Decision fatigue: why making good choices is a matter of timing

What do a billionaire and a couple queuing up at the supermarket have in common?

They understand that our ability to make decisions is limited. Very limited.

I was waiting in line for the till. I needed basil. A couple standing in front of me, and then it would be my turn. Next to them, some thoughtfully positioned discounted coffee. She grabs two. Looks at him. “Which one do we get?” He looks at the coffee. He doesn’t care. He looks again. She holds the two bags of coffee in the air. “That one”. Great.

Now, this may be a very normal exchange. But if you pay attention throughout your day, you’ll see a pattern: most people do not like to take decisions.
Decisions are risky: if you decide, you take responsibility.
Decisions can be impolite: it’s a fine line between leadership and bossy behaviour.

Decisions are also limited. This is a phenomenon called decision fatigue.
Essentially, our ability to choose rationally deteriorates as the day progresses. This means that, as the day goes by, you become increasingly likely to make bad or rash decisions.

Choice fatigue and billionaires

In a world of choice, this is a real and constant problem.

The average supermarket stocks 42,214 items at any one time.
I checked my shop, it had 41 varieties of toothpaste. We only have 32 teeth.
Netflix? In 2014 it had 6,494 movies and 1,609 TV shows.
Food? If you live in a city, chances are you have a lot of choice around you. Sometimes there’s so much choice, you just go for “the usual”.

making-daily-choicesDaily choices.

This abundance of options means that we need to make decisions all the time.
The problem is, not all choices are created equal.

If you use your daily decisions on toothpaste and salad dressings, you may have a hard time taking more important decisions. You’ll be more likely to feel paralysed, to procrastinate, or to make a rushed choice.

This is why Mark Zuckerberg’s wardrobe looks so bland: he knows that menial morning decisions will impact his ability to make fundamental decisions later in the day.

Willpower and prison sentences

Decision fatigue is actually a manifestation of will fatigue: our daily willpower is limited.
Like a muscle, self-control weakens with each extra rep, until it’s too tired to do another one. At that point, our willpower lets go, and we tend to fall back on our default setting or the easiest option.

Billionaire investor Carl Icahn is known to use this to his advantage: he schedules his negotiations for the early evening. By then, most people have gone through the whole day, having but a drop of willpower left. Except, Carl Icahn will sleep until 4pm, and then join the negotiation at 6pm just after reaching his peak mental ability. Easy.

Still don’t believe me?

A research study from Columbia University examined 1,112 parole rulings assigned to 8 judges over a 10-month period. Judges are under a lot of pressure, as they have to hear arguments and take a decision on 14 to 35 parole requests a day with only two breaks in between to rest: a morning snack and a late lunch.
The impact of this relentless schedule is striking: chances of being granted parole peak at 65% at the start of the day and right after each break, and plunge to practically 0% at the end of each shift.


Here’s what eats away at your willpower: Implementing new behaviours, Filtering distractions, Making decisions, Resisting temptation, Suppressing emotion, Suppressing impulses, Taking tests, Trying to impress others, Dealing with fear, Doing something you don’t enjoy, Selecting long-term over short-term rewards.

With a plethora of everyday choices, we squander our willpower on things that don’t matter, and have none left for things that are really important.

What you can do about it

Good news. Now that you know that willpower fatigue is a thing, you don’t have to be a victim of it. Here are a few strategies you can use to use your limited resources throughout the day.

Take naps

Like Carl Icahn, you can take a nap to break your day in two and reset your cognitive levels. You’ll be sleeping like a billionaire.

Move around

Willpower is the exertion of self-control, so let go for a while. Go for a run, dance in the kitchen, do something fun, immediately rewarding, and that involves moving around. The point is to let go of all the control.

Do things that motivate you

Research experiments have shown that strong incentives allow you to keep exerting self control even if you feel exhausted. Essentially, depending on whether your actions are aligned with your goals and mindset, you will feel either invigorated or exhausted by your efforts.

Minimise choice

Just like Mark Zuckerberg, you can decide to cut your options so you can minimise the amount of decisions you have to take daily. Getting rid of objects is a great way to start, as well as planning your meals in advance or sticking to a diet. Routines and habits are another great way to make sure that there is no choice involved, and you let the automation do the work. This is why I like to go to the gym at the same time every day.

Move important things early in the day

Timing is everything. If you want to make the most out of your day, make sure to put your priority first, when making good choices is easier. This is why the morning is the best time to invest in yourself.

Setup your environment

As our willpower slowly leaks away throughout the day, we become more prone to bad decisions. TV binging and doughnuts tend to happen at night rather than first thing in the morning. So does impulse online shopping. Get rid of temptations and make sure that your environment supports your positive behaviour, even when will fatigue kicks in.

Advance your decisions

Choose your outfit the evening before. Get your running gear at the bottom of your bed before going to sleep. This way, you can move menial decisions to the end of the day, and save tomorrow’s full tank for what really makes a difference.

Train your willpower

Once our self-control has depleted, we tend to go for our default setting. So make sure your default setting isn’t a negative one. For example, I never take the lift unless it’s over 5 floors.
You can also train your willpower incrementally, and by exposing yourself to inspiring models that support you and show you the next level.

Over to you now: what’s one thing you can do from today to protect your willpower?
Send me an email and let me know!

— Matt

set the right goals