Too Many Decisions

The first thing you do in the morning is to make a decision. And those decisions pile up fast. Should I hit snooze? What clothes should I wear? What should I have for breakfast? What combination of choices from Starbucks will make my morning go smoother?

You’ve already made more decisions than most of our ancestors would make in a day by the time you arrive at work. Unfortunately — at least as far as the quality of your decisions is concerned — your day is just getting started.

Decisions take a lot of mental effort. And that’s a problem. Making choices reduces physical stamina, reduces persistence, reduces willpower, and even encourages procrastination.

John Tierney, adapted part of his upcoming book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, for a New York Times Magazine article: Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?

Our brains are tired of making decisions. This has been coined as “Decision fatigue” and helps explain why, in the words of Tierney, “normally sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car.”

No matter how rational you are (or try to be), you can’t make decision after decision without paying a mental price. “It’s different”, Tierney writes, “from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy.”

The more choices you make, the harder they become. To save energy your brain starts to look for shortcuts. One shortcut is to be reckless and act impulsively (rather than rationally). The other shortcut is to do nothing, which saves as much energy as possible (and often creates bigger problems in the long run).

It turns out that glucose is a vital part of willpower. Tierney writes, “Your brain does not stop working when glucose is low. It stops doing some things and starts doing others. It responds more strongly to immediate rewards and plays less attention to long-term prospects.”

Glucose explains a lot. For instance, why people with phenomenally strong willpower in the rest of their lives struggle to lose weight. It also explains how someone can resist junk all day but gorge on a bag of chips right before bed. We start the day with a clean slate and the best intentions. It’s fairly easy to resist fatty muffins at breakfast and skip the snickers bar fix after lunch. But each of these decisions—resistances—consumes glucose and lowers our willpower. Eventually, we need to replenish it. But that requires glucose, which creates a catch-22: We need willpower not to eat but in order to have willpower we need to eat.

Tierney continues, “when the brain’s regulatory powers weaken, frustrations seem more irritating than usual. Impulses to eat, drink, spend and say stupid things feel more powerful (and alcohol causes self-control to decline further)…ego-depleted humans become more likely to get into needless fights over turf.”

Although we have no way of knowing, it seems like a fairly safe bet that we make more decisions now than at any point in history. That is, we’re under more decision making strain and we’re starting to show cracks.

The internet and our ability to “multitask” isn’t helping, argues Nicolas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brian: “A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the Net, with its constant distractions and interruptions, is also turning us into scattered and superficial thinkers.” Carr argues that our continuously connected, constantly distracted lives (read—constantly making decisions) rob us of the opportunity for deep thinking. The kind of thinking that we need to make a lot of decisions. By making thousands of trivial decisions every day, we rob ourselves of the ability to make more difficult contemplative decisions.

There are ways to improve our ability to make better decisions. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister has done research showing that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives to conserve willpower. “They don’t,” Tierney suggests, “schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.” Wise advice we should all follow.

Organizations should start thinking carefully about how their employees actually end up spending their time and what they “waste” their precious mental energy on. If they’re filling out forms, trudging through a bureaucratic morass, or attending more than a few meetings a day, they’re likely using their mental energy on things that add little value to the organization.

Still Curious? John Tierney wrote a book about willpower and decision fatigue, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.