Madness in the Method?

Sometimes there is a method to my madness, as my mother used to say. But, more often than not, some people are more apt to think there is madness to my method; especially when it comes to decision making.

Take, for instance, my decision to do five workouts a week instead of three. While I’m really proud of the fact that I’ve managed to haul myself to the gym three times a week for the past year and a half, it never got any easier. Each day I would talk myself in and out of going. After all, I reasoned, I could go the next day or even the day after that as long as I made sure there were three workouts each week. As a result, I would see-saw back and forth every day wearing myself out with just one more decision needing to be made on top of the many I was already making throughout the day.

Finally, I decided it would be much simpler just to go every day.  And, for the past two months, I have managed to do exactly that. In addition to seeing accelerated fitness results, it truly has been much easier. Now, there’s no second guessing, I just know that I have to go each day, so I do.

Turns out, I have unknowingly developed a strategy for dealing with what author John Tierney is calling decision fatigue. He wrote about it in a recent New York Times article from an about-to-be published book written with Roy F. Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University and an expert on matters related to self-control.

According to Baumeister, “Making decisions uses the very same willpower that you use to say no to doughnuts, drugs or illicit sex. It’s the same willpower that you use to be polite or to wait your turn or to drag yourself out of bed or to hold off going to the bathroom.” He goes on to explain that our ability to make the right decision about who to hire or what investment to make, may be reduced simply because we’ve expended too much of our willpower. We may have used that energy holding our tongue in response to someone’s derogatory remarks, or because we’ve exerted ourselves to get to the meeting on time.

Not unlike my inability to decide to go the gym after a tough day on the job, generally it appears that after making a lot of decisions and exerting a lot of willpower, the quality of our decisions deteriorates.

Not to worry though, because there are strategies Tierney and Baumeister present that can help all of us deal more effectively with decision fatigue.

They suggest that to improve our decision making we should set up our daily agendas to counteract temptations and weaknesses. For instance, don’t schedule back to back meetings if you want to stay calm and make intelligent decisions.

They also suggest it’s important to implement routines or habits to help you avoid temptation. For example, while it allows for some variation, my breakfast rule is that I eat one piece of toast, one piece of fruit, and a yogurt. Having that framework means I’m not using up decision-making energy each morning. Knowing I have to go the gym each day also becomes a routine that doesn’t require much thinking power.

Not being afraid to “sleep on it” is another recommended strategy. If, for instance, you have a day that involves a lot of self-restraint and too many stress inducing situations, it’s a good idea not to make a decision until the next day or, at the very least, a bit later. Of course, there is a need to be disciplined about following through after delaying the decision in order not to develop a backlog. 

It also makes sense to make the big or more expensive decisions earlier in the decision-making process. Rather than getting stuck and wearing yourself out on minor details up front, deal with the most important components at the very beginning of the negotiation or meeting.

The authors also point out the impact of sugar on one’s willpower and the need for eating a good breakfast and having healthy snacks available. Being disciplined and making a lot of decisions triggers a need for food to reward your outputs, and in some cases, for simply surviving the day. The delicate dance, of course, is making sure you give yourself a little treat when you’re on the edge without caving in to unhealthy stress eating.

Ultimately, being aware of decision fatigue is crucial so each of us can anticipate it, and develop our own strategies for responding. The result will be less decision paralysis, fewer impulse buys, more self discipline, and ultimately making choices that will have a positive impact on our quality of life.

Posted on 09-18-11


Great advice!  I’m all for sleeping on big decisions… sometimes the brain just needs time to work things out.

•Posted by Janet Naclia  on  09/19/11  at  01:40 PM

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