We live in the free market. That means an abundance of choice.
It also means we often choose the wrong thing: we choose cookies over broccoli, parties over sleep, cute shoes over snow boots. Especially on Friday nights, we choose “comfort foods” and Netflix.
We KNOW the decisions are bad ones–I’ve never heard anyone brag about their success on the Taco Bell Diet–but we make them anyway. And it’s not because we hate ourselves: we’re just tired of making decisions.
Our parents called this “willpower”: the ability to make tough decisions and stick to them. But as Dan Ariely of Duke University writes in “Understanding Ego Depletion“, we have limited reserves of willpower. We use up those reserves regularly. On Monday morning, we have plenty left, so we get up early, go for a walk, and pack a healthy lunch. By Friday, we’re calling Cheetos breakfast. You’ll very often hear me on a Friday telling people to “make good choices.” Because I know it’s hard after a long week. I know it’s easier to make bad choices. But I want you to think about making better choices because they are a habit for you.
Decision fatigue is a new idea, but it’s very real. We make more decisions than our ancestors ever did: they got up at six, because the cows were hungry. They ate oatmeal for breakfast, because there weren’t any eggs. They bought one gift for Christmas because everyone did. And they were probably happier for it.
The dudes under the most pressure in the business world usually take steps to limit the number of decisions they have to make each day. I recently started reading (the very lenghy) Steve Job Biography – he wore the same outfit and ate the same breakfast every day. If he’d dipped into the well of willpower when choosing his cereal, that would leave less in the pool for later when the BIG decisions came up.
How do we avoid burning out our willpower? HABITS.
Waking up at the same time every day.
Eating the same breakfast every day.
Going to the gym at the same time every day.
Letting someone else choose our workouts.
I try to shift as many decisions off my plate as possible. And when I make a decision, I don’t often second-guess it, because that’s exhausting. It really IS better to make fast decisions and correct your errors later than to hem and haw. Living with a decision isn’t usually hard; making the decision is hard.
If you’re starting to exercise more, or fixing your diet after a rough couple of weeks, do everything you can to minimize the decisions you have to make. Do a six-week challenge, and follow directions. Show up to a CrossFit class. Make your meals on Sunday, when you’re fresh and rested. Follow someone else’s plan for you until the habits are entrenched. Protect your ego, and save your willpower for dealing with your boss.
Your workouts don’t have to be perfect every day. You don’t have to invent a new diet, or study textbooks. You can avoid paralysis by analysis. I have a business mentor; he tells me what to do and how to do it. I have a gymnastics coach I go to once a week; she tells me what to do and how to do it. I follow the gym’s programming: I don’t need to make some special squirrel sauce to be a better athlete. I (mostly) meal prep and follow the Zone eating plan. I pick out my clothes the night before, always the same – sports bra, black lulus, Recursive tank top, Recursive sweatshirt. I make as little decisions as possible about the mundane every day things in my life, and then I go make better decisions outside the gym.