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By Teri Grant

This article will take ~10 minutes to read.


Decisions are exhausting. Seriously – every decision that we make takes energy away from us. We wake up with a finite amount of energy, known as ‘willpower’, and then we spend the rest of the day slowly depleting that storehouse of energy. Understanding what this means for our decision making process – and understanding what to do about it – is crucial.

Think back to your most recent hard day at work. How did you feel at the end of it? What were some of the last actions you took? What did you do when you got home? How did you feel when you went to bed?

I’m going to guess that you felt exhausted and maybe even a little frustrated or angry at the end of that day. I’ll bet that you couldn’t wait to get out of there, and just closed your email without looking at it and that you didn’t make much of a plan for the next day. When you got home the last thing you wanted to do was spend time and energy to cook a good dinner – and that you collapsed on the couch and turned on the TV to whatever channel showed up. When you went to bed, you were drained – but your mind was still firing, going over the events of the day.


Was I close?

If some (or all) of these descriptors resonated for you, you are not alone. This is a natural part of how our brain works, and understanding it is critical for being happy, healthy, and productive at work.

On our hardest days, we are taxing our brains in several ways. Often, there are a number of unusual or stressful decisions that need to be made – this takes willpower. We may need to be more mindful of our emotions, and even control negative or angry reactions – this takes willpower too. Rather than planning things out, which relieves our brain of the pressure of remembering a possible plan, we may have the tendency to hold it all in our heads as we race through the day. This takes – you guessed it – willpower.

All of these factors result in a brain that is drained and depleted, and near-incapable of making good decisions.


Is this for real?

You bet it is.

In their book Willpower, Roy Baumeister and John Tierney write:

The link between willpower and decision making works both ways: Decision making depletes your willpower, and once your willpower is depleted, you’re less able to make decisions. If your work requires you to make hard decisions all day long, at some point you’re going to be depleted and start looking for ways to conserve energy. You’ll look for excuses to avoid or postpone decisions.
— Willpower, p. 98


At the end of a long string of decisions we feel like a marathon runner feels in the last hundred meters of their race; each step is automatic, as the runner dips into new, untapped reserves to try to finish the course.   


Can’t I just have a snack, and be back on my game?

Food is a great way to replenish some of your energy reserves through the day, but it’s not enough on its own. Only a good night’s sleep and a few good meals will get you back up to strength – and it may even take a few days of that regimen to be back up to full muster.


Is this just about the tough decisions?

No, not according to Baumeister and Tierney. Any decision – whether positive or negative, whether giving in to temptation or resisting temptation, whether something we enjoy or something we hate – takes energy away from us. We just may notice it most acutely on the days when our willpower is severely taxed.


Is there anything I can do about it?

Yes! As it turns out, willpower can also grow over time – just like a muscle. The more willpower you practice using over the long term, the better you’ll be at it – and the less energy it will take.

Baumeister teamed up with a few other researchers in Germany to conduct a test on regular folks. They checked in periodically through the day via beepers (old school!) and asked participants to respond to a series of questions. What they found surprised them: people who had ranked high on their tests for self-control weren’t reporting that they were using their self-control. Why is this? In their words:

At first Baumeister and his German collaborators were puzzled. Self-control is supposedly for resisting desires, so why are the people who have more self-control not using it more often? But then an explanation emerged: These people have less need to use willpower because they’re beset by fewer temptations and inner conflicts. They’re better at arranging their lives so that they avoid problem situations. This explanation jibed with the conclusion of another study, by Dutch researchers working with Baumeister, showing that people with good self-control mainly use it not for rescue in emergencies but rather to develop effective habits and routines in school and at work.
— Willpower, p. 239

Tierney and Baumeister went on in their book to say that by concentrating on a small improvement – such as reminding yourself to check your posture throughout the day – you can actually have a positive overall impact on your willpower.


So what exactly does this mean for your time at work?

Well, one thing could be to incorporate small improvements – always recycle paper that you don’t need any more, or take a five minute break every hour. These small improvements can add up over time, and also contribute to your overall willpower.


But, that won’t cover all of it. You need a plan. There are ways to recognize and circumvent some of the worst of these poor decision making tendencies. Below are a few strategies that we can plan for and practice, so that on those tough days we have good habits to fall back on to see us through.


Each strategy focuses on eliminating as much as we can from the decision making process, to conserve energy for the decisions we really need to pour into.



1. Batch decision making

When you are able to, group your tasks into similar chunks and then do them all at once. If you need to sort through papers on your desk, set aside a chunk of time to do them at once rather than bouncing back and forth. Check your emails at certain times of day, and don’t bounce between email and other tasks. Get ready for work the night before by laying your work clothes out, making lunch, and pre-planning how and when to get to work.

By clustering your tasks into similar groups, your decision-making process will be significantly streamlined as you work through concepts and processes that have consistencies and similarities with one another.


2. Break things down into very small chunks

If you have a large project to work on, reduce the stress of the decisions by reducing the task itself into the smallest possible chunks. You will find that either you already know the necessary information or you know where to get it (research, a colleague, etc.)

The litmus test you can give yourself on whether you have broken the task down to the smallest possible next step is this question: do you know exactly what to do next, without really needing to think about it? If your answer isn’t a whole-hearted ‘yes’, work on the task again and identify even easier subtasks within it. For more on this process, read this article.


3. Do your most important work at the beginning of the day

If decisions take away your energy, make your most important decisions when your energy is at its highest: the beginning of the day. Although it might feel good to do the ‘busy work’ on your to-do list, you are not only delaying the inevitable (needing to accomplish that larger, more important task) but you are reducing your ability to tackle it with your best stuff.

By the end of the day, you should be cruising along on the easier stuff. Because you’ve already eliminated your hard work, you won’t be using excess amounts of energy just to finish out the day.


4. Don’t rush a big decision – wait until tomorrow

If something big comes your way at the end of the day, chances are it can wait until tomorrow to be decided on. The tough part with this one is that when you’re in the moment at the end of a long day, you won’t be able to judge clearly whether or not that decision can wait. If you are able to, consider holding off on confirming your decision until the next morning.

Is there an email you could draft and wait to send until after you sleep on it? Is there a second opinion you could ask for, and then decide the next day? Pressing pause can help you make the best possible next move – and avoid a rash choice made in a depleted energy state. Chances are, what seems like a difficult, daunting decision will actually be substantially more clear and easier the next morning.


A quick summary of how to be more productive by eliminating decisions

  • Each decision we make reduces our overall energy level for making decisions, otherwise known as ‘willpower’.
  • It is possible to build up our willpower over time by building up good habits – even small ones will contribute to our overall willpower.
  • At work, there are strategies that can be helpful in eliminating some of the unnecessary waste of willpower and reserving our energy for important decisions:
  • Batch the decisions you need to make by similarities
  • Break things down into very small chunks
  • Do your most important work at the beginning of the day
  • Don’t rush big decisions – wait until tomorrow


Make it happen

Don’t wait until you’re in the middle of a decision-making crisis to work on your willpower. Choose a small habit that you want to focus on for the next weeks and months. Know that each time you work on it, you’re contributing to growth of your willpower and decision-making abilities in the long-term.


Baumeister, Roy F. and John Tierney. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. The Penguin Press, 2011.