reviews from each one, we’ve considered the following aspects when creating this list:

    • User Interface – How you navigate the app should be smooth and simple. The buttons on the app should be clear, obvious and easy to move through.
    • Synchronization – Whether it’s with other calendar apps or with other apps, syncing apps should be easy and enhance your overall experience with the app.
    • Additional features – Since there are so many options for calendars, many of these apps offer additional features. These features make the apps stand out from the other apps and provide unique experiences to you.

    1. Any.do Calendar

      This calendar has direct integration with Any.Do To-Do List, which gives you a unique tandem of two applications.

      Apart from its extended functionality, Cal Calendar is easy to use. The creation of events is very simple and fast.

      What is more, depending on the name of the event, the application automatically adds contacts and geolocation data to the entry description. You can even import your lists and entries from Any.do.

      Any.do Calendar is a great option for any type of user. It is very convenient and doesn’t overcomplicate the mode of display.

      Another good thing is that this tool is available for free, so you can use it without spending a dime for the software.

      Download Any.do Calendar here!

      2. Google Calendar

        Google Calendar is the official calendar for Android devices that has been tested out by many users around the globe. If you are right now trying to get away from it, consider changing your mind.

        Since this application is installed on most Android devices by default, many users think that there is nothing special in this program. They are wrong.

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        Google has been updating its calendar for quite a few years, and now it comes in Material Design with advanced event features, direct integration into other Google services (for example, supports reminders and Google Now), and comes with Exchange support.

        The program is super easy and will not cost a dime for you. It is a good thing, right?

        Download Google Calendar here.

        3. IRL Event Social Network

           

          One of the most unique apps on this list is the IRL Event Social Network app. As you can guess from the name, the core focus of this app is social networking. Unlike other social media platforms, you can consider this platform to function similar to Meetup.com. It’s a site where you can connect with other people within your area that share a similar interest.

          IRL is that while also providing a convenient calendar for you to schedule events and plan out your day. Though due to it being a secondary focus, you’re lacking a lot of the syncing aspects that other apps have on this list. Regardless, because of this huge social feature, it’s worth considering for those who want to make more connections.

          Download IRL Event Social Network here.

          4. Business Calendar

            Business Calendar is geared towards people who use their calendar for work purposes and business task planning. It offers different modes with wide configuration capabilities.

            The application gives a default view mode by months, and events can be marked in different colors. Display modes/ sorting can be adjusted to your needs (by month, day, year, or events).

            You can also set a multi-day viewing mode to see how things look for the next few days. Scrolling up and down moves you by month, and if you check a few days, they will be shown in a more detailed form.

            The day display mode offers hourly scheduling, and the schedule mode provides a detailed schedule for a single event.

            Business Calendar is a great tool for planning/ scheduling cases, tasks, and events. There is a support for recurring events, which can be set up in just a few clicks.

            Having purchased software, you can use it to import and export other calendars, delete, copy, or move several events at the same time.

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            Android Business Calendar application may seem somewhat chaotic, but it works fine and is easy to work with if you play with it for a while.

            A full version of the application is available for $4.99, but you can also find a free version for the app test drive.

            Download Business Calendar here.

            5. Calendar

              Calendar is a relatively new app. It works as a web app and for both iOS and Android devices. It is an intelligent app that learns your contacts, schedule and tasks. It also helps you schedule and arrange meetings according to your available time slots.

              A good thing about Calendar is that it allows you to sync up with other calendars you use such as Apple Calendar and Google Calendar. And so you can manage all the calendars you have in one place.

              Calendar also gives you analytics of your meetings, giving you a clear picture on how you can improve your time management.

              Download Calendar: Meeting & Scheduling here.

              6. aCalendar

                aCalendar opens our collection of top 10 calendar applications available on the market today. With its appealing design, easy navigation, and great functionality, it is one of the most popular calendar apps in our list.

                Some of extra functions include color schemes for each case type (48 colors to choose from), different types of demonstrations, different widgets, moon phases, and much more.

                Taking into account it functionality, aCalendar is a reliable calendar application that has an easy-to-navigate interface with three display options. Scrolling from side to side allows you to switch between the display modes of the month, week and day.

                When scrolling down and up, you are moving through the calendar at intervals in accordance with the selected display mode.

                Apart from its time planning feature, aCalendar synchronizes photos from contact lists or social networks to remind you about birthdays, anniversaries, or any other special dates.

                The program also supports data transfer through NFC and full-screen widgets, which eases your work with any data.

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                The program is available for free, but you can also get even more features if you buy the extended version of software for $4.99.

                Download aCalendar here.

                7. DigiCal Calendar

                  DigiCal Calendar is very similar to Cal Calendar in the fact that the application focuses on design more than on its functionality. However, this doesn’t mean that the application doesn’t serve the purpose.

                  With this calendar application, you can synchronize all your calendars and view them in different ways.

                  Along with the basic functions, this program comes with support for Google Calendar, Outlook, and includes some unique and interesting features. You can match keywords to the image or set up a dark theme.

                  The app can even show you the weather forecast for three days. There are many other features that deserve the attention of people who really like to use calendar applications.

                  Download DigiCal Calendar here.

                  8. SolCalendar

                    SolCalendar can be called a universal application. It claims to be an all-in-one digital solution having a basic calendar functionality combined with some other advanced features, such as weather forecast for a specific day.

                    The application supports Google Calendar, as well as tasks, widgets, lunar calendar and even Foursquare.

                    Those searching for a calendar application to cover just everything in its functionality, SolCalendar is a program to consider. There are a lot of interesting things in this application; the program does an excellent job working in “all-in-one” mode.

                    Test SolCalendar – the application is available for free. You can test it out without purchasing the service.

                    Download SolCalendar here.

                    9. Today Calendar

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                      Today Calendar is one of the most hip and edgy calendars in our list. The solution was one of the first ones that really embraced Material Design and remains one of the few that adhere to the neat style.

                      The calendar application offers bold colors, simple controls, and great functionality. This is not as heavy an application as many others; it will not eat all the memory of your device.

                      If you are not searching for something complicated and over-functional, Today Calendar is what you need. You can always test the application before paying for it – the program is available for free.

                      Download Today Calendar here.

                      10. Timepage

                        Timepage is an intuitive calendar app that will manage your time in a way that other calendar apps can’t. It offers the same sort of functions that you’d expect from other calendar apps: opportunities to record events, notifications and reminders, weather, and driving duration to a particular event. However, the app goes beyond those functionalities in two ways.

                        The first way is that while the app sends you notifications, it also has reminders for you for what is coming up next. That bit of extra time can allow you to prepare and make adjustments to your day if need be.

                        The second function – which is more important – is the heat map when you go to see the full view of your calendar. This heat map indicates what days you are most busy and other days where you are freer. This heat map provides a quick glance to determine broadly what days are good to add more events and other tasks.

                        Download Timepage here.

                        Our Verdict

                        Searching for the right application to manage your various calendars and plan your busy day can sometimes turn into a streak of obstacles.

                        Most of us need flexible applications that can be easily used to manage our tough schedule. The application should have all necessary time planning functions and be intuitive.

                        Stylish design and limitless compatibility also matter. It is not always easy to find such a program.

                        The above digital calendar solutions fall under the category “worth” of being used. They are modern, multifunctional, easy, and easy. Pick the one you like!

                        More Productivity Apps for Better Time Management

                        Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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