One of my favorite parenting moments from a few years ago. It all started with Tennessee.
When I first moved to Hong Kong I was most surprised by the beautiful hiking trails and immediately wanted to explore them, but I didn’t want to hike alone and I wanted to make friends. Several attempts to coordinate busy schedules became frustrating, so I had an idea. I sent an email to my friend Pascale telling her that I was thinking of starting a hiking group on Wednesday mornings called Hump Day Hikers. She replied, “Great idea. I’m in.” and that officially launched it. That day I sent an email to about a dozen friends telling them that I intended to hike every Wednesday at 8 am for one of the eight different roughly two-hour loops over Violet Hill and The Twins that can originate from the HKIS Lower Primary at South Bay Close and invited them to join me whenever they could.
To my delight I had a good response and with one email had launched what would become the deepest source of happiness for me in Hong Kong. Friends began to ask if they could bring other friends and if I would add their friends’ names to my list. Within a few months the list had grown to sixty women! With this response, I formalized it a bit, sending a description with a stated purpose to “catch up, enhance friendships, get some exercise and to have a regular hike on the calendar, but with total flexibility. As always, this is open to anyone who would like to join us, whenever you can, without pressure.”
I sent a reminder email every Monday morning, and longer ones for excursion hikes, but otherwise left them alone. “Call or text me if you’re planning to hike but are running late so we can wait for you, ” I instructed, “otherwise, you don’t have to let me know if you’re coming or not. That’s up to you!”
A core group of about a dozen came every single week. Another dozen came twice a month, yet another dozen once a month, a few came once or twice a season and some never came, but insisted on being kept on the list just in case they ever motivated. One woman never hiked, but came to our end-of-the-year party. Eventually we added a Facebook page that we could use for exchanging the information we shared on the trails. The biggest hike was 30 women, the smallest was just me and a friend. They were equally satisfying and fun.
Beyond the opportunity to explore the place we all called home, the biggest benefit was the new friendships that emerged. Women act a little differently on hikes than sitting at lunch at a club. Dressed in casual workout gear, hair up in messy ponytails or covered with baseball caps, most wore no makeup and the ubiquitous telephones were tucked away in the pocket of the camelback water systems, out of reach for the lull in conversation that inevitably happens when hiking up a mountain. I love the pace of hike conversation. There is space for silence, and it’s never awkward. Women are less guarded and more open when out on the trails. We push our bodies. We sweat, smell, hurt and get tired. We share more secrets too. I was the first to learn of my friend’s pregnancy when her regular quick hiking pace was lagging and she offered her secret as a means of explanation.
Another unanticipated benefit of the hiking group was the opportunity to meet women with children of different ages and stages of life. Typically expats group with others with kids the same age, on the sidelines of sports or at birthday parties. But our group drew women with kids of all ages, so we could learn from each other. We followed along on boarding school and college admissions deliberations, counseled health and relationship issues for each other, compared notes on trips, commiserated, laughed and shed tears every once in awhile too.
Thankfully we only had one injury that required medical attention. One woman slipped and punctured her palm, but fortunately we had reached Violet Hill and were a quick taxi ride from Adventist Hospital. Her dear friend Pam accompanied her and we kept going. She was fine.
The wildlife on the trails was amazing. Spiders the size of a man’s hand and snakes scared many away, but not all. We occasionally ran into even bigger creatures like wild dogs, a dead porcupine, wild boar and cattle. We learned the network of trails around the south side of Hong Kong Island; how to access the water catchments and secret cobblestone trails enabling us to walk from Repulse Bay to Stanley or Tai Tam to Stanley without ever walking on the dangerous sidewalk-less roads.
The excursion hikes were the most fun. I spent hours plotting the maps and figuring out the directions, and sometimes had to double back and question the route, but their patience and encouragement kept me going and we always made it to our destination. The excursions always included a culinary destination so that we could not only explore the trails, but also try a new restaurant in a different part of town. These were usually all-day adventures, from the time the school bus departed, to just before its return. I had it down to a science and only came back later than the school bus a few times. We would carpool or rely on generous friends with drivers to get us to the trailhead. Some of our favorite excursions included:
Maclehose, Stage 2 – The signature excursion hike is the second stage of the Maclehose Trail coupled with crispy tofu and a beer at Michelin starred Loaf On in the heart of Sai Kung. Getting to the trailhead is the hardest part of this adventure, but well worth the effort. We usually carpooled to the parking structures in Sai Kung then got into green taxis instructing them to take us into the country park to Long Ke in Sai Kung Country park, across the reservoir to the pavilion. Getting out there the trail continues up and over a steep pass and meanders along three separate beautiful beaches before turning inland for the second half of the hike through the jungle. There’s a perfect pitstop on Dai Long Wan that sells beer and French fries, but we mostly ate trailmix and replenished our water. Emerging from the woods fifteen kilometers and about four hours later, we’d catch the bus back into Sai Kung for lunch. Our group did this hike at least four times.
“Taco Truck Hike to Quarry Bay – The Taco Truck hike was the most popular of all. Hiking from Repulse Bay over Mt. Butler past the relics of World War II infrastructure to Quarry Bay we arrived like clockwork at 11:20, 10 minutes before the now defunct Taco Truck opened. After the Taco Truck closed we hiked to Frites and ate moules frites one time, but it wasn’t quite the same. Still, that route provides myriad options for dining and is a quick taxi ride back to the start.
“Lardo’s & T.C. Deli Hike” – We hiked over Sha Tin Pass, stages four and half of three of the Wilson Trail in reverse to Tseung Kwan O for a meal at Lardo’s steak restaurant on a minibus roundabout in a housing development. After a steak, a quick shopping trip at the T.C. Deli to load up on restaurant quality meats at shockingly reasonable prices for HK makes you really feel like a local.
“Dragon’s Back Backwards” – Another favorite excursion was the Dragon’s Back, but done “backwards” starting at the bus stop half way down Shek-O Road and hiking the trail back to the prison, but then turning right and hiking along the catchment, past the first sign to Big Wave Bay to the second one which has a trail of stairs that cascades down the hillside to the sand. When it’s open, the pink café at the far side of the beach has great brunch, but when that was closed we’d continue on the road to Sai Kung to eat at Chinese Thai Seafood place on the roundabout.
“Tai O” – Our furthest afield was Tai O. The fog was relentless and we got a little turned around and, truth be told, we didn’t see very much of the trail. Taking a photo at the top of the rise we couldn’t see two feet in front of us and had a start when we nearly sat on a grazing bull. Eventually we made it to town, checked out the Heritage Hotel and the boats to see the pink dolphins, then caught the city bus back to the outlet malls where our cars were waiting.
“Mui Wo Family Hike” – One school holiday we took a family hike on Lantau from Discovery Bay to Mui Wo inviting husbands and children to join the fun. We took the ferry from Central to Discovery Bay then followed the trail, past the stages of the cross leading to the Trappist Monastery to Mui Wo. My friend’s daughter carried a pile of newspapers while wailing the entire route, but everyone made it and enjoyed the crescent beach of Mui Wo and ended with a great Turkish meal at Bahce before perfectly timing the ferry back home.
“Big Buddha” – The Big Buddha is a popular tourist attraction in HK, but a pain to get to. Finding the trailhead was challenging, but satisfying. We parked at the Citygate Outlets at Tung Cheung on Lantau by the airport and skirted the housing estates until the urban center gave way to trails and eventually the staircase at the trailhead. The staircase follows the path of the cable car high above. None of us felt well that day as we started out fast and it was hotter than we had anticipated, and one even turned back and went home early, but we completed the trail and grabbed an Ebineezers sandwich at the top before my friend’s driver picked us up (alternatively we would have taken the cable car down to the cars!).
“Paddle Boarding Hike” – Once we arranged to hike Violet Hill to Stanley Main Beach and then take everyone paddle boarding. It was a pretty windy day and many had never tried paddle boarding before, so we had lots of fun and got a great photo, but never did that again.
“Green Power” – Hong Kong hosts many adventure races, but the one I love is called Green Power. It’s a 50K race that begins at the Peak and finishes at Big Wave Bay (there is also an option to do 25K starting at Parkview). Not being very competitive, I wasn’t interested in racing, but some of the hiking friends convinced me to train for it, and so I did. My friend Lee and I trained and completed the race together one year. We packed for a hike, including PB&J and trail mix expecting the race to take us about 9 hours, but when we got started the whole group was running and so we started running and just kept running. We did the race in under 7 hours and were really proud of ourselves. The next year I completed the race with my friend Yanzi. It took us a little longer, but we stuck together and finished with big smiles on our faces. It’s an amazing experience to complete a distance longer than a marathon that scales several peaks, but being fully contained on HK island, I reasoned that home was always a quick taxi ride away if I ever wanted to quit.
The HDH included celebrations too. Twice a year I hosted a HDH party where we would hike over The Twins, through Stanley to my house where brunch was waiting. Sweaty and tired, we sat and ate together, celebrating our accomplishments and deepening friendships. I poured my heart into making those meals to express my gratitude to those women for joining me on the hikes each week.
When I left Hong Kong nearly two years ago no one stepped forward directly to assume the mantle of the HDH, but I have heard that a woman has since taken over and continues to coordinate a regular Wednesday hike, sending encouraging messages and keeping the tradition going. I am so pleased to hear this as I continue to get messages from hikers about HDH being a meaningful part of their Hong Kong life.
A few weeks ago I received an email from a fellow “repatriate” who, like me, spent several years in Hong Kong. She was writing to say that she missed our hiking group and she thanked me for starting it. Two years have passed since I left Hong Kong and still it is what she and I remember fondly. What started out of laziness evolved into the most fulfilling and fun part of my six year tenure living in Hong Kong, and I encourage anyone moving there to be sure to get out on the trails as much as possible.
A week late due to the CNY Holidays, but here it is…
Have you ever heard a parenting expert say push your kids to the breaking point, sign them up for multiple extracurricular activities, make them take all honors classes, allow technology in their bedrooms so they can keep in touch with their friends all night long, sleep is overrated, eating on the run is fine and free time is a waste? Neither have I.
And yet this is precisely what our generation of parents is doing, and it’s not serving anyone well. Why don’t we follow the evidence-based advice we receive?
Unlike most fields of study where expert opinions vary, parenting experts are remarkably similar on just about every topic except sleep training for babies. In getting kids to sleep through the night some advise letting infants cry it out while others recommend co-sleeping, for example. While there is some variation in advice for infant care, when it comes to older children and especially adolescents, the advice becomes strikingly consistent.
Over the years I have attended dozens of lectures, taken copious notes and read many books to try to pick up some tips to be a more effective parent to my three children. Most parenting advice falls into broad topics like how to help cultivate resilience, perseverance, self-motivation, purpose and mindset. While each expert frames the advice a little bit differently, they all end up with similar recommendations and even more compelling, similar statistics.
To raise healthy, balanced, kind, optimistic and accomplished children with good prospects to become successful and happy adults, parenting experts consistently offer really simple, intuitive advice. First, make sure they get enough sleep, have regular medical check ups, eat good healthy food, and regularly share family dinner. Second, praise real effort and acts of kindness, not the child. Third, limit technology and never allow it to live in their bedrooms, but have healthy, open communication about it. Finally, protect their unstructured free time fiercely.
Unstructured, technology-free free time, positive reinforcement, healthy eating and sleep? So far I have been unable to identify a dissenting voice in this advice. Yet we persist in running all over town after school to take children to lessons, fighting to get them on “the right” sports teams, hiring a tutor when they’re faltering in a class instead of going to seek out the teacher and so on. We reason that the kids are happier when they’re busy, that they take pride in accomplishment and that they will thank us later when they get into a good college and set their lives on a successful path. This may be true for some children, but not for all. And, on a practical level, one afternoon with a group of kids in a Hong Kong apartment with “unstructured time” is enough to prove this advice harder to follow than it seems.
Nonetheless, we do it because we want the best for our children and we are scared of the competition and the unknowable future. We do it because everyone else does too. We do it because some of our parents did the same and it’s all we know. We believe we are being helpful, but the evidence suggests otherwise.
A wise friend advised me to tell my children, “Your health, your education and your safety are up to your father and me. The rest is up to you.” The more I tried to find fault with this advice, the more I realized how brilliant it is. If I stick to this advice, I can more efficiently tease out the truly important issues from the merely irritating ones. So far, so good, although I admit that if my child asks about a tattoo, I may have to reconsider.
Even after all these years and so much advice, the one that continues to ring loudest in my head comes from British parenting expert Penelope Leach. She advises speaking to children as you would have them speak to you when you’re old. As you yell at your children to get their shoes on, chastising them for their lack of attention to your command or lack of ability to tie them despite your having shown them how, picture the opposite.
“Mom! Put your shoes on! I can’t believe you don’t have them on yet. This is ridiculous, I told you ten times to get your shoes on! Hurry UP!”
With that in mind, perhaps you’ll consider giving them the same courtesy you would like from them down the road a bit. Life around the house may become generally more respectful and calm. After all, don’t we all feel a little better when we’re treated with courtesy, kindness and respect?
I didn’t write the SCMP headline, but I did write the article and dedicate it to Lucy, Erica, Kathy & Cindy! In fact, this blog is named after that barely paved road we were allowed to cross.
“Benign neglect” is the phrase that would most aptly describe my parents’ approach to parenting in the 1970s. What today might be called “free range parenting” or actual neglect, back then was just childhood.
Our home in rural Pennsylvania bordered a cornfield at the top of the hill and a nature preserve with a creek running through it just beyond. My sister and I had two neighbor girls through the woods on one side and another across a barely paved street that we were free to cross on our own from a very early age. In fact, the five of us were free to do just about anything we liked. We could wander the woods, play in the creek, build forts in the goat shed, collect coal from the yard, watch as much television as we liked and eat anything we could scrounge for ourselves from the kitchen.
I never wore shoes and my feet were as tough as leather from walking barefoot down our gravely driveway all summer. I was dirty, disheveled and, being the oldest, blamed by the neighbor parents for corrupting the language of their children. We spent days writing elaborate plays, producing gymnastics shows, attempting to make a whirlpool in the small swimming pool, flooding the driveway to create an ice skating pond or sawing the cornstalks sticking up from the impromptu rink created by poor drainage in the field. We crossed barbed wire fences, tore our clothing, swung from vines, rolled in clover and picked wine berries from thorny bushes to eat by the bucket load with full fat milk and real sugar.
Today this kind of childhood would be almost impossible to reproduce, and parents who tried might suffer judgment from their peers for neglect or endangerment. For us, it was paradise.
I thought this kind of parenting a relic of a simpler time until I had the pleasure of attending a talk by a leading parenting expert in the U.S. who seems to be encouraging parents to think back to their own childhoods and recapture for their children some of the danger, freedom, resilience and thrill that has been largely lost in the overscheduled, anxiety-ridden, structured world of parenting today.
New York Times bestselling author and practicing psychologist, Dr. Wendy Mogel has turned her focus to counseling parents instead of young children these days. Her two best-selling books, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of A B Minus offer encouraging words of wisdom for parents to give children space to make mistakes and to learn from them.
Dr. Mogel encourages parents to relax and stop “quaking in our boots” parenting. In this age of artisanal parenting, where we pay continuous partial attention to our children, we need to put our phones down and engage when we are with our children, but also give them time when we are not there hovering over them. Humorously, she suggested parents start by reading the online satirical website called The Onion because, as she said, “you need mirth in your home.”
Dr. Mogel implores parents to let children do thrilling things, as this is how they avoid being fearful. She referenced an article about the anti-phobic effects of thrilling experiences. For parents who can’t bear the thought of this, who are worried that something might happen, she replies, “but you are in my office, so you can’t live with your kid now either.” Freedom is how they learn to keep themselves safe.
Dr. Mogel cautioned parents to stop interviewing their children for pain. Instead of trying to uncover all that went wrong in their day, find out what went right. She said that, “Good, healthy, respectful parenting will feel like neglect.”
According to Mogel, girls need to go through phases that will scare parents, and boys need the time to be good tired, not just weary. All kids need to move, not ride around in the car doing errands or going to lessons. Dr. Mogel reminded us that children must have chores for their own growth and to be of assistance to the family.
After all, Dr. Mogel reminds us, the “The whole point of parenting is to make it look appealing to your children so they’ll have children and you can be a grandparent. If you make it look like a burdensome, stressful drag, they won’t want to be parents, and then you won’t have any grandchildren.” Dr. Mogel’s highly anticipated next book is scheduled for release in 2017.
Listening to parenting experts like Dr. Mogel, Dr. Madeline Levine, Dr. Michael Thompson and so many others, their messages are consistent and surprisingly similar. Each encourages parents to lighten up on our kids and to give them a little more space to navigate the world on their own. We have made parenting so complicated and all consuming, we have to remember to stop worrying and start enjoying our kids during this brief time when we get to be the primary decision makers in their lives.
I wrote and submitted this article the day before the bombings in Paris. How silly it seemed, the next day, to be writing about red cups as an impetus to teach religion in schools. The content of the article was made maybe even more relevant, but it was edited to remove the first and last paragraphs instead of revising them. It turned out to be a bit of a clunky article, but the message is consistent (link to SCMP, or full original version below). What do you think?
Last week my Facebook feed was full of red coffee cups. The latest social media phenomenon centered on a Starbucks minimalist holiday cup design which one consumer strangely extrapolated to be a scourge against Christmas and, by extension, a direct threat to Christianity. The extent of attention his video garnered in the U.S. media got me thinking about religious literacy and its place as an academic subject in schools.
My sense is that the secularization of school curriculums in a well-intentioned commitment to separate church and state has had the unintended consequence of creating a general public illiteracy about religion. According to New York Times bestselling author Stephen Prothero, “Only ten percent of U.S. teenagers can name all five major world religions, and 15 percent can’t name any.” In an effort to avoid offending anyone schools have decided to skip religious education altogether, so students are left to gather what understanding they can without the analytical framework schools usually provide. This has fueled uneasiness and misunderstanding instead of cultivating tolerance from a base of knowledge.
Schools should not promote religion, but they should teach it.
Understanding history is impossible without an understanding of the religious traditions that helped shape the world. From a purely secular standpoint, atheists should know and understand what they choose not to believe in.
Schools have very different approaches to the question of religious education. In my opinion, Hong Kong International School does a relatively good job at weaving religious education into the curriculum. As part of its mission statement HKIS states that it is, “An American-style education grounded in the Christian faith and respecting the spiritual lives of all.” At HKIS, Christianity is taught at all levels and is an integral part of the ethos of the school, but it is not expected that all students will practice Christianity.
In the elementary years, HKIS students are taught a basic understanding of world religions with cultural and traditional experiences both in the classroom and through field trip visits around Hong Kong to mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship where children are encouraged to ask questions. Throughout the year parents of many faiths are invited to share traditions within the classrooms.
In the middle school years, religious education focuses on understanding one’s own values and beliefs and respecting those of others. Charitable outreach, social justice and world issues are discussed in the context of personal values. On Back to School night I was impressed to hear a middle school religion teacher explain that, “We teach religion, but we do not teach spirituality. Spirituality has to be developed on an individual basis.” This distinction gave me confidence that the school was not proselytizing.
In high school, students cultivate a more subtle and complex understanding of the differences and commonalities among world religions. Students study, go on service trips, sometimes engage in shared practice of different religions and explore further their own sense of self. Some students find great expansion happens in these classes, and for some, the few minutes of silence and reflection in religion classes are the only moments of calm in their day.
Marty Schmidt, a high school humanities teacher at HKIS, calls this Social Conscience Education, and has written extensively on the topic. Schmidt describes social conscience education as, “A personal consideration of one’s role and responsibility in society in the context of an emotionally engaged understanding of the world.”
This is one example of a school that embraces religion as an essential field of study in a well-rounded education, yet inextricably linked to human development.
In the words of twentieth-century American philosopher John Dewey, “For in spite of itself any movement that thinks and acts in terms of an ‘ism becomes so involved in reaction against other ‘isms that it is unwittingly controlled by them. For it then forms its principles by reaction against them instead of by a comprehensive, constructive survey of actual needs, problems, and possibilities.”
The red cup incident should remind us all to reflect on actual needs, problems and possibilities rather than allowing fear and obliviousness to distract our own carefully cultivated convictions.
If your evening routine includes arguments, incentives and timers in order to cajole your children to practice an instrument, you might want to rethink your approach. While creating music should be a joyful lifelong experience, the path toward mastery of an instrument can be tempestuous if the motivation is wrong.
Music, like competitive sports, AP classes and volunteering has become another near chimera in the desperate sprint toward collage acceptance. For some, music is a ticket to college. But for the vast majority, music practice ranks near the top of the list of topics that induce day-to-day stress in busy households. The path to musical literacy for the majority is strewn with abandoned instruments.
Despite having grown up with music teacher parents, I never learned to play an instrument. I was determined the same would not happen to my own children, so I followed the typical path signing them up for traditional music lessons from the time they were small. In my home I have two violins, a trombone and a piano; all abandoned by my children. Perhaps it’s my own lack of resolve in disciplining them to stick with it, but I could tell that their lack of enthusiasm was honest and any amount of prodding by me would be a battle.
For my eldest I sought the advice of Dr. Frank Abrahams, a prominent college music educator in the United States. I expected he would share the latest practice technique with me, but instead he simply said, “Get him an ipod. That way he can figure out what kind of music he likes. Once he knows what he likes, I can teach him how to play it.” I was shocked (and a little disappointed at first), but then I began to understand the approach.
“What’s great about this idea” says Kathryn Bechdoldt, beloved Middle School Choir Director at HKIS, “is that it gives kids the ability to examine and grow their taste independently. Giving a child ownership of their aural environment, their time, and their taste will immediately increase their interest. From there, it’s the teacher’s job to find ways to stretch and support knowledge and skill in a variety of genres.”
My son abandoned the piano and trombone, but picked up the electric guitar when I found a teacher who taught him to play rock music. His genuine interest and a lack of pressure from me found him more open minded when a jazz musician offered to work with him, and encouraged him to play acoustic and to practice scales so he could move his fingers more smoothly over the strings. This gave him ownership of the process and the outcome. His goal was to be able to play the music he likes rather than to play scales better than he did yesterday. He felt empowered to improve himself, not simply challenged to please the teacher.
But music, like a sport or mastering anything takes practice and discipline. There’s no getting around learning to read music and practicing scales, but the student has to understand the purpose. For example, Ms. Bechdoldt explains that, “When I’m teaching guitar, I show students how much more strength their fingers have when they hold the guitar neck with correct technique, and how much more easily and quickly they can switch chords. It allows them to see that I’m not making rules at random; the “rules” of how to hold a guitar are actually making them better guitarists.
Start by asking yourself what’s your goal in music education for your child? Do you want them to have performance experience, to win awards, recognition, or do you want them to have a life long love of music and the ability to create it? If the latter, then perhaps let the child explore music in a fun, creative way by attending all kinds of live music concerts, let them pick the music you listen to in the car and seek out instructors who are forward thinking and who love to create music themselves.
Consider music making as an art form, not a competition to be won. Encourage kids to learn to play music that they like and expose them to a wide range of music to expand their horizons.
For example, Premiere Performances of Hong Kong ‘s PLAY! Family Concert Series is a great way to introduce children to world-class, live classical music in an accessible and fun way.http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/families/article/1874953/let-children-play-musical-instruments-their-way
These are positive things parents can do to empower children to cultivate authentic, life-long musical literacy.
Back to school SCMP Article this month on decision fatigue…
Most people celebrate the New Year on January 1st or according to the Chinese Lunar calendar in January or February each year. The New Year is a perfect time to set intentions, try new things and to make new commitments to be our best selves.
I also celebrate the New Year, but for me the real New Year begins in late August when the kids go back to school. Back to school marks the end of unscheduled days and late bedtimes, and the beginning of routine and rigor. My annual family photo albums begin each year not in January, but with the first day of school and end with our adventurous travel and lazy days of summer photos.
Each year as the kids go back to school we all have an opportunity to try new things, commit to new routines and to set goals. The kids choose new activities and their busy schedules enable me to explore new interests too. I sign up for volunteer positions, revamp my exercise, take on consulting jobs, meet new people and have more energy to engage in projects I have been putting off all year.
While the unscheduled summer months hold their charm and the pace of the school year is exhausting and complaint-worthy, most parents secretly yearn for the sanity of routine and schedule, and with good reason. Research shows that children thrive within the comfortable boundaries of familiar routines, clear expectations and sensible limits.
Child development experts unfailingly advocate the importance of routine for children. Routine is the foundation of elementary school. At home, children thrive with well-established morning and bedtime rituals. “Bath, brush, books, bed” is a popular, healthy evening routine in households with any age children. This gives everyone something to look forward to and sets a clear expectation of when it’s time to turn off the lights and go to sleep.
Routine is also important for adults. A fascinating 2011 New York Times article by John Tierney described the phenomenon of decision fatigue, claiming that humans have a finite capacity for decision making each day, and that this capacity is depleted every time a decision is made, no matter its relative importance. For example, the article suggests that the time of day a judge hears a case is a more important indicator of the likelihood of parole for an inmate than are the circumstances of the case. Judges are much more risk averse right before lunch and late in the day than in the morning or immediately following a lunch break.
Making decisions can be exhausting. The more decisions one makes, the harder each one becomes. After awhile, decision makers can become reckless or reluctant to make any decisions at all. In a series of fascinating studies, researchers demonstrated that making choices eventually undermines willpower and resolve too.
Stanford University psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal has written extensively on the topic of willpower. Her bestselling book The Willpower Instinct provides great guidance for those looking to change habits and set more positive routines. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is another useful book that describes the science behind the formation of habits and the importance of cultivating positive ones.
Decision fatigue is a real phenomenon that can be mitigated by a solid routine, and, interestingly, by a boost of glucose. Instead of waking up each morning trying to decide if you should go for a hike or a run, sleep in or eat breakfast, automating those decisions frees up precious space for more important decisions later in the day.
Annie Dillard reminds us that, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” With consistent day-to-day routines, we have more space to make constructive big decisions and the willpower to stick to those resolutions, whenever we begin.