Conserving Your Willpower for What Matters: Five Ways to Avoid Decision Fatigue

“Willpower is the key to success. Successful people strive no matter what they feel by applying their will to overcome apathy, doubt or fear. —Dan Millman, American author.

Consciously or not, each of us makes a multitude of decisions every day, however minor. For example, you may decide to eat Froot Loops instead of oatmeal for breakfast, not check your emails at a particular point, or pick a diet lemonade at the last moment instead of a diet cola. Some researchers claim we make as many as 35,000 decisions of varying significance each day, many buried deep in the subconscious mind, which controls much of our behavior.

Whatever the number of decisions we make, psychologists have recently proposed that decision-making is intimately linked to one’s willpower; and, perhaps more surprisingly, that your willpower is a limited resource that quickly runs out. Recent studies of busy judges, for example, have shown they become less and less lenient as the day goes on. This adds fuel to the idea that willpower decreases over time.

For those of us whose careers abound with decision-making—in other words, almost everyone in the white-collar world—this news can be distressing. It’s bad enough we only have so much time to do all our work, and now we only have so much willpower, too? Well, here’s an idea: we should learn to practice willpower management as much as we do time management. Luckily, there’s a silver lining: with a little rest (and it really doesn’t take much), we can push our willpower meter right back to the top.

Let’s look at a few ways to beat what the experts call “decision fatigue.”

  1. Make your big decisions early in the day.  Now it’s more important than ever to “eat your frogs” (as Brian Tracy says) and make big decisions as soon as possible each day. This becomes particularly important to those of us whose decisions impact numerous people in significant ways. If you have all the necessary facts at hand, make your decisions as soon after you start work as possible. This holds less true for those of us who don’t reach our energy peaks until later in the day, but it’s still important.

  2. Take your breaks, especially lunch. Rest and refueling are crucial to replenishing your willpower supply. The judges mentioned earlier tended to make lenient decisions two-thirds of the time early in the morning, and the statistic went right back up to two-thirds right after lunch. As long as you take the time to rest and enjoy your meal, you’ll replenish your willpower. Running errands or eating at your desk while you work won’t do it.

  3. Make fewer decisions. Ignore any decision that has no consequences for you and your team. Let someone else choose the cookies for the holiday party, for example. If necessary, make not making the decision your decision. Worry even less, if not at all, for decisions you can’t control or have no say in. Keep for yourself only the decisions that truly matter, are high-value tasks for your role, or make your company more money.

  4. Encourage your subordinates and teammates to show more initiative. You already know the basics of delegating, so prioritize your decisions and treat them like you do your tasks. Push minor decisions as far down the hierarchy as possible; i.e., let your subordinates make decisions on their own without fear of reprisal. The only way for people to learn is to make their own decisions and then deal with the consequences. Most can do it just fine; they don’t need you breathing down their necks. Letting them make their own decisions helps you and empowers them, so everyone wins.

  5. Create routines for yourself. Routines take time to set up, but the time management ROI is so high it’s always worth the investment. Put your subconscious mind and muscle memory to work. Either arrange certain things so you have only one choice, or so that you automatically make a choice without thinking. This was why former-President Obama always wore blue or grey suits. Routines help conserve your limited willpower resources; the more automatically you respond, the less willpower you use.

Decide to Make Decisions Properly

It’s easier to make significant decisions when you feel better about life and have more willpower, so don’t wait until the end of the day or just before lunch to make them. It’s a good idea to have important decision-making meetings early in the morning or just after lunch. Cut back on your decision-making, too, by establishing routines and letting others take initiative. How do you set yourself up for better decisions?


About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

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