Sunday, August 21, 2011

Decision Fatigue? Too Tired to Think About It Now

Around 4 p.m. every afternoon in Dijon this seemed like an effortless decision

Let’s see.  I have to decide what weekend I’ll visit my daughter at school on which flight on which airline for how many days and in which hotel I’ll stay.

Today I need to choose an electrician for the broken light switch and choose a neurosurgeon to look at my cervical problem for possible surgery.

I need to choose which overdue e-mails to answer or which photos to put in my online photo album now that I’m home from France.

I could decide what we’re going to eat for dinner this coming week or what I’m going to write today.  Or I could sift through the list of architects to consider for our home renovations or decide . . . .

At least I finally have an answer to why I’m three years behind on my to-do list.

According to researchers in social neuroscience I’m suffering from “decision fatigue.”  Apparently the more choices I make in my day, the harder each new decision becomes.  I have a finite amount of mental energy.  If I exert it making decisions all day, the harder it is to resist temptation and make the difficult choices.  My willpower is depleted, according to researchers, so therefore my low willpower steers my car into the fast food drive-thru lane rather than make me perform a mental checklist of what healthy foods are sitting at home in my own refrigerator for lunch today.

Because I’m suffering from a chronic case of decision fatigue it’s easier to go on Facebook to see if new updates have come in sometime in the last 42 seconds than go online and research possible electricians to call about the light switch.  After standing in front of the olive oil section of my supermarket trying to decide among 387 different variations I inevitably yield to the temptation of the Hostess snack cake strategically placed at the beginning of the checkout lane.

When I grew up we women were told that we could have it all, we could be anything we wanted to be.  Nobody told us, however, how many decisions were required to make it all work.  At one point in my adulthood I considered myself the master of multi-tasking.  Now when faced with a dozen tasks to juggle in my day, not doing any of them seems a real good idea.  I’m pulled in so many directions that by lunchtime I can’t even decide on priorities.  And then the lure of sleeping baby pandas and sneezing kittens on YouTube ensnares me.

Researchers Roy F. Baumeister and Todd Heatherton have connected this decision fatigue and depletion of willpower to our glucose level.  It declines as mental energy is exerted, causing our willpower to dip.  So for those of us constantly trying to lose that first 30 or last 10 pounds, we’re caught in a catch-22:

-- in order not to eat we need willpower
-- in order to have willpower we need to eat to replenish our glucose level

We all fluctuate between being seriously irritated by and seriously envious of those who exhibit a bottomless well of self-control.  You know the type – they completely ignore the doughnuts at the staff meeting or get up at 5 a.m. every morning to fit in an hour of yoga or writing or Italian practice.  Baumeister has an explanation for that behavior.  These people, he concludes, structure their lives so as to conserve willpower.  They choose to avoid the decisions required by avoiding all-you-can-eat buffet.  They make exercise dates with friends so they will go running without fail. “Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions,” he explains.

Structure their lives?  Ha!  Many days I don’t feel like I even have the willpower to structure my spice cabinet so compactly.

All of this new science on decision fatigue does give me something to think about, though.  Perhaps I could learn how to conserve my willpower and structure my life so that eating healthy and sitting down to write every day become habit and not another decision to make.

I’ll think about that . . . tomorrow.  After all, tomorrow is another day.

This little fellow on the train seems to be experiencing a different kind of fatigue

I did manage to get a photo album together.  You can see it here.  After looking at those, come back and tell us in the comment box if you’re suffering from decision fatigue or please share if you have ways to keep it at bay so my to-do list doesn't stretch to four years delinquent.  


Michael Ann said...

Hi Julie. The topic of your blog post caught my eye for sure! Yes, I do suffer from this! I suffer from it in an overall sense for my whole life--I really struggle making any kind of decisions, but it goes for the "small" ones you are talking about too. Making the phone calls, which chores to do first, etc.. so that nothing gets done. It is getting worse as I age. I don't think it has anything to do with diet, but I'm a doubter when it comes to a lot of that kind of science!

Julie Farrar said...

Thanks for stopping by. A lot of women I know might say that this is part of getting older. But I don't subscribe to this theory. I know that in any given day I'm pulled in so many directions, thinking about so many disparate things that I just don't have time to reflect on much. Which is part of decision making.

Anonymous said...

The picture of your dog in the duffel bag is classic! I love it!

Muriel said...

I do suffer from decision fatigue too...I am not sure that it has something to do with my glucose levels, it is more about the fact that, as women, we simply have too much to do...

Julie Farrar said...

Amen, Muriel!

Lee I said...

Sigh. How about just-plain-fatigue?

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