In 2011, 27% of Americans reported that a lack a willpower was their greatest obstacle to change. That’s one out of every four people who blamed willpower. We see it all the time. Heck, we may even be blaming it ourselves!
Oh, if only I had the willpower, I wouldn’t eat those cookies at the end of the night.
By the time I get home, my willpower is just done. I can’t help myself but to snack.
Well, of course you can do it, your willpower is higher than me.
Willpower is defined as “control exerted to do something or restrain impulses” or “the ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.” In the realm of health and fitness, I personally prefer the second definition. Any pursuit in health and fitness is long-term and it’s often the denial of the short-term satisfaction that reaps the greatest reward in the future. In the past, willpower was thought of as a finite resource; this is also referred to as ego depletion. The theory refers to the idea that self-control or willpower draws upon a limited pool of mental resources that can be used up.
Think of it like a glass of water full of willpower for the day. Each time you decline a break room snack, it’s like taking a sip of water. Complete your workout for the day, take a sip of water. Pack and eat a pre-prepped lunch, another sip. By the end of the day, depending on how much willpower was required, we’re likely running low on water. But instead of turning on the tap, we have to go to sleep in order to refill. Our willpower is gone and the only way to refill is to wake up the next day to a full cup.
When we view self-control and willpower in this way, it’s easy to see why many of us struggle with snacking at night or eating everything in the cupboard when we get home from work at the end of the night. However, more recent research has discovered previous theories about this ego depletion phenomenon may not be as accurate as we once believed. In fact, it may not be about willpower at all. Enter the theory of decision fatigue.
Decision fatigue refers to the breakdown of the quality of decisions over time. In a sense, the more decisions we make, we struggle to continue making the most correct choice. When we’re in situations that require hard decisions throughout the day, it becomes easy to make poor choices at the end of the day.
When your alarm goes off, you have a choice: get up and train or don’t.
When you wake up in the morning, you have a choice: bring a lunch or don’t.
When there’s snacks in the break room, you have a choice: eat them or don’t.
When it’s lunch time, you have a choice: eat your pre-prepped meal or lunch out to eat.
Each situation, when you thought it was solely willpower, you were faced with a decision. Throughout the day, these decisions add up and mental energy dwindles as the day goes on. Perhaps one of the most striking examples from research lies in an examination of the various factors affecting the probability that Israeli prisoners who were going before a judge during their parole hearing would be set free. Two students from Columbia University analyzed over 1,100 decisions over the course of a year. They found that when it was time to decide if a prisoner should be granted parole, the biggest influence was the time of day they stood in front of the judge. Those who appeared later in the day were less likely to be released, regardless of crime committed, length of sentence, or ethnicity. The judges were likely experiencing decision fatigue. The mental work required to rule on case after case after case resulted in quick decisions that made it easier for the judge at that moment. This meant denial of parole. Crazy, right?
So, how can we use this to help our health and fitness goals and improve our lives? Here are five things you can do to minimize decision fatigue and STOP relying on willpower to make progress.
Plan your daily decisions in advance. Prepare today to execute tomorrow.
While reading the book “Be Like the Best” by Anthony Renna, it struck me how many fitness experts noted that their morning routine actually started the night before! Instead of waking up fresh in the morning, many of them started setting up their day the night before. This included setting priorities (I’ll get to that next!) and to-do lists for the following day, laying out clothes, looking at their calendar, reflections on the previous day, the list goes on and on! At night, it’s relatively low stress. Once we’re done with the appointments and home for the night. We don’t have a deadline to hit or an obligation that requires us to rush out the door. Let’s be honest, sometimes the only thing calling our name is the latest binge-worthy show on Netflix!
This is when we can take time for ourselves. Of course, we may have to pack a lunch for our kids or make dinner for the family, but I’m talking about after all of that. When we collapse on the couch with an exhausted sigh of relief that we made it through another day. Next time you do that, make sure that you have a planner or notepad nearby. After you’ve taken some time to destress, but before you crawl into bed for the night or get sucked into four episodes of the newest season of Stranger Things, take some time to lay out your next day.
Are your clothes ready for the next morning?
Do you have your gym bag packed and ready to go?
Is all your food ready to take with you in the morning?
What appointments do you have tomorrow?
Is your day full of meetings or can you sneak in an extra walk on a break?
Taking time to run through your day allows you to prepare those decision in advance. When you already know the choice you’re going to make, there is less of an option to make a choice that’s not in alignment with your goals. As you already laid out your day, you know what you’re going to do; now you just have to execute it. This is the same reason that scheduling a gym appointment in your calendar, as opposed to leaving an open-ended time to train, works so well for actually getting you to the gym. When you have it in the calendar, it’s less likely that it will be pushed or interrupted. Bonus points if you schedule for a class, find a coach to check on you if you don’t show up, or bring a friend to train at the same time! You don’t even have to train together but having someone else there to hold you accountable can make all the difference. And sometimes, that person holding you accountable is your former self from the night prior.
Set your priorities for the day; focus on what’s actually important.
One of my favorite quotes is from Jim Collins, author of Good to Great:
“When you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.”
Ooofda. Is that a wake-up call for you? It was for me the first time I heard it. I used to plan my day in task lists, sometimes up to 5-10 things long, filled with detail and homework and work projects. After I heard this quote, and took time to think about it, I lowered my expectations. I now set three priority tasks each day. And yes, this includes the weekend. Each day, I have three things that will get done. They are the priority; everything else can wait.
Today, for example is a Wednesday. My big three tasks on most Wednesday’s are:
- Training – I get my own training session in first thing, before I start work, in the morning. This is typically a big-time workout, since I know I train best early and I’m able to dedicate the time to it on this day.
- Program Design – At work, I have time to work on programs that need to be updated. This is priority #1 on Wednesday’s. Nothing else gets touched until my programs are done from the end of last week and the beginning of this week. I may touch on these other times throughout the week, but this is my big priority today.
- Email response and member check-in’s – Monday’s my number one is to email and check in on member’s who I’ve had nutrition coaching appointments with, online members, or anyone who I haven’t seen in person recently. So, by Wednesday, there’s usually a few responses waiting for me from the days prior.
When I finish these three things, that day is a success. Those are my priorities. Of course, I still have to be there and coach and obviously working is a “priority” in a sense. But I look at that more as an appointment, or obligation. Priorities are simply tasks. For example, writing this blog post was on my task list, but it was number four. The only reason I’m currently typing it is because those first three things are checked off. I already completed my priorities for the day and I’m on to tackling what is next on the list. If those three things were not done, I would not be writing this. On the weekend, they may include meal prep or laundry. But the most important aspect is to know what those big three are for you on any given day.
Typically, I’ll take time either early in the morning or the night before and lay out those tasks. I look at everything that is a “to-do” and pick my top three things that I absolutely have to get done that day. This may be dependent on a deadline or is time sensitive. But most of the time, it’s open for my decision. By setting my top three, I not only feel good when I accomplish and complete them but am able to avoid distraction.
Remove distractions or change your environment.
Removing distractions is a way to avoid those interruptions. We can do this one of two ways:
- Making them invisible.
- Removing ourselves from the situation.
First, and usually most simple, is to make them invisible. When we don’t see something, we’re less inclined to choose it. I’m sure you’ve been there. Finding that can or box of something that you stashed in the back of the cabinet and completely forgot about. Well, we can use this for that food that we tend to overeat too!
Trader Joe’s Jingle Jangle comes around once a year and I always tend to stock up on two or three tins. But if it’s around, I also have a tendency to grab a chocolate-covered pretzel here, a mini peanut butter cup there, or a chocolate-covered Jo-Jo piece here. You see where I’m going with this? It adds up! BUT, if I store it way up on the tippy top shelf, in the back, behind the coffee mugs that are too small, I never even think about it. If it does come to mind, I have to get out a step stool, climb up, move everything out, then get it out. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s enough that I don’t eat it as often as when it’s on the bottom, eye-level shelf!
It’s not at the front of the cupboard, so it’s not at the top of my mind. Put those foods up and out of sight, or better yet, don’t buy them in the first place, if you can avoid it! When we don’t see it, it’s easy to make the decision – because there isn’t one – or because we have to overcome a barrier to choose it.
Second, remove yourself from the situation. Have you ever seen me sitting at Unity on a Tuesday morning through mid-afternoon? I’m not there because I’m required to be. I’ve found that if I spend my mornings at home, I’m infinitely less productive. I find laundry to fold, dishes to put away, or any number of seemingly small tasks to fill my time. Then, at the end of the day, I’ve done much less than I planned. Spending the day at Unity, I not only get to interact with the members who I may not see as often, but I’m able to get so much more work done without being distracted by menial tasks that can be done at another time.
Allowing ourselves to decrease and eliminate distractions reduces the amount of fatigue we feel around making decisions. We avoid “crunch-time” when we have to make split second decisions because we’ve managed our time to allow for thought and execution of our previously laid out plan from the night before. Only then are we one step closer to eliminating our feeling of reliance on willpower to make progress.
Don’t make decisions hungry.
Have you ever gone to the store on your way home from work to just “grab that one thing you need for dinner” and end up leaving with a full cart because you’re starving, and it all looks delicious? Yep, I think we’ve all been there.
Not only should we not go to the grocery store hungry, but we should really try not to make any decision hungry. Humans are wired to decrease pain and discomfort. Therefore, that decision is going to be made with one subconscious thing in mind: How can I be less hungry as soon as possible?
It’s similar to the judge who made the easy decision of denying parole when it was at the end of a long day. You’re more likely to make a poor decision, even if it’s not regarding food, when you’re hungry. It’s close to lunch and you’re stuck in a meeting that was supposed to be over 30 minutes ago. They ask you to make a choice, A or B. Instead of truly thinking, you make the one that will let you leave the meeting as quick as possible and off to lunch. And when you make it to lunch, it’s a pretty good bet that the pre-portioned salad and lean protein pales in comparison to the offerings in the cafeteria…
One poor decision made when we’re hungry spirals. Sometimes, this involves food, sometimes it doesn’t. But making decisions hungry contributes to decision fatigue. It takes more effort and you’re not thinking clearly as you consider your choices. This increases decision fatigue over the course of the day and leads to poor outcomes from those decisions. Make sure you have a bar to eat on the way home from work so you don’t walk in the door starving. Or sip on a protein shake or smoothie, if you’re in a situation where you know you can’t “eat”. Ultimately, we want to find ways to avoid this “ravenous hunger while making a decision” situation as much as possible.
Aim for progress, rather than for perfection.
Finally, regardless of what we’re making decisions about in our health and fitness journey, we want to aim for progress instead of perfection. Perfection doesn’t exist, as much as we can often strive for it.
Pursuing a lifestyle transformation is a series of trial and error. And, unfortunately, that means we can’t always win. There will be some periods of error, when we “lose”. But those times give us information and provide feedback as to how we can better make decisions moving forward. We can still learn from these small areas of imperfection.
It’s about leveraging those imperfect times and becoming consistent with the decisions and changes that guide us in the direction we want to go, not away from it.
While we’ve often been led to believe that increased willpower is the key to success in our health and fitness journey, new research says otherwise. It may come down to decision fatigue. When we reduce decision fatigue, we’re better able to make those decisions that align with our big, long-term goals.