Decision Fatigue and Willpower

Decision fatigue and Willpower is the new buzzword in my recent readings! If we can maximize these variables, we can maximize our day! Ever wondered why Supermarkets leave the sweets at the checkout counter? Together with reduced prices tagged on their chocolates, retailers are betting that you will suffer from decision fatigue and add these products conveniently to your checkout basket. Is there any research that will back up such marketing strategies?

deicision fatigue

Black Friday is always an exciting event for many Singaporeans, as we are presented with a buffet of great bargains from e-commerce sites such Amazon and Lazada. In the last few years, I have restricted my purchases on such sales, as there were just too many choices. I get tired of scrolling through the numerous pages and I find myself “tired” from trying to make a decision on my purchases. Psychologists have coined this term decision fatigue and the corresponding studies are definitely interesting.

“Making decisions uses the very same willpower that you use to say no to doughnuts, drugs, or illicit sex,” says Roy F. Baumeister, a psychologist who studies decision fatigue and the co-author of “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.”

When you make a decision — or avoid a temptation — you’re using up the supply of mental energy you have for a day, in the same way that you can only lift a weight so many times before your muscles give up on you.

If we can only make a certain number of effective decisions in a day, the Smart person will tell himself to  limit the number of decisions he needs to make and automate the rest. What exactly do I mean?

President Obama only wears blue and grey suits, as he wants to focus his energy on more important decisions. When he gets his emails, he marks them “Agree”, “Disagree” and “Discuss”, conserving his brain power for only matters which require more thought.  Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook wears the same thing to work every morning, so that he does not need to decide on what to wear everyday.

It therefore makes common sense for us to save our brain power or decision making ability for important decisions that will truly maximize your day.

In a 2011 study, Columbia Business School and Ben Gurion University researchers tracked the rulings made by judges on parole boards serving four major prisons in Israel. After tracking 1,112 rulings over the course of 10 months, prisoners who appeared early in the day received parole about 70% of the time, while those that came late in the evening had less than 10% chance at landing parole. 

Why? Judges, being human, were worn down by a day full of mental work. They had, as the New York Times reports, fallen victim to decision fatigue.

In Baumeister’s book “Willpower” (Professor of Psychology at Florida State University), they did a study on self-control. 67 participants were kept in a room surrounded by the smell of freshly baked cookies. One group was allowed to eat the cookies, while the other group was prohibited and only allowed to eat radishes.

Afterward, both groups were asked to complete difficult and impossible to solve puzzles.  Those who ate radishes made far fewer attempts and devoted less than half the time to solving the puzzles. They gave up after 8 minutes. On the other hand, the cookie eaters who had conserved their willpower were willing to spend 20 minutes on the puzzles before giving up. Willpower therefore dissipates and if we overuse willpower in a day, it needs to be replenished.

To add to the first experiment, Baumeister surveyed shoppers in a mall. There were 2 groups of people. 1 group who were shopping for a while and the other group just entered the mall. Both groups were given mathematical problems to solve and it turns out that the group which has been shopping in the mall for some time, always gave up earlier. This goes on to explain why one feels tired after a shopping marathon! 🙂

Strategies to combat Decision Fatigue

Decide what is important and automate those unimportant decisions. Personally, I know of successful people who have already decided what they want to wear everyday, due to a fixed routine. Although I will not suggest wearing the same color shirt everyday, but if there is an efficient and yet fashionable way of choosing your clothing, you just might want to explore that option.

Decision fatigue also explains why you are a more effective working at the start of everyday. As willpower can be finite, you make better decisions at the start of a day, while decision making goes down in quality throughout the day. This explains why taking breaks and power naps will help! 🙂 If you want to be a more effective worker at your workplace, maybe it’s time to look at issues of decision fatigue and employ strategies to help yourself!

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