When Willpower and Decision-Making Abilities Decline

Willpower

In law school, professors repeatedly emphasized that clients would hire you for your good judgment. In other words, people would be paying you for your ability to focus on a problem and make a decision. New research, however, makes it clear that we each have only a finite amount of willpower available to us on a daily basis. Every time we focus to solve a problem, we deplete our ability to do it again. There are, however, ways to replenish or increase your willpower and decision-making abilities when you’ve maxed out.

What’s the problem?

The problem is actually two-fold. First, we each have a finite amount of willpower available to us—a phenomenon called ego depletion. Every time we force ourselves to read every relevant case on Westlaw or carefully review a contract, we deplete our willpower store. I like to think of my willpower store like a videogame. I imagine the little bar in my head depleting as I focus on an issue. According to the American Psychological Association, my videogame analogy has not been widely adopted: experts  “liken willpower to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse.” Others think about willpower like currency—given the limited supply, you want to make sure you use it wisely.

In addition to limited willpower stores, we have a related finite ability to make decisions. Once our brain reaches its daily capacity, we simply shut down—declining to make any additional decisions. For example, the New York Times recently reported on a study involving Israeli parole boards. The three-member boards reviewed parole applications from prisoners who had completed two-thirds of their sentences. The results were incredible: “Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.” The Times hypothesized that “[t]o a fatigued judge, denying parole seems like the easier call not only because it preserves the status quo and eliminates the risk of a parolee going on a crime spree but also because it leaves more options open.”

The worst part? We usually aren’t aware of how mentally tired we are from our choices. Knowing the problem, of course, is only half the battle. Our profession demands willpower and decision making, sometimes late into the evening. What’s a diligent yet worn-out decider to do?

Limit extraneous decisions

There are ways to extend your willpower and decision-making abilities. First and foremost, eliminate extraneous decisions from your day. In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, author Michael Lewis asked Obama to teach him how to be president. One of Obama’s first pieces of advice? “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. 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.” Obama’s mantra: “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” While I don’t want to wear the same outfit every day, I do rely on a standard uniform that consists mostly of black separates. Voila—my life is easier and my decision-making abilities are extended. If you care about fashion, you can simplify other areas of routine decision-making: standardize your meals or your grocery list. One blogger suggests using a checklist for all common routines.

Eat!

Calories (glucose in particular) can restore willpower and improve self control when it’s running low. Indeed, the sugar appears key—researchers discovered that a diet drink didn’t improve willpower and self control, only the sugary stuff. A good breakfast also helps.

Learning about decision fatigue hasn’t revolutionized my world, but it has encouraged me to schedule my heavy-thinking for early morning and, at the end of the day, consider putting off key decisions until the next morning. Oh, and it’s also finally allowed me to justify my all-black wardrobe to myself.

(image: Willpower from Shutterstock)

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  • http://consumerlawyer.mn/cgi-sys/suspendedpage.cgi Randall Ryder

    Great post—your point about not making key decisions towards the end of the day is something I adopted long ago. “Tough” decisions frequently appear very simple the following morning.

  • http://www.kswalinklaw.com Kari Swalinkavich

    Thank you again, Sybil! Your posts are so reassuring. I prefer to contemplate until things ripen and can be picked. Now I know why!

  • http://sb-legal.net/ Joshua Baron

    Fantastic post. Lawyers need to be more aware of factors that can affect their own judgment as well as the judgment of other lawyers and judges. Thanks for the information and suggestions!

  • http://projectplay.net/ Sadie

    Interestingly, people who (incorrectly) believe that willpower is infinite have better willpower than those of us who know the truth. http://lifehacker.com/5967249/your-willpower-is-only-a-finite-resource-if-you-believe-it-is