Decision Fatigue

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.

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