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Decision Fatigue and How To Beat It

food choiceIf you're a parent, you've probably been told that it's easier to get young kids out the door in the morning if you lay out their clothes the night before. In a perfect world, you get them to pick out their clothes for the entire week on Sunday night, thereby eliminating at least one opportunity for tantrums each morning.

I've started doing this for myself. Not because I'm prone to throwing tantrums, but because the science behind the new concept of so-called "decision fatigue" says that we have only a set amount of decision-making capacity we can use each day.

It seems that willpower really is a finite resource. If we squander too much of it in the morning, we make poorer decisions as the day goes on. When President Barack Obama says he only wears black or gray suits because he has too much else to worry about, he's not kidding: Why use precious brainpower on solids vs. pinstripes if you've got to deal with Putin that afternoon?

There are two ways we can refresh our decision-making brainpower: sleep and glucose. Unfortunately, when we're feeling fatigued in the middle of the day, sleep is not always an option. Glucose generally is, which is one of the reasons it may be so hard to lose weight. The quick sugar hit from those mid-afternoon cookies is exactly what we need to muster the willpower to choose an apple instead.

There are a few things we can do to make better decisions:

  • Make important decisions early in the day, right after eating breakfast. You'll have both sleep and glucose working in your favor.
  • Don't schedule meetings back-to-back, or you'll have no willpower left by the time you make it back to your desk.
  • If you have to make an important decision late in the day, grab a quick bite first. Something sugary gets glucose to your brain fast. But the better option is to snack throughout the day on healthier foods, which will provide a more even flow of glucose to the brain.
  • Sleep on it. If it's a really important decision, go for that extra boost of willpower that only sleep will bring.

We can also rely on rules to minimize the number of decisions we need to make. One of the best-known is the ever-useful, "Don't go to the grocery store hungry." I've been looking for others in an effort to routinize as many of the mundane parts of my life as I can, allowing me to conserve brainpower for the good stuff. Here's what I've come up with so far:

Decide on the week's wardrobe on Sunday night. I know that creating new outfits is fun for some people, but I get no joy from this. Therefore, it's the perfect activity for me to do when my decision-making power is lowest. I am fully confident that the rest of the world is not going to notice my sartorial snafus.

Plan dinners a week in advance. With two young kids, "what's for dinner" is a constant source of debate and whining. I don't need to waste willpower saying "No, you can't have pasta," six days a week. Now, once a week, my five-year-old and I figure out what we'll eat for dinner the next week. She can only have pasta once a week, but she can choose which day. Ditto for tacos. The two-year-old just has to go along with it.

Only egg sandwiches. When I work in the city, I have decided to only have egg sandwiches for breakfast. I know, it sounds boring! But I have tried to find a better breakfast, and unless I cook it myself, I've generally failed to come up with anything better than an egg sandwich. I don't want to think about how I could be eating something tastier, because the alternatives never are tastier, and the lines in the morning are always longer. Now it's two eggs, cheese, salt and pepper, with a large tea, light no sugar. From a cart. The same cart, when possible. Four dollars. Done.

Never switch to an earlier flight the same day. There's just too much angst involved. With my luck, the earlier flight gets overbooked and I end up on the later flight anyway—in a worse seat. This only needed to happen to me once before I learned. Never again.

The Acela, not the shuttle. If I'm traveling between New York and Boston or Washington, I only take the train. I don't even look at the shuttle schedule. Why put myself through the pain to save 30 minutes, when I can have a reasonably stress-free train trip instead—and maybe do some work or indulge in some fun reading?

Keep the kids on-schedule. When it comes to those tantrum-prone evening hours, we're not kidding around: Dinner, bath, toothbrushing, pajamas, books, bed. In that order, always. If you don't eat dinner, that's fine, but then you don't get dessert. Wednesdays and Sundays are free hair wash nights. That causes epic complaining, but at least it's predictable.

Meet a friend for exercise. Rather than trying to get yourself to the gym three times a week, make an appointment to meet a friend. Then you won't have to 'decide' each day whether or not to exercise, whether to do it before or after work, whether to go running or go to the gym — you make the decision once, when you set up the recurring appointment with your pal.

Do you have rules that reliably help you make good decisions? We'd love to know about them! Please share them on our facebook page, drop us a line on twitter, or send us an email. --Kimberly Weisul

(3/05/2013)

If you liked this story, you might also like:

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Lucky You

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Image courtesy of flickr user Brian Legate



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