Decision Fatigue Is a Myth. Here’s What You Should Know

The concept of decision fatigue doesn't exist, unless you believe in it. When in doubt, sleep, eat or go for a walk.

Will power is finite.

You've probably heard this piece of productivity advice. It comes from a famous 2009 study by Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University.

In an oft-cited 2011 experiment, he asked students to sit next to a plate of fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies.

Baumeister permitted some students to eat the cookies, and he told others to avoid eating any of the treats. Afterwards, Baumeister gave both groups challenging puzzles to solve.

The students who'd resisted eating the cookies found these puzzles more challenging to complete, and they abandoned the task. It looked like their resources were depleted.

On the other hand, those students who ate the cookies worked on the puzzles for longer. They were able to focus for longer because they apparently had more mental resources.

Recently, academics have debunked the findings of this research. It turns out that willpower is only a finite research if you believe it!

You're probably just hungry, tired or in need of a change of scenery.

In the podcast interview at the bottom of this article, Nir Eyla, author of Indistractable explains more.

But, if you're still feeling unmotivated, here's what you should do instead.

Decision fatigue
Table Of Contents

Prepare For Work the Night Before

Decide on your most important work or creative tasks the night beforehand. Spend at least five minutes writing out a list of your top three tasks.

Establishing priorities in advance gets you into the habit of identifying and overcoming potential hurdles. It gives your subconscious brain a chance to work on them while you sleep. It also prevents wasting time or energy the following morning figuring on small daily decisions.

A creative could decide to free write, edit and then market an article. Alternatively, they could decide to brainstorm, proofread and research a chapter of their new book.

I like writing first thing in the morning because it sets up the entire day. The rest of the day is golden because I put some words down onto the page, however ugly. If a meeting runs over, or if there's a last-minute appointment or a crisis, it doesn't derail the day.

Track Your Output

When did you work on each task, and how long did each take to complete? Gauge which ones took longer than others. Apps like RescueTime, Toggl or Harvest are useful for tracking time and your output each day or week.

If it sounds like extra work, you only need to track yourself only for a few days to get a feeling for what's time-consuming versus quick and easy. Armed with this information, restructure your day, and any big decisions, around your energy levels.

Sleep and Eat Right

Often, creative people procrastinate and post-phone when they're feel tired or hungry. These physical states are conducive to lower quality decision making.

Quality sleep dramatically impacts how productive we are at work. Similarly, a drop off in glucose levels before lunch might cause you to make a poor decision out of hunger. Evaluate when you're tired, sluggish or hungry.

Manage your energy levels by sleeping each night consistently and eating healthily. I also find meditation helps me deal with mental fatigue over a creative problem. If all else fails, take a nap to avoid a poor choice at work.

Work on the Right Things at the Right Time

Link cognitively draining activities with parts of the day when you feel physically refreshed.

For example, if you like to wake up early, this is a good time for hard, creative work like developing, coding or writing an article to promote your business.

During the afternoons, you might feel tired and sluggish after a heavy lunch. That’s a good time for administrative work like attending to email (and plan for a salad tomorrow).

If you enjoy a new bout of energy in the evenings, this is an ideal part of the day for lifting weights, playing tennis or analyzing the latest report.

Set Work Rules

If you work for yourself and want to spend more time in deep work, fewer decisions are key. Set rules!

For example, you could decide not to take calls or check email before noon, ever. Or you could decide to work only on analytical activities in the late evening because your brain feels most engaged in this type of work.

Even if you don't work for yourself, use rules to structure parts of the day within your control. Instead of wondering what to do and when, constraints can help you work more effectively.

Review Your Commitments Regularly

At the end of the workday, ask yourself what you did and what problems you need to fix tomorrow. I recommend evaluating your writing goals every Friday or Sunday, during a weekly review. During these reviews, check back on how you spent your time.

You may be surprised to find you're working on other people's priorities over your own. Remember, every time you say yes to someone else's priorities, you're saying no to your most important work. Sometimes, being successful means being a little selfish.

Decision Fatigue: The Final Word

Maintaining good physical energy levels are key to enjoying creative work. However, the mental concept of decision fatigue is a myth. If you feel like you've no mental energy sleep, eat or go for a walk.

Want more? Check out our guide to improving writing productivity.

Decision Fatigue: FAQs

How do you manage decision fatigue?

If you believe you don't have energy to make a big decision, eat, sleep or go for a walk. You probably just need a change of pace.

How do you manage decision fatigue?

If you believe you don't have energy to make a big decision, eat, sleep or go for a walk. You probably just need a change of pace.

What causes bad decision making?

Bad decision making occurs when you're in a rush, don't have access to the right information, take too long on small decisions or fail to second guess big ones.

[Interview] Decision Fatigue and Finding More Time to Write with Nir Eyal

Nir Eyal
Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable

168 hours. 

Every writer, no matter what stage they're at in their careers, gets the same amount of time each week to waste or spend.

So can you accomplish more with what you have?

Nir Eyal is the author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. He's also an angel investor, productivity consultant, and former university lecturer.

He explains:

  • How timeboxing and constraints can help writers become more productive.
  • Why he spent five years writing Indistractable.
  • The problem with many popular productivity books today.
  • What his ideal writing routine looks like.

Use Nir's schedule maker to create your own timeboxed schedule.

And lots more – see more in my Forbes article here.

Join over 15,000 writers today

You'll get a free book of practical writing prompts.

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