Have you ever wondered why some of the otherwise sensible people sometimes make illogical and insanely irrational decisions, get angry at colleagues or family members, splurge on unnecessary stuff, or do something which they know is not correct?
A few weeks ago, I came across an article published by John Tierney in New York Times in 2011, where he comprehensively answered this question that I had in my mind since a long time. The article goes as follows:
Three men doing time in Israeli prisons recently appeared before a parole board consisting of a judge, a criminologist and a social worker. The three prisoners had completed at least two-thirds of their sentences, but the parole board granted freedom to only one of them. Guess which one:
Case 1 (heard at 8:50 a.m.): An Arab Israeli serving a 30-month sentence for fraud.
Case 2 (heard at 3:10 p.m.): A Jewish Israeli serving a 16-month sentence for assault.
Case 3 (heard at 4:25 p.m.): An Arab Israeli serving a 30-month sentence for fraud.
There was a pattern to the parole board’s decisions, but it wasn’t related to the men’s ethnic backgrounds, crimes or sentences. It was all about timing, as researchers discovered by analyzing more than 1,100 decisions over the course of a year. Judges, who would hear the prisoners’ appeals and then get advice from the other members of the board, approved parole in about a third of the cases, but the probability of being paroled fluctuated wildly throughout the day. Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.
The odds favored the prisoner who appeared at 8:50 a.m. — and he did in fact receive parole. But even though the other Arab Israeli prisoner was serving the same sentence for the same crime — fraud — the odds were against him when he appeared (on a different day) at 4:25 in the afternoon. He was denied parole, as was the Jewish Israeli prisoner at 3:10 p.m, whose sentence was shorter than that of the man who was released. They were just asking for parole at the wrong time of day.
The point John has made here is that – As you make decisions throughout the day, you eventually become worn down. You feel frazzled, and start to look for shortcuts. Eg.: Eating a fast food meal rather than taking the time to prepare something healthy. Another possible outcome here is – ending up doing nothing.
Wikipedia defines this phenomenon as decision fatigue.
What has willpower got to do with decision fatigue?
You need willpower to make and implement your decisions. Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal says that exerting willpower requires the brain to use a lot of energy in the form of glucose, which it may not have if you are hungry or not able to metabolize glucose as efficiently, due to lack to sleep or excessive stress. So, as the day passes, your glucose levels keep decreasing, especially in the case of a decision-heavy day.
In short, willpower is not something you can call on will. Gary Keller in his book – ‘The One Thing‘ has said that the more you exert your willpower, the faster its reserves will get depleted. And, when the willpower reserves are nearing depletion, you experience decision fatigue. At this stage, you experience brain damage in the areas you need to have self-control, and you turn into the worst version of yourself – snapping at your colleagues and family members, making irrationally wild decisions, and so on.
But the good news is that the willpower reserves are renewable. How? Consuming food and taking adequate sleep/rest at regular intervals.
Now, how to make the most out of your willpower and overcome decision fatigue?
Too many choices make you feel overwhelmed, causing you to make bad choices or shut down and do nothing. Develop a daily routine and follow it religiously. Following a routine limits the number of decisions you have to make as the things to be done are already queued. Resultant, it increases your odds of doing the right thing.
Now that you know that your willpower is at its effective best right after you’ve taken a break (i.e., after taking adequate rest, sleep and/or food), schedule your tasks accordingly. In other words, schedule the most important tasks when your willpower is at its peak.
If your job is such that you need to make important decisions throughout the day, then it is imperative for you to eat healthy, balanced meals throughout the day, and take adequate rest/sleep at regular intervals. Downtime isn’t an act of laziness, it is merely an act of refueling your willpower reserves so that you perform better.
The power of human will is infinite. Defeat your decision fatigue and apply your willpower to overcome apathy, doubt and fear with regard to the things that matter to you the most!