Decision Fatigue

JoniProductivity2 Comments

Last Tuesday was a tough day. Nothing bad happened but nothing came easy either.

For the first time in over a month Alvy slept until almost 7 AM, I slept through my alarm and didn’t wake up until Alvy woke up – at 7 AM.

Instead of having my usual morning full of habit and routine, I found myself running around the house like a crazed lunatic trying to get the kids dressed and fed before I had to take Evelyn to school.

Nothing went well after that. I ran late to Alvy’s hearing test (I’m never late), I did three loads of laundry that never made it out of the laundry room (totally uncharacteristic). By the time dinner rolled around, I realized I had never made the bed or unloaded the dishwasher (the cornerstones of my morning routine).

Coincidentally, around that same time, Jason called me to tell me he was on his way home from work and asked what was for dinner. I was honest and told him that everything I needed to make dinner was in the fridge but I was emotionally drained. The thought of spending another hour and a half cooking and cleaning was the absolute last thing I wanted to do.

What’d we end up eating for dinner? Chinese take out.

It wasn’t until about 8 PM that I realized I’d never fed the the dog – something I normally do immediately after breakfast – sorry Baxter.

So what happened? What led to such a spectacular derailment?

Decision fatigue.

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What is decision fatigue? I read a great analogy written by James Clear that describes decision fatigue to the T.

“…your willpower is like a muscle. And similar to the muscles in your body, willpower can get fatigued when you use it over and over again. Every time you make a decision, it’s like doing another rep in the gym. And similar to how your muscles get tired at the end of a workout, the strength of your willpower fades as you make more decisions.”

The second you admit that willpower is nothing more than a decision to resist temptation, it all makes sense.

By sleeping in, I threw off an entire day full of habits, routines and schedules I worked for months to build. All of a sudden I found myself having to make decisions that I don’t normally have to make, starting with deciding how to get the kids fed and dressed without Evie being late to school.

It all went downhill from there. Instead of writing in the 5-6 AM hours I had to decide another time to get that done and without a schedule I found myself constantly distracted and having to use my willpower to keep myself on task.

To add fuel to the fire, on Monday Evelyn and I made Halloween themed sugar cookies which were sitting on the island, in the middle of the kitchen, in a glass cake platter. Every time I walked though the kitchen I looked at them and had to make the conscious decision to use my willpower to deny myself.

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By the time dinner rolled around I wasn’t physically tired but my brain was exhausted. All I wanted to do was stare blankly at the wall in silence.

As it turns out, dinner was doomed at 5 AM when I slept through my alarm.

So what happens in our brain that causes decision fatigue? Why does our brain get so tired when forced to make multiple decisions and use our willpower to avoid temptation?

Nutrition. Our brains run primarily on glucose and unlike other parts of our body they lack the ability to store their fuel. Each decision you make requires your brain to do just a little work, slowly consuming the fuel your body has available. As you eat throughout the day, it gets a boost of energy, allowing it to continue to run. So after a day of powering through hundreds of minor decisions it’s pretty shot – especially if you’ve been feeding it crap.

I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t sugar bad?

Stand by for some biochemistry.

Not all sugars are created equal – of all the different types of sugar (sucrose, glucose, lactose, everything ending in -ose) the only one you need is glucose.

The sugar we all know is table sugar (sucrose), which is broken down by your body into equal parts glucose and fructose. So of all the sugar in something like a cookie, only half will be used to power your brain (and the rest of your body) the other half gets processed by your liver and then put into storage as fat.

Therefore, eating a cookie or drinking a Coke isn’t going to help restore your alertness and ability to handle tough decisions. Instead you need glucose which is found in naturally occurring sugars, like fruit and whole grains.

No wonder I feel foggy headed when I eat poorly.

So what can we do to combat decision fatigue?

  1. Make big decisions first thing in the morning when your brain is fresh.
  2. Create routines and schedules that minimize minor daily decisions.
  3. Build habits around your most important daily tasks.
  4. Complete the most important tasks of the day first thing in the morning.
  5. Eat a healthy snack in the middle of the day when you’re starting to feel run down

What was the first thing I did after doing all this research on decision fatigue? I covered up the sugar cookies with a dishtowel.

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At least one decision fatigue problem solved!

For more information about decision fatigue read this awesome article in the New York Times.

For a great biochemistry lesson about why sugar, specifically fructose, is so epicly bad for you watch this great lecture by Dr. Robert Lustig from the University of California – it’s long (1:31) but he does a great job dumbing down some very technical information and it will forever change how you think about sugar!

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2 Comments on “Decision Fatigue”

  1. Tanya

    Great article! This really explains alot about why I feel tired & overwhelmed all the time! I don’t have strict habits/routines and tend to let the day unfold however it does. My poor brain is fatigued on a daily basis! Thanks!

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