Do you ever notice when you’re trying to make healthier choices that you do great in the first half of the day but then you begin to falter later in the day?
It’s not because you’re weak or because you don’t have enough willpower!
This is Decision Fatigue, when perfectly sensible people start to make decisions and trade-offs not in their best interest. It explains why you can make it through the day eating balanced and healthy meals, but by 5pm you throw up your hands (literally or figuratively) and eat the next thing in
sight (oooo a 2 week old stale cookie!) or stop at the drive thru – you’re mentally exhausted and looking for shortcuts which usually results in one of two things: acting recklessly or avoiding any further choices.
Think about your mental energy like a bank account and most days you start with a pretty full account. Each decision you make is a withdrawal – more for complex decisions, additional stress makes withdrawals and there is a finite amount of mental energy for exerting self-control. On average, we
make 35,000 conscious decisions daily according to Cornell University researchers. It’s no wonder that we at some point during our days, just say eff it and start down a potentially unhealthy path. While there are a whole host of decision-making areas in our daily lives, I am going to focus on our food choices – if we can lessen the amount of energy some of these choices take, we can free up energy for other decisions. On average, we make 226 decisions daily about food – so many more than we probably
thought! We can save our “decision balance” by making daily decisions easier to make (less of a withdrawl) and we can fill our bank account back up when we recognize that we’re overdrawn. Typically when we’re running low on mental energy, we tend to feel our emotions more intensely, act more impulsively, find ourselves taking illogical shortcuts and/or favor short term gains and delayed costs. So you might be asking, how
can I make my preferred choices AND have a Plan B if I find myself running low energetically??
Arrange your environment so that your preferred choice is the easy choice: Easier said than done, I know! Everyone will be different and maybe …. a little weird, but when your ‘account balance’ is high, think about how your future self could succeed easily in your environment. Start small and then build yourself up from there:
Here’s some ideas:
– Fill your water bottle with water (and lemon) the night before
– Order favorite pantry staples on subscription plans
– Cooking meal components to easily assemble at meal time
– Pack your lunch the night before, so it’s ready to grab and go in the morning
– Have pre-made meals in the fridge or freezer
What else comes to mind for you? Not directly related to food, but I started putting my coconut oil for
oil pulling on the shelf above my kitchen sink so that it is the first thing I do in the morning when I feed
my dog. If it’s not there, it doesn’t happen. Same with my face moisturizers – in fact, I am staring at these right now and they are not there and therefore haven’t happened regularly.
Relief from decision fatigue: You will find yourself faltering at different times, it’s more a when than an
if. So, how can you help yourself in those tough moments? I like to think of this step as depositing into my account:
– Hungry? eat something! – I know it’s sounds a bit counter-intuitive, especially since we are taught that less food is “better” and that we’re “dieting correctly” when we eat less but we need nourishment. One study found that when parole board members took a mid-morning snack
break, they granted parole more often just before the break (they also granted parole more often first thing in the morning, before any other big decisions had been made). (Jonathan Levav – click here to read more)
– Create the conditions for a positive mood – watch comedy (who else is binge watching Schitt$ Creek?!), get outside, listening to your favorite music – there’s so many options, figure out what works for you.
See, you’re not weak, have no willpower or any other story you want to tell yourself – this is your biology! Decisions take energy, other extenuating circumstances and stress take energy but we can help ourselves by making healthy decisions the easiest ones and give ourselves grace when we find ourselves in those depleted moments. If you want to learn more about this topic, I highly recommend The
Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, as well as work and studies by Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Levav.