Can getting dressed really be this hard? It used to take me forever to get dressed in the morning. After three changes of clothes I’d be ready to leave the house, but I’d also be stressed out and wondering if I was going to be late.
Turns out this is an exceptionally poor way to start the day, for two reasons. Being late makes me grumpy, which isn’t good. But more importantly, the science behind the new concept of “decision fatigue” says that we have only a fixed amount of decision-making capacity at our disposal each day. Obviously, I should be saving up my ability to make good decisions for things that really matter—not squandering it on high heels vs. flats.
It seems that willpower is a finite resource. If you use too much of it in the morning, you make poorer decisions as the day goes on. When President Barack Obama says he only wears black or gray suits because he has too much else to worry about, he’s not kidding: Why use precious brainpower on solids vs. pinstripes if you’ve got to deal with Putin that afternoon?
According to research by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and others, there are two ways you can refresh your decision-making brainpower: sleep and glucose. Unfortunately, when you’re feeling fatigued mid-day, sleep may not be an option. Glucose generally is, which is one of the reasons it can be so hard to lose weight. The quick sugar hit from those mid-afternoon cookies is exactly what you need to muster the willpower to choose an apple instead.
Here are a few things that can help you make better decisions:
- Make important decisions early in the day, right after eating breakfast. You’ll have both sleep and glucose working in your favor.
- Don’t schedule meetings back-to-back, or you’ll have no willpower left by the time you return to your desk.
- If you have to make an important decision late in the day, grab a quick bite first. Something sugary gets glucose to your brain fast. A better idea is to snack throughout the day on healthy foods, which will provide a more even flow of glucose to the brain.
- Sleep on it. If it’s a really important decision, go for that extra boost of willpower that only sleep will bring.
You can also use rules to minimize the number of decisions you need to make. One of the best-known is the ever-useful, “Don’t go to the grocery store hungry.” I’ve been looking for others in an effort to routinize as many of the mundane parts of my life as I can, allowing me to conserve brainpower for the good stuff.
Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
1. Decide on the week’s wardrobe on Sunday night. Creating new outfits is fun for some people, but I get no joy from this. That makes it the perfect activity for when my willpower’s already zapped. I am fully confident that the rest of the world is not going to notice my sartorial snafus.
2. Plan dinners a week in advance. Trying to figure out what’s for dinner after a long day and a long commute is a sure-fire way to end up with takeout. Now, once a week, I set the menu, and I try to go to the grocery store no more than twice a week.
3. Never switch to an earlier flight the same day. Last time I tried to switch, the earlier flight got overbooked and I ended up on the later flight anyway—in a worse seat. I learned my lesson. Never again.
4. Consider the train. If I’m traveling between New York and Boston or Washington, I only take the train. I don’t even look at the shuttle schedule. Why put myself through the pain of the airport just to save 30 minutes, when I can have a reasonably stress-free train trip instead—and maybe do some work or indulge in some fun reading?
5. Meet a friend for exercise. Rather than trying to get myself to the gym three times a week, I joined a running club. Then I didn’t have to decide each day whether or not to exercise, whether to do it before or after work, whether to go running or go to the gym. I made the decision once, and let the running club set my schedule. You can get the same effect by making a standing appointment to meet a friend for a walk, a run, or the gym.
Do you have rules that help you make good decisions? We’d love to know about them!
This post originally appeared on One Thing New.com.