Some people misinterpret willpower and its limits as a sign of being not good enough or not worthy of making better decisions. I’ve been there. Willpower is an easy scapegoat, huh? Not only that, but the true cause of why you’re struggling with change isn’t what we want it to be. We often think our brains are holding us back when in reality we’re actually hurting ourselves. You see, our brains become exhausted of making decisions so much so that it gives up and reverts back to what it already knows: your old habits and patterns.
Understanding decision fatigue
Why does our attitude shift so easily from excited for change to giving up? This sharp up and down pattern is frustrating to the point of defeat and discouragement from trying again.
The key to understanding this is the concept of decision fatigue.
Decision fatigue is a real thing, and I’ve experienced it many times in life. In fact, according to Lisa MacLean, MD, by the time we go to bed we’ve made about 35,000 decisions!
When we make decisions throughout the day (such as choosing what to wear or what to eat), we use up our willpower reserve. That doesn’t mean that we have to make every decision perfectly, but it does mean that if you’re trying to change your behavior in some way, you’ll have less willpower available for those changes.
If you want to lose weight, start saving money, or spend more time with your family, then you might find yourself easily giving up on these goals because they aren’t as important as other things are in your life at that moment. You might think, “I’ll start tomorrow,” but tomorrow never comes because something else comes along and steals your focus away from it.
Definitive decisions are key
People often take the approach of “try and see how it goes” when it comes to changing habits such as diet, exercise, or other. This non-committal mindset is what gets us into trouble because the brain has not made a definitive decision on what to do and how to continue doing it.
Think about it this way, if you are a non-smoker and someone offers you a cigarette, you probably won’t say “sure, just this one”, you most likely say “no thanks, I don’t smoke.” The brain doesn’t consider another option. The definitive answer is the level of commitment needed when we start to make change surrounding habits.
Once you have made a definitive decision about the habit you want to change or routine you want to establish, it’s time to create a plan for success.
Planning for success
Writing down your goal is a great way to help you focus your energy on achieving it. It gives you something tangible to hold onto and refer back to when things get tough.
I recommend using a pen and paper as opposed to typing your goals into an app or software because writing by hand can be more effective at getting ideas out of your head and onto the page.
Once you have written down your goal, it’s time to create an action plan (or “to-do list”). You probably already have some idea of how you’re going to accomplish this goal, but now is the time to flesh out the details: what are the steps you need to take? What resources do you need? How long will each step take? How often will you do them?
It’s important that each step on your action plan is specific enough that it requires little effort from your brain. For example, don’t say “exercise three times per week” — say “run for 30 minutes at 7am on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.”
If weight loss or eating healthier in general are important goals to you, try meal planning. This way, you won’t have as many decisions about what to eat in a day, and it’ll be easier to resist junk food if it isn’t available in your house.
It’s also important to recognize when you’re approaching decision fatigue — and try not to make big decisions when you’re tired after a long day at work or school.
Life happens, make a plan
Most of us will have moments off plan; a social event, vacation, or a work interruption, for example. You have to know what your back up plan is in order to continue seeing the benefits of your hard work. Are you willing to break your dietary guidelines you’ve been consistent with for a social event? If yes, then you must choose your limits and boundaries in advance. To clarify, this is not a way for you to break away from your decided place, but to ensure you can regroup and continue according to your goals.
You can fight back
It’s time we debunked the myth that willpower is a reliable tool for self-control. When it comes to commitment, decision fatigue is the real deal, and willpower is overrated. Instead of relying on self-control, focus on building momentum behind your goals and decisions. Use as many small, tactical choices as possible and your actions will become easier as a result.