Willpower and Decision Fatigue – Why People Make Bad Decisions and Choices

Life is filled with choices. And with more choices, comes more decisions. Big decisions, small decisions, they all add up. Choosing what to have for breakfast, which dress to wear, where to go on vacation, how much to spend — these all deplete willpower, and there’s no telltale symptom of when that willpower is low.

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, binge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the temptation of watching their favorite show on TV rather than working on an important task. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, in other words, your willpower gets depleted, and eventually your brain looks for shortcuts.

cognitive resources, limitations, willpower, decision fatigue, Decisive

But what is willpower anyway? You may feel that is an abstract force or super power, which you wish you had more of yourself. Happily, the truth is that willpower or self-control, is a very real energy- a power source that gets depleted, but can also be strengthened and conserved.

In a research study published by the National Academy of Sciences, psychologists examined the factors that impact whether or not a judge approves a criminal for parole.

The researchers examined 1,112 judicial rulings over a period of 10-month. All of the rulings were made by a parole board judge, who was determining whether or not to allow the criminal to be released from prison on parole.

Now, you might assume that the judges were influenced by factors like the type of crime committed or the particular laws that were broken.

But the researchers found exactly the opposite. The choices made by judges are impacted by all types of things that shouldn’t have an effect in the courtroom. Most notably, the time of day.

What the researchers found was that at the beginning of the day, a judge was likely to give a favourable ruling about 65 percent of the time. However, as the morning wore on and the judge became drained from making more and more decisions, the likelihood of a criminal getting a favourable ruling steadily dropped to zero.

After taking a lunch break, however, the judge would return to the courtroom refreshed and the likelihood of a favourable ruling would immediately jump back up to 65 percent. And then, as the hours moved on, the percentage of favourable rulings would fall back down to zero by the end of the day.

This trend held true for more than 1,100 cases. It didn’t matter what the crime was— a criminal was much more likely to get a favourable response if their parole hearing was scheduled in the morning (or immediately after a food break) than if it was scheduled near the end of a long session.

This makes sense. When your willpower is fading and your brain is tired of making decisions, it’s easier just to say no and keep everyone locked up than it is to debate whether or not someone is trustworthy enough to leave prison. At the beginning of the day, a judge will give each case a fair shot. But as their energy starts to fade? Deny, deny, deny.

So, how is all this useful for us? Well, decision fatigue happens every day in our life as well. If you have a particularly decision-heavy day at college or work, then you come home feeling drained. You might want to cook a healthy meal or go to the gym and workout, but your brain would rather choose the easier option, order a pizza from a restaurant, sit on the couch and watch a movie. That’s decision fatigue.

However, Roy Baumeister, one of the leading researchers in this field, believes that willpower is more like a muscle. The more you train it, the stronger it gets.

And while decision fatigue is something that we all deal with, I want to share 5 ways that you can use to organise your life and design your day to master your willpower.


  1. Plan daily decisions the night before

There will always be decisions that pop up each day that you can’t plan for. And that’s fine. It’s just part of life.

But most of the decisions that take up our time are the simple ones. What dress to wear to college? What should I eat for breakfast? Should I cook a dish or order from a restaurant? Should I wash my clothes before or after work? All of these decisions can be made in less than 3 minutes and can save you, well I don’t know, maybe an HOUR every day. And also it will help you conserve your precious willpower for more important tasks.

  1. Do the most important task in the morning

If there was the most important court case in the world, when would you want the judge to hear it? Based on the research, in the morning, right?

The same thing goes for your life. What’s the most important thing for you right now?Whatever it is for you, put your best energy toward it.

“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day. And if you have two frogs, eat the biggest one first.” – Mark Twain

  1. Stop making decisions. Start making commitments.

I think advice like, “you just need to decide to do it” gets thrown out a lot.

Yes, of course you need to decide to do the things that are important to you, but more than that you need to schedule them into your life.

Unfortunately, most of us simply hope that we’ll have the willpower and motivation to make the right decisions each day.

Rather than hoping that I’ll make the right choice each day, I’ve found much more success by scheduling the things that are important to me.

For example, my schedule for strength training is on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I don’t hope that I’ll have enough willpower to complete my workout. It’s just the thing I do every Monday at 5.

  1. If you have to make good decisions later in the day, then eat something first.

It’s no coincidence that the judges became better decision makers after eating. Roy Baumeister discovered in his research that with even just a small dose of glucose, your willpower can spike back up. So if you have an important decision to make after this class, grab something to eat first.

  1. Simplify

As I said in the beginning, life is filled with choices. But each one of them aren’t necessary equally important, are they? Find ways to simplify your life. If something isn’t important to you, remove it. Making decisions about unimportant things is not worth your precious energy and willpower.

“Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low,” Baumeister points out. That’s why the truly wise don’t restructure the company at 4 p.m. They don’t make major commitments during the cocktail hour. And if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach. “The best decision makers are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.” What about you?

Atul Malla

Be Healthy. Stay Sexy.

– P.S. Special thanks to John Tierney  for his article on NYTimes, which inspired me to write this article.


2 thoughts on “Willpower and Decision Fatigue – Why People Make Bad Decisions and Choices

  1. Pingback: Why Your Crunches and Sit-ups Won’t Give You Abs (And What Will) | Atul Pradhananga

  2. Pingback: My 3 Months Journey with Ketosis and Ketogenic Diet | Atul Pradhananga

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