The alarm goes off. Do you hit snooze or do you get up? If you hit snooze, how many times? If you get up, should you go to the bathroom first, brush your teeth, or let the dogs out? What about what to wear? Slacks, jeans, long shirt, short sleeves, which shoes? Should you drink the coffee black, with cream, or with cream and sugar? But there was an article you just read saying coffee may not be good, so should you even drink the coffee? What do you have that can substitute for coffee? Should you wake up the kids now, or wait until you get their breakfast ready? What are you going to eat for breakfast?Within 20 minutes of getting up each day, we are bombarded by a constant stream of decisions. Some are conscious thoughts (most are not) that tax our brains and zap our energy. One estimate is that by the end of the day, most people have made up to 35,000 decisions. These decisions don’t simply fatigue our brain in a general way. They fatigue it in a way that reduces our willpower as the day goes on. And willpower is not something that is regenerated easily.One of the first studies to spark the decision fatigue dialogue involved Israeli prisoners. After studying approximately 1,100 different parole decisions over the course of a year, researchers found that there was a pattern in which prisoners received parole. It wasn’t tied to ethnicity, duration of sentence, or even the crime itself. The pattern was this: if the case was heard in the early morning, no matter what the charge, the odds were favorable (70%) that parole would be granted. The cases being heard later in the day, even for lesser crimes, were more likely (90% more likely) to be denied. Of course, we can scream foul play here (no pun intended), but the truth is, these decisions were unconscious, and were the result of having a brain that was increasingly more fatigued by decisions as the day progressed.
As John Tierney wrote in his New York Times piece on the subject,“No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences…The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing.”You might be wondering how this relates to health. Is it any surprise that at the end of the day, the gym trip doesn’t occur (avoidance), or you find yourself in the drive through line despite your best intentions? Here’s the rub: we have a constant stream of decisions that fatigue our brains and inevitably reduce our willpower. Yet, that willpower is the very life line we are relying on to uphold our health decisions. So how do we solve this problem and set ourselves up for success?
Know your values and priorities. Name the top three things that are important to you right now. Now that you know your values and priorities, you need to make sure your willpower and mental energy are aligned with them.Assess where you are spending your mental energy. This is easier said than done because, as we know, most decisions are subconscious. But with 35,000 decisions each day, there are plenty of areas to cut back on. One way to tune into the areas that zap our precious energy is to think of the times of the week when we feel the most overwhelmed. Take these key “decision minefield” areas, listen to what your body and your mind are telling you and design a way to reduce that fatigue by limiting choices in those scenarios.Use a filter. In this day and age, information is literally at our fingertips, and we are only limited by the speed in which we type. We need to start practicing the skill of limiting choices by filtering out information. Do we really need Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HBO, especially if one of our values is to spend quality time with our family? Life definitely feels more complicated and overwhelming now than 30 years ago, and I believe part of the problem is because we have this wonderful internet that is constantly telling us, “Do this. No, do that. Eat this. Wait, no, that’s bad, eat that.” It’s incredibly overwhelming to navigate through this information without a solid filter.Come up with a plan. For some of us, the word “plan” is exciting. For others, the word is associated with shackles. Wherever you are on the spectrum, you will inevitably be forced to make fewer decisions if you have a plan. Try a weekly meal plan, whether it be for three meals or seven. Commit to exercising on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday and plan your commitments around that. At work, block “shifts” to focus on emails, or specific tasks or projects. Write out everything you need to accomplish during the week, and invest the time to create a weekly system that will work for you and your sanity.
Start slowly and be patient and kind with yourself as you make adjustments. It takes time, months to years really, to create new habits that stick. This is a journey towards sanity and towards the life you want. So as you start figuring out your plan and what you can filter, be patient and kind to yourself. Most life changes are two steps forward, one step back, especially as you experiment with new systems. You will get there. Find inspiration in others. Steve Jobs wore the same black turtleneck and jeans, day in and day out. My former boss, a very successful CFO, had five pairs of the same shirts, slacks, and shoes. He wore one each day, and was happy as a clam. Jennifer Aniston reported that she ate the same salad every day for lunch for ten years. Once you find something that works for you, own it, and use your energy to achieve success in other areas of your life.When all else fails, schedule activities that are important to you earlier in the day or on days where fewer decisions are being made. As we learned from the Israeli prisoner study, earlier in the day is better for planning important tasks because decisions haven’t weakened your willpower. You can use this to your advantage by scheduling any priority that you want to be successful at earlier in the day.