You haven’t lost your willpower – you just have decision fatigue

Want to know why you just couldn’t be bothered cooking dinner? Why you have lost the willpower to whip up something healthy and instead just choose something you know isn’t good for you?

It’s not because you’re not capable, don’t care or don’t want to eat well. It’s probably not even because you hate cooking.

Chances are you’re actually suffering decision fatigue and your brain is sabotaging your best intentions and compromising your willpower.

There is no way to know exactly how many decisions you make on an average day – estimates are thousands and thousands, but researchers at Cornell University found people make more than 200 decisions about just food each day.

So let’s add in decisions on what to wear, what you need to do next, what you need to pack for the day, where you’re going, which way you’re going, who to speak to, who you have to see …

Now factor in the fact that as a mum, you’re making all those decisions for everyone else in your family as well – that’s a lot of decisions. And you haven’t even been shopping yet, where the decision-making heat really turns up a notch.

Decision fatigue is essentially when your brain runs out of puff from answering so many questions all day. As the day goes on and your brain starts to tire, it starts to look for shortcuts to the ongoing decisions you have to make.

This is where, according to the research, your willpower runs out. Once decision fatigue sets in, you are more likely to just give in to the poor choice you’ve been resisting because your brain works differently when it’s tired – it wants to take the shortcut.

Dinner from a jar anyone?

In his research on the topic, scientist Roy F Baumeister found that the brain’s capacity to make decisions uses energy, just like the rest of the body uses energy to function. Willpower and self-control then become weakened as the day goes on and blood sugar levels wane. He says even the wisest people won’t make good decisions late in the day, when they’re not well rested or when their glucose levels are low.

He found the people with the best willpower had structured lives to limit the number of decisions they needed to make.

US President Barack Obama, in an wide-ranging piece by Vanity Fair journalist Michael Lewis, explained that in order to be successful at his job (as in, survive the heady pace) he needed to conserve his decision-making energy for the big questions.

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

OK, so you and I are not the President of the United States, and the decisions we make daily probably don’t affect national security, but you, as a busy mum, are never-the-less besieged with decisions that need to be made and those decisions can and do affect your health and happiness, and that of your family as well.

My husband cooks dinner on the weekends to give me a break, not from the actual cooking so much, but from deciding what’s for dinner. He’ll invariably ask me what I want him to make and I give him the same answer every time: “I DON’T CARE, YOU DECIDE.”

For some time I’ve been trying to limit the number of decisions I need to make. As a Libran and a naturally indecisive person, this is at once liberating and difficult for me.

Here are some of the things that work for me though:

  • I decide what’s for dinner in the morning, so that I’m not standing there feeling overwhelmed at night and likely to say, “Oh, whatever!” Some people meal plan and I’m sure that would help even more. I kind of have a rough idea each week though (see my last tip).
  • I wear the same clothes for the most part, every week. The only time I give it thought is if I have a function to go to. Otherwise, I just take what’s on top of the pile (clean or dirty, depending on how the week has gone).
  • If I feel overwhelmed and can’t decide, I don’t.
  • I tend to buy the same products and produce every week when shopping. I don’t go looking for alternatives. I also don’t price shop.
  • And here’s a big one – I don’t try and come up with new recipes or ideas for dinner and lunchboxes. I make and cook the same stuff pretty much all the time, and save any new thoughts on these topics for weekends when I have nothing else to take up brain space.

So shall we all make like Barack and have someone else decide for us what to wear and eat? Oh, wouldn’t that be wonderful???

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