HR & Personal Development

Decision fatigue: Why you make bad decisions when you are tired

Have you ever made a decision late one afternoon that you knew was bad (like eating another piece of cake although trying to lose weight), but you chose to go through with it anyway? The next day it becomes perfectly clear how stupid it was. “Today”, you think, “I will control myself: Only carrots”. But when the clock strikes 4pm you're eating cake again. Does this sound familiar?

As it turns out, there's nothing wrong with you. It's all of us.

Psychologist Roy F. Baumeister’s research show that there's a limit to the number of good decisions we are able to make during a day. The more decisions, small or large, we have to make, the worse they become. And at the end of the day all of us will typically decide on an infinite amount of things. Which drain our willpower.

Your willpower-muscle gets tired

According to research our willpower and self-control originate from a limited reservoir. And the more you use it, the weaker it becomes. According to Baumeister, this is why you put chocolate in your shopping basket at the supermarket after a long shopping spree, why judges grants fewer parole releases in the afternoon, and why test subjects are able to keep their hand in iced water for a shorter amount of time if they have just had to resist a cookie rather than a radish. It is why your frequency of visits on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter or (insert your favorite procrastination) becomes more frequent in the afternoon. Your willpower-muscle gets tired.

It is not only decision making that drain your self-control and willpower. For example, regulation of attention, regulation of emotional reactions, considering a choice, conquering fatigue, resisting temptations (like the previously mentioned cake), accepting risk and breaking habit all drain energy from the same reservoir.

Baumeister, who pioneered research within this field, has named this phenomenon “decision fatigue”. His testing of the phenomenon included, among other things, asking test subjects to refuse showing emotions while watching a sad movie. Test subjects who had suppressed their emotions gave up quicker in tests on willpower where they had to solve geometrical puzzles, for example, than people that had let their emotions run free.

How to fight decision fatigue

As a leader this phenomenon can be extra frustrating, because you need your decisions to be of the highest quality. Luckily there are things you can do to minimize your decision fatigue and make more of the good, reasonable kind of decisions.

Advice on avoiding decision fatigue:

  1. Avoid temptations. If you aren't exposed to temptations, you use less of your willpower-reservoir. A classic example that illustrates this was conducted on children. They were placed in front of a marshmallow and told that if they didn't touch it, they would receive two marshmallows later on. The children who looked away from the marshmallow or closed their eyes did better than the children who stared directly at it. The same mechanism applies for adults.

  2. Be prepared. Make sure you have a solution ready for when you find yourself in situations, where you are tempted and your willpower is being tested. For example, if you try to drink less alcohol, make a plan like “The next time I am offered a drink, I'll ask for a mineral water.”

  3. High motivation can strengthen your willpower. If you really want something or recognize that what you're doing (or not doing) is helping a cause you feel strong about, it seems that your willpower is getting bigger.

  4. Train your willpower. Some experts compare your willpower with a muscle getting tired after use. This comparison also holds, when you consider how you react to training. Just like your muscles your willpower gets stronger from training. As an added bonus, some research indicates that if you train your willpower within one area, it'll strengthen in other unrelated areas as well. For example, if you go to the gym three times a week (an action that requires willpower until it becomes a habit), research shows that you'll also make better choices regarding food.

  5. A steady level of blood sugar. Your willpower is affected by your level of blood sugar. When the level is low, your willpower gets weaker. In order to give your willpower optimal conditions you should frequently eat small, healthy and fulfilling meals.

  6. Focus on one area at a time. If there are several areas where you might want to change your habits, it's better to focus on one area at a time rather than a whole list. This means a lower use of willpower and as a consequence a greater chance of success.

Source:  American Psychological Association: What You Need to Know About Willpower, The Psychological Science of Self-Control