Will Power and Decision Fatigue


Willpower and I have had an interesting relationship over the years. We haven’t exactly been antagonistic, but our relationship has been misunderstood at best.

I’ve been no more or less capable of working hard, or resisting temptation than anyone else, but Willpower and I have chosen to enter a different sort of dance. One that moves toward a different set of priorities. Growing up playing first person shooter games, where life and energy are measured by a colored meter in the corner, I developed the notion that Willpower was just something that I used up, and restarted each day. I never gave it much thought.

Thinking of Willpower as a form of stored energy hasn’t been a shared belief among people in my life, though. As I grew up, I began to realize that most people think of Willpower as a character trait. I learned that judgements about discipline, productivity, and work ethic were judgements of a person’s worth. In a society that values those things, not showing them can create lasting problems.

Most people learn these lessons about character as they grow through adolescence. The lessons are in part how social values are transfered, but they are also personal markers to be carried around. For example, as a teenager I was told that due of my lack of discipline I was unlikely to do well in college, and therefore had little chance of going on to grad school (Grad school is a big deal in my extended family.) I had all the support in the world from my parents, but hearing that leveling commet stayed with me through much of my ife. It became a nagging voice, and part of my sense of “other”, later affecting many of my decisions in school and career.

More recently, I’ve been judged about how and what I eat. Obviously, eating too much, or drinking that beer is a sign of “no willpower,” right? Never a sign of being tired, or just hungry. As much as I want to think I have a thick skin, these judgements by friends and family wear on me. They are comments on my character, and play out in my head every time I reach down for another bite.

I never thought about willpower as an energy to be used consciously, so what if all this is about how I use my willpower instead of who I am? If I think about it a little differently, these judgements I face may just be a consequence of my choices, not attacks on my character. Since many of my choices aren’t based on typical social values, maybe those judgers just don’t notice the quiet successes I have while using Willpower in other areas.

Last year, I read this article, Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? It made a hell of a lot of sense to me. As I read it over, and followed links, I started understanding my life and the decisions I have made in a new way.

(I need to pause here to tell you that you absolutely need to read that article. It explains daily life and fatigue in an eye-opening way; at least for me it did. The article doesn’t provide methods to make better decisions, but it provides insight on where things go wrong in our decision making.)

I’m actually not a weak person, or lazy, and I have incredible willpower, thank you very much. Obviously, I fall victim to the fatigue described in the article like everyone else. I get tired and hungry, and my strength to make good decisions isn’t infinite, but when I consider how I want to live and the things I deal with, I would say I do pretty well. This might seem obnoxious, but I am proud of some of the tings I have been trying to do lately:

1. Write an honest blog, when there is nothing in it for me.
2. Maintain a vegetarian diet in a meat lover’s world.
3. Get my weight down, and be athletic.
4. Stave off diabetes.
5. Be my own boss.
6. Run a tight financial and parental ship.
7. Be an artist and use my MFA to add something to the world.

If you think about putting those things together and how out of control they could become, you will understand the relationship I have with Willpower. For example, pre-diabetes leads to cravings for food and sugar, and causes energy swings all day long. Adding vegetarianism on top cuts out a great hunger control, meat (the article even mentions protein in this way,) so eating isn’t a three-time a day coice. It’s all day long, every day.

My guess is that most of you, readers, face the same craziness and your own struggles, so let me make the subtle distinction that my point isn’t about the amount of, or how hard I work. I am sure that in relative terms, I don’t work all that much or all that hard. My point is about all the decisions I face. I make decisions and prioritize about everything in my life every minute of my day. Doing it all is a tough proposition.

Ok, enough of that, so here’s a story: When I sat down last spring at a family gathering it was the first time a few of my family members knew of my becoming a vegetarian. I had grown up as the one who went back for seconds, thirds, and fourths, and ate the giant turkey leg at Thanksgiving for dessert. I was known for not having much self-control when it came to food. So, here I was sitting down as a vegetarian. A few in my family didn’t understand the change.

As a typical result, there some issues at that meal. The first of which was bringing up my choice to be a vegetarian (even if it was brought up as a note of pride by my wife, it was not a good idea.) At that point, not only was I dealing with a limited range of vegetarian foods, (I was hungry) but then I had to engage in THAT conversation. It was not as pleasant meal, and was nothing like the fun family meals I remember from my youth.

The silver lining was that there was someone there, a guest from a different country, who had seen what I had to deal with. After dinner, she quietly told me that she thought I had been very strong for not just being a vegetarian, but to also defend it, and deal with the fatigue it caused. She had seen the sort of trouble I had with the meal, and was nice enough to recognize it.

As I go through life, I suck up many, many of those sorts of stresses, and it often takes a clear sweet voice from outside to make me realize how draining my “pleasant” activities really are.

This is a typical situation for people trying to “do things,” and I know I am not some hero for it. Again I’ve always thought I’ve been average in that way, but I choose to carry a different load of stresses than most. Trying to be responsible to the environment, society, family, and self is a draining burden. I am often not capable of it, and most days I am left drained. It is on those days that I get sucked in by simple vices like too much internet and sweets. It is also an unrewarding, and often lonely attempt at life. Choosing not to go with the flow, or compartmentalizing out misguided behavior (as in working an unethical job, or partying like a wildman when away from home,) is a constant source of challenge, even when its not seen or felt.

There are self-control boosting activities that I have learned of though, and the article talks about them a bit. Sugar being the first and foremost of them. Most people learn to hate sugar, because it is the essence of lost control. That candy bar at the checkout register is the final test of character isn’t it? No, actually its just a sign of your willpower being low. I’m not saying indulge in a crappy candy bar every time you go to the store, but when you do, it does not have anything to do with your character. Neither is a cookie between meals, or cussing in front of “proper” company, or being caught checking out an attractive person. None of it is a sin, nor, as I have said, nor does it reflect on you as a person.

Obviously, there are social and personal consequences to indulging, but usually they are fairly minor, so why should the psychological damage last and accumulate for so long? Breaking down that candy bar decision in the store, even if you ate one every time you were at the market, say 3 times a week, you would only be adding 180 calories a day to your diet; equivalent to a cup of juice, or a slice of toast. To put it into perspective, it takes 3500 calories over what you use up in daily activity to gain a pound of weight. So if you ate those candy bars you would add a pound only about every month. The issue with the candy bar, is that most people drain so much Willpower trying to overcome the urge they become even more susceptible to poor decisions later on. It becomes the slippery slope as it were.

Instead of being harsh on yourself for picking up that chocolate bar, go ahead and eat it, then use the added willpower it gives you to put the bag of chips or cookies in your shopping cart back and not bring them home. Then start setting up plans to shop when you’re not tired or hungry. Like on the weekend after breakfast. It works wonders for me.

I know, that whole crazy life thing is had to shake, but the correlation travels in two ways. Make better decisions, and life gets less crazy. Make a calmer life and you’ll make better decisions.

I’m always snacking on oranges and berries and apples. I LOVE fresh apples. And in this, I’ve used my urge for sugar to my advantage. Unfortunately, my blood sugar levels stay high, so I need to stay active to avoid the crash from eating all the fruit, but it also keeps my willpower high so I can stay active… thus letting me do what I need to do. By addressing the constant drain of energy as it is happening, I can avoid the situation where I want to grab that candy bar (at least in theory anyway.) Eating fruit and staying active work together to give me a power boost in what I can accomplish both mentally and physically.

The next control booster, which is hard to maintain, but very effective, is to be with people who love me. When I don’t have to worry about what I am saying or the weird things I am doing, I conserve a lot of willpower. This is a big reason why married people live longer, and why single people have a harder time accomplishing their “willpower” type goals, like losing weight. There is a lot to be said about social support. Social pressure, like finances and ethics take a huge toll on our ability to control ourselves. They are a strange quirk of being advanced, self-aware creatures. Our very complex nature is what causes us to weaken back into less evolved animals in teh willpower game.

I have found that financial, social and health stuggles almost always go hand-in-hand. They don’t have to do with discipline or laziness and personal character, as so many people believe. They are correlated, and self reinforcing. Problems beget problems, and unless adressed en-masse they are very difficult to overcome regardless of strength of will or discipline.

For example, when you exercise regularly you need discipline to keep it going, but it also provides a boost in willpower, because it gives your body a better way to control your sugar and stress. It is a cleansing way to release stress, and provides a break from decision making. Exercise is like a stress and decision making buffer, particularly when it is a form of natural, outdoor exercise. The correlation again travels in both directions depending on how the task is approached.

A financial budget works to same way. When you can maintain a long term financial situation, smaller shopping choices are less draining and the financial buffer eases stress and decision fatigue. WHen you are in a position to save money, spending money within a budget gets easier.

I guess the point for me is that I monitor my energy, and I make sure to either work towards boosting it, or using what I have in the best way possible. Food, sleep, socializing, money, work, exercise are all related, and play a roll in how our willpower works for or against our best interest. Using it in one area of life does indeed affect how much we have in other parts of our lives. So the next time you are judging someone, or more likely judging yourself based on how lazy or weak they look/you feel, or in control they/you seem, try to imagine what the rest of the day has looked like. Often you will realize that a candy bar at the checkout register might actually be in order and deserved.

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