Mark Zuckerburg is one of the richest men in the world, yet he’s known for wearing the same grey t-shirt into work almost every day.
Aside from being one of the most revolutionary entrepreneurs of our time, Steve Jobs was famous for sporting his iconic black turtleneck into work every day.
And some of the last few Presidents of the United States have been known to limit their wardrobe to only two or three colors.
These types of habits from these high-achievers may seem odd. However there is a method to their madness, and it’s all based around decision fatigue.
In this article, we’ll dive into decision fatigue and discuss how it hampers your ability to make productive, rational decisions that improve your life. Additionally, we’ll dive into some practical ways that you can overcome it through some slight adjustments to your daily routine.
The Courtroom Study
Perhaps the most famous study involving decision fatigue 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. The judges had been tasked with sitting through parole hearings and making a determination as to whether or not a prisoner should be released.
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.
These findings begged the question — why the drastic difference in parole rates from the morning to later in the day?
Being a parole judge means using a lot of brainpower. 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.
Each day, the judges had to expend significant mental energy in order to make judgements about the fate of the prisoners. The researchers concluded that as their reserve of mental energy depleted, their decision making was negatively impacted.
In this specific study, denying the prisoners parole is simply the equivalent of taking the path of least resistance.
It turns out that after a long day of making complex decisions, your brain will naturally start looking for ways to conserve energy later on in the day.
- You’ll start to look for excuses to procrastinate on important work.
- You’ll avoid going to the gym even though you committed to lift weights earlier in the day
- You’ll opt for an unhealthy snack in the pantry because you don’t feel like making a healthy dinner.
In summary, you’ll tend to stick with the status quo because your brain is tired of making decisions.
What Is Decision Fatigue?
Decision fatigue is simply the slow deterioration of your ability to make rational decisions as your brain fatigues throughout the day
Studies like the one above highlight the fact that your willpower is like a muscle — it gets fatigued each time you have to use it. Just like your biceps fatigue after 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.
In the courtroom study, each judge started the day with plenty of mental energy to analyze each case on its merits. However, as their energy started to fade, sticking with the status quo seemed like the easiest option, so that’s what they did.
Decision fatigue is one of the main reasons why we procrastinate. It’s why we give into bad habits and make decisions that sabotage our long-term goals.
And while there’s nothing we can do to eliminate decision fatigue completely, we can significantly reduce the impact that it has on our lives.
HOW TO OVERCOME DECISION FATIGUE
Before we get into some practical tips, you must realize that it’s impossible to completely eradicate decision fatigue from your life. No matter what you do each day, your capacity for making rational decisions will decrease as the day progresses.
However, you can shield yourself from these significant decreases in willpower by implementing a few lifestyle changes which we’ll get into right now.
1. Set Your Clothes Out Before You Go to Bed
One of the first decisions that we make each morning is choosing the outfit that we’re going to wear for the day ahead.
If you take a few minutes the night before and lay out what you’re going to wear the following day, you won’t have to spend any time pondering the outfit that’s going to look best on you.
Instead, you’ll walk right over to the dresser and throw clothes on without even thinking about it.
For some of you, this might only save a couple of minutes each day. For others, this one time action may save you 5-10 minutes of indecisiveness each morning.
Regardless, removing a decision from your morning routine will help you conserve mental energy for the day ahead.
2. Leverage Time Blocking To Structure Your Day
Time blocking is one of the best ways to combat decision fatigue because it sets a clear agenda for the day ahead.
When you’re armed with an agenda for how you’re going to spend your time on any given day, you bring clarity and structure to your life. And perhaps more importantly, you remove the fuzziness that many people experience while going about their daily decisions.
Making plans requires a significant amount of mental energy. So if you don’t have one when you wake up in the morning, your brain will have to come up with these plans on the fly.
In other words, you’ll have to constantly make decisions about where to focus your attention at any given moment. And the more energy you waste thinking about what to do, the less energy you’re able to devote towards getting things done.
Time blocking will ensure that you don’t waste any of your precious mental energy making plans, and it’s actually quite simple to implement. Here’s a quick guide for implementing time blocking into your life:
- Open up Google Calendar/Outlook (whatever digital calendar you use). If you’re old school, then take out a sheet of paper.
- Starting from after your morning routine, plan out your day in 1-2 hour blocks and set a focus for each of these blocks.
- If you need to create a 15 minute block for smaller tasks that still need to get done, feel free to do that.
- Set a hard stop for when you will stop working and don’t schedule anything after that.
Just so you have a reference, here’s what my schedule looks like as someone who runs a blog while also working a full-time sales job.
- 6:30 AM – 9:30 AM: Blogging
- 9:30 AM – 11:00 AM: Find new accounts to prospect
- 11:00 AM – 12:30 PM: Check email + schedule out prospecting emails in advance
- 12:30 PM – 1:00 PM: Lunch
- 1:00 PM – 3:00 PM – Hold for client meetings
- 3:00 PM – 4:00 PM: End of day admin tasks + prep for tomorrow
- 4:00 PM – 5:30 PM: Blogging
Now does this mean that every single day looks like this? Absolutely not.
Meetings get scheduled, laziness and procrastination kick in, fires come up that need to be put out, etc. All of that is beside the point.
The point is that at each moment of the day, I know exactly where I need to be spending my energy. I don’t need to exert any brainpower to figure out what to work on because my daily priorities have already been established.
So if you find that your days seem to lack structure and clarity, try to reduce the burden on your brain and give time blocking a shot.
3. Do The Hard Stuff First
Many times, you’ll hear people say that they struggle with knocking the high-priority tasks off of their to-do list. Usually, these are the tasks that require the greatest amount of mental energy to complete.
As a result, people tend to make the mistake of starting the day by knocking out minor tasks in order to get some quick wins under their belt. When it comes to maximizing productivity, this is a huge mistake.
Because usually by the time they get around to the high-priority stuff, they don’t have the same level of energy and willpower they possessed earlier in the day. Unfortunately, It’s been sapped due to the thousands of decisions that they’ve already made.
As a result, it becomes easier to choose the path of least resistance and procrastinate the stuff that needs to get done.
Remember the courtroom study from the beginning of the article?
At first, the judges were exercising their brainpower to make rational decisions about the fate of prisoners. As the day dragged on though, the judges started defaulting to the status quo because it didn’t require much effort.
Now for you, the status quo may not be denying parole:
- It might be binge-watching Netflix instead of working on the presentation that you need to get done
- It might be sitting on the couch checking social media instead of forcing yourself to the gym
- It might be checking emails instead of prepping for an important call that you have coming up.
The bottom line is that all of these activities detract from the kind of work that significantly moves the needle towards your most ambitious goals.
In order to combat this, you must put the tasks that you’re most likely to procrastinate at the very beginning of the day.
At the start of the day, your willpower and motivation are at peak levels. This means that it’ll feel a little easier to exert some self-discipline and complete your most cognitively demanding tasks.
Now what defines high-priority work is different for everyone.
For me, it’s writing content for my blog. That’s why it has a three hour time block on my calendar which starts immediately after my morning routine.
For you, it could be hitting the gym, or planning for calls with clients, or spending time educating yourself about your industry.
Whatever it is, get it done first. You’ll undoubtedly experience a surge of positive momentum that you’ll carry with you as you work through the rest of your to-do list.
Decision fatigue affects everyone, whether it’s Mark Zuckerburg or the janitor at your local high school.
We often underestimate the effect that seemingly insignificant decisions have on our willpower and motivation, but the truth is that they do have a compounding effect on our decision making.
Although you can’t eliminate decision fatigue from your life completely, the best way to combat it is by planning ahead. By applying the suggestions provided in this article, you’ll reduce the burden on your brain and find it easier to maintain focus as the day progresses.
PS – If you enjoyed this article on how to overcome decision fatigue, then you’ll certainly enjoy this supporting resource that showcases the keystone habits you’ll need to crush decision fatigue for good.
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