Mark Zuckerburg is one of the richest men in the world, yet he wears the same style t-shirt every single day.
Along with being one of the most iconic businessmen of all time, Steve Jobs was also famous for sporting his iconic black turtleneck every day at work.
While serving as President of the United States, Barack Obama limited his wardrobe to only blue or gray suits.
These habits may seem odd, however there is a method to the madness of these highly successful people, and it centers around a concept called decision fatigue. What exactly is decision fatigue? And how does it cause us to make unproductive decisions even when we know those decisions aren’t in our best interest? Those are the questions that we’ll be answering in this article.
The Courtroom Study
Perhaps the most famous study involving decision fatigue and willpower was conducted by Jonathan Levav of Columbia University and Shai Danzinger of Ben Gurion University. Assisted by a team of psychologists, Jonathan and Shai reviewed more than one thousand court decisions made by judges over a ten month period. These judges were tasked with sitting through parole hearings and making a determination as to whether or not a prisoner should be released.
On average, the prisoners were granted parole one third of the time. However, as the team delved deeper into these decisions, they made a startling discovery. Prisoners who appeared before the judge early in the morning were granted parole 65 percent of the time, whereas prisoners who appeared before the judge late in the day were only granted parole 10 percent of the time.
The results begged the question – why was there such a stark difference between the decisions of the judges based on the time of day the hearing was held?
Judging is hard mental work. It requires thorough examination of case files, personal background, and several other factors that are vital to deciding whether or not a prisoner should be released. The researchers concluded that as the day progressed, the judges had to expend a significant amount of mental energy during each decision, which made them less equipped to come to rational conclusions about the fate of the prisoners.
It turns out that if your work requires you to make complex decisions all day long, you will naturally start looking for ways to conserve energy. You’ll start to look for excuses to procrastinate work, or postpone decisions. You’ll tend to look for the safest option, which is often to stick with the status quo. In this case, the status quo was to leave the prisoner in prison, so that’s what the judges started to do as their mental energy faded.
What is Decision Fatigue?
Studies like this one have routinely shown that your willpower is like a muscle. Just like your biceps get tired after performing a set of curls at the gym, your willpower gets fatigued each time you make a decision.
The link between decision making and willpower goes both ways: Decision making depletes your willpower, and once your willpower is depleted, you’re less equipped to make decisions.
Decision fatigue is simply the slow deterioration of your ability to make rational decisions as you progress through the day. At the beginning of the day, each judge was willing to give the prisoner a fair shot. But as their energy started to fade? Deny. Deny. Deny.
How Decision Fatigue Affects Your Life
Even though you might not have been aware of the concept of decision fatigue before reading this article, you’ve undoubtedly experienced thousands of instances of decision fatigue in your daily life.
Let’s say that you just got home from a long day at work, and you’re sitting on your couch deciding what to do next. You’ve spent all day long making decisions, which means you have limited mental energy available to complete challenging tasks.
You might realize that you need to send out a few more emails to some of your colleagues/clients, but more often than not you simply can’t find the energy to sit down and craft them. You know in the back of your mind that you’ve committed to going to the gym, but the idea of forcing yourself off the couch to be in pain for an hour just doesn’t sound appealing in any way.
Netflix re-runs until 9 p.m. it is. That’s decision fatigue in a nutshell.
How to Combat Decision Fatigue
Before we get into strategies for overcoming decision fatigue, you have to realize that it’s an entirely unavoidable part of life. No matter what you do each day, your ability to make rational decisions will decrease as the day progresses.
Decision fatigue is not something you can eradicate from your life, however you can take certain actions that will reduce the impact that it has on your overall decision making.
3 Ways to Overcome Decision Fatigue
Set your clothes out before you go to bed. One of the first decisions that we all make every morning is deciding what we are going to wear. If you take a few minutes the night before planning out what you are going to wear the following day, you won’t have to spend any mental energy trying to figure out what outfit is suitable for the day ahead. Instead, you’ll walk right over to the dresser and throw clothes on without even thinking about it. Congrats, you’ve just avoided making a decision. For some people, this one-time action might only save 1-2 minutes each day. For others, it might save 5-10 minutes. Regardless, you will conserve mental energy that can be used towards having a more productive morning.
Plan out your day. One of the best ways to combat decision fatigue is through having clarity about what you want to accomplish the next day. Planning out your day not only helps you be more productive, but it also removes the fuzziness that many people feel when it comes to their day to day decisions. Settings goals and making plans requires a significant amount of mental energy. If you have no plan for what you are going to accomplish each day, your brain will have to come up with these plans on the fly. Doing so requires willpower, which as we’ve already discussed is a finite resource.
If you want to workout tomorrow, write down when and where you are going to workout so you don’t need to spend time thinking about logistics.If you want to have a productive day, make a to-do list the night before so you’re not constantly obsessing about what to focus your time on. Planning your days before they start will put your mind at ease and help you spend more energy focusing on the things that matter.
Do your most important task first thing in the morning. Many times, you’ll hear people say that they struggle with getting the “important” stuff done. Typically, these are the tasks that require the greatest amount of mental energy to complete. As a result, people don’t usually feel like doing them, so they often procrastinate these tasks until later in the day. This is a huge mistake. Why? Because by the time they get around to working on these tasks, they’ve already made thousands of decisions, which has depleted their willpower. Remember the courtroom study from the beginning of the article?
At first, the judges were expending their energy to make rational decisions about the fate of prisoners. But what started to happen as the day progresses? The judges started defaulting to the status quo as their brain power faded. Now for you, the status quo may not be denying people parole. However it might be checking your phone, or turning on the TV, or skipping the gym. All of these activities are far less work than sitting down and being productive, so you’ll naturally default to choosing the path of least resistance.
If you want to become more productive, it’s imperative that you get the hard things out of the way first thing in the morning. Studies have shown that willpower and motivation are at their highest levels in the morning. This means you’ll be completing those challenging tasks at a time when you have plenty of mental available. Not only will you produce higher quality work, but you’ll also get it done faster so that you can get home and binge Netflix guilt-free!
Decision fatigue is something that affects everyone, from Mark Zuckerberg to the janitor at your local high school. We often underestimate the fact that seemingly insignificant decisions like choosing what to eat for breakfast have an impact on our ability to make rational decisions later in the day.
However, studies have proven time and time again that willpower is a finite resource, and each decision we make depletes it.
The best way to combat decision fatigue is by planning your day before it starts. If you can master the art of planning ahead, you’ll put yourself into the driver’s seat of your own life instead of defaulting to the path of least resistance.