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Willpower is the magic ingredient to life.
It is the ability to resist short-term gratification in pursuit of long-term goals or objectives.
During each day, situations will be presented to us, some expected and others unexpected, which require our brainpower to form a decision. We weigh up all the options, consider the pros and cons, then summarise them, and overlay any other external factors before reaching the eureka moment when we nod and confirm our decision, to ourselves or someone else. And sometimes, we need to use willpower.
As the day progresses and we continue to make decisions, our brain energy reduces, and so does our willpower. Just like a phone battery, we can be running on the verge of zero percent. Our ability to make simple, or obvious, choices suddenly feels too much. Our brains stop processing and switch into autopilot mode—a road heading straight toward a bad or easy choice. Our brain may even switch off, proclaiming, “Warning: No more energy available today for any decisions, please try again tomorrow.”
What do you mean our brains switch off?
Have you ever got to the point in the day when someone is asking you a question, and you are looking at them, whilst thinking in your head, “Does this person expect a response?” The likelihood is that they do want a response, and the likelihood is that you have used up all your brain energy for the day.
I felt this recently and it was only 10 a.m. It got me thinking, “Is this normal and does our environment contribute to it?”
My environment had changed as I left the corporate “nine-to-five” world to focus on my own side “freelance” projects.
My Monday to Friday work routine is long gone. To say I have no routine is an understatement. Some weeks I don’t know what day it is. Also, I have a lot more decisions to make, all by myself. No one else. Remember the corporate environment, where you are working in a team and have a manager and peers? There are lots of sounding boards or even people to delegate to. In the freelance world, often it is you deciding after discussing the decision process with yourself.
Without routine or decision automation, we are slowly using up our daily brain energy quota. More on this later, as there is a second factor to consider.
Is there something else different? An event you are planning, a holiday you are preparing for, or a big life event, such as moving house?
I was on a road trip when my decision fatigue alert sounded.
I had a loose plan but was going with the flow. This can sound freeing but the reality is you are making a lot of decisions over a short period of time. Each of them with quite high stakes. It feels as though they could make or break your road trip, and therefore your fun. An endless stream of decisions—not just, “What do you want for your breakfast?” but more complex, like working out routes and timings.
The decision fatigue light bulb moment came when I stood talking to my book publisher on the streets of Liverpool after a takeaway coffee catch up. This was the third day on my road trip filled with lots of decisions.
He explained a couple of decisions I would need to make. I felt a little bit of overwhelm; the decisions sounded pretty easy and straightforward, but my brain also felt empty of energy. As I jumped into my hire car to head north to Blackpool to surprise my niece and nephew, I explained to myself the decisions could wait. They weren’t needed there and then, and I wanted some time, and brain energy, to ponder them.
Both scenarios, my new freelance lifestyle and my road trip brain fatigue, can be improved by following some simple steps. Here are my insights, nicely packaged up for you.
Insight one: Eliminate, reduce, or automate decisions.
Making decisions takes willpower and brainpower. What can you automate from your day-to-day?
>> Eat the same breakfast each day. Mine is: rolled overnight oats, blueberries, raspberries, and all the seeds.
>> Prepare the same meals each week on a rota. I have a bundle of meals for which I know the ingredients, recipe, and cooking methods. They are low effort, and therefore low on brain power.
>> Wear the same outfits for a workout. I have all my workout clothes in one drawer within my chest of drawers. I choose from a selection of running shorts and leggings, sports bras and tops on rotation.
>> Follow podcast shows so that you “receive” the latest episode rather than trying to figure out what episode to listen to. If you love the podcast show, then you should (in theory) love the episode. No need to hunt Spotify. I have a core five to 10 podcast shows that I love and follow.
>> Schedule your calendar so you slot in nonnegotiable events to ensure there are no future conflicts. I schedule in all my run events, training runs, and other plans so there is no, “I have a schedule conflict” decision moment.
>> Wake up at the same time each day to an alarm. If possible, schedule your bedtime too.
The list really is endless when you consider your life and how you analyse many things on a daily, weekly, or regular basis which could simply be “automated.”
How many people have an internal conversation about what to have for dinner, if they can fit in a gym session, or get annoyed as they can’t find something they need so have to form a new plan, whilst not realising that they are using up vital brain energy. By managing our decisions and environment, we can reduce the impact on our brain energy levels.
Willpower is a muscle we need to strengthen, protect, and rest. Making decisions uses up our willpower. Removing useless decisions from our lives stops them from stealing our energy. Therefore, we are primed for the big decisions when willpower is needed in full max.
Insight two: If you need to make a big decision, one with high stakes, then make it as early in the day as possible.
When we feel fresh and energised, our brain power is full. We need a full brain battery to consider all of our options, the pros and cons, to allow the “right” decision to be made. As the day progresses and our energy levels deplete, our ability to make the “right” decision also depletes. We might choose the path of least resistance, or not fully consider all of our options, and rush to what seems like the right decision on the face of it.
Avoid making decisions later on in the afternoon or evening. Ask if you can sleep on it and form the decision when fresh in the morning.
Insight three: Check in on you and your energy levels throughout the day.
Our sleep, health, lifestyle, and diet are big factors on our overall energy levels. We make poorer decisions when we’re tired or hungry. We are running in “survival mode.”
Hangovers are the worst. It’s likely you have a sore head from the alcohol intake, no energy from the disturbed sleep, and any decision feels like someone asking you to hike a mountain. You are trying to survive to bedtime.
Avoid all big decisions if you are struggling from tiredness, “I need to eat soon” hungriness, or if tackling a hangover or illness, as your body and mind is using the decision-making energy levels to stabilise your body back to full functioning normal levels. To combat this, eat at regular intervals, have regular breaks, and if possible, enjoy a 20-minute rest, and reset through a nature break or meditation.
Insight four: Treat planning an event like a wedding or birthday, a holiday or house move, anything that suddenly introduces an increase in decisions with higher stakes or over a condensed time period, as a project.
Create a list of decisions, then decide if you can reduce, eliminate, or automate them? Can you delegate any? Schedule anything in your diary? Then do it. Are there any “quick wins” you can tick off? What are the big decisions? Mark them for when your energy levels are high, then tackle them straight up.
Key Takeaway: Self-awareness to decision fatigue is key and will allow you to design your life to strive for better, more mindful results, and manoeuvre any unexpected obstacles.
Good luck. May the willpower be with you!