Decision Fatigue

For September, I'm going to try a new approach for my blog, where I choose a theme for the month. This month, I'm writing about willpower. 

Two weeks ago, I went for my long overdue eye appointment. My doctor is a matter of fact fellow, not easily excited, and when I complained to him that I was playing trombone with reading material and my headaches were increasing, he suggested progressives lenses. 


“Or,” he offered. “You can just do this all day.” And he brought his glasses to the tip of his nose and looked at me over the top. Not wanting to look like a high school librarian just yet, I opted for progressives.  

After my eye exam, which included many of the “is it better like this? or like this?” questions, I met with another fellow to order my new lenses. (Confession - I already had reading glasses so I kept the frames.)

The list of questions about my glasses was endless -

Guy: What kind of progressives do you want?

Me:  The kind that won't make me puke?

I won't get into the nitty gritty, but from there he asked me about a dozen more questions. And within each question were about five different decisions I had to make. What kind of coating? Blue screen protection for my computer? I’m pretty sure at the end I agreed to adopt a miniature donkey. Because at that point, I was saying yes to anything.

I've heard about decision fatigue before, but recently, in reading  the book "Willpower" by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, I've been reminded at how the process of making decisions affects your will power. 

I walked right out of my eye doctors and into the Starbucks located in the same building. I promptly ordered a large mocha with whipped cream and a chocolate chip cookie. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with a large bucket of whipped cream and a chocolate chip cookie. But at that moment I wasn't even hungry - I was just so overwhelmed with decision making that my willpower was depleted and I gave in to what was right in front of me.

I'm pretty sure I enjoyed the hell out of that cookie and bucket of whipped cream though...

I don’t know how many decisions I made at the eye doctor that day, but I’d guess no less than 50. And that was just at the eye doctor. Leading up to that point I’d taken the dog to the vet, and started packing my house. 

By the time I walked into Starbucks, I’d probably made 200 hundred decisions for that day. Some of them tiny - like when you’re packing you’re deciding what to keep and what to throw away - and some of them major - did I want to start wearing glasses all of the time? Would that get rid of my headaches? Would I start to depend on them and make my eyes worse? 

The most oft repeated phrase I hear as a coach is "I know what I need to do, I'm just not doing it." It's my job to help a client figure out what comes between those two statements. Is it something emotional that you're not acknowledging? Or is it willpower? 

There are many factors that affect our self-control, but decision fatigue is certainly a piece of the puzzle. If by the time you leave work at 7:00 you've already made 200 decisions - whether or not to send an email, respond to a phone call, cram in a noon workout - by the time the end of the day rolls around, your will power is depleted. It's much more difficult to make the healthy decisions that you know you need to make - but you've used up your reserve.

So what can you do? 

That's where meal prepping plays a part. Making sure you already know what you're having for dinner. That's where planning can help - not having food in the house that is tempting but that's not in your nutrition plan. 

If you plan to go to the gym at the end of the day, put your gym bag on the front seat - change in to your gym clothes before you leave work - find a workout buddy or hire a coach - something that will make the decision before you, so that going for your workout is automatic. 

Had I not walked past a Starbucks that day, I’m not sure I would have gone looking for chocolate - (though I might have, since I’m 40 years old and just ordered progressives..) but because it was right there in front of me, I had it. 

The concept I've most taken away from this book is that will power is a limited resource.

Let me say that again. 

Will power is limited. 

You use it in a variety of ways throughout the day - which means by the end of the night - it might very well be gone.