Decision-making is tied to the depletion of willpower. Every decision we make throughout the day depletes our will reserves. (Baumeister, Tice, & Vohs, 2018).
As a parent of four children, I make a lot of decisions. As the partner of someone working extra during the pandemic, I make many more decisions than usual. Many authors have written about invisible workloads. I’d like to highlight the impacts of one aspect of that workload: decision-making.
Right now, our home is divided rather traditionally due to the pandemic, my husband’s increased workload, and my decreased workload (outside of the home). I decide
- what we eat for each meal
- when to schedule dental and doctor appointments
- when to take the pets to the vet
- when to seek out extra support services
- when to purchase food
- when to wash the car
- when to work in the yard
- when to walk the dogs,
- which extracurricular activities to schedule
- when the kids get haircuts
- whom to hire for various jobs …
The list of decisions seems to go on and on. I didn’t even mention the decisions I make for myself. I noticed that by the time I get to wondering when and how to tend to myself, my willpower can be depleted and I don’t always have the motivation to do what I want to do for myself.
I’m writing about this today because I talk to many women–clients and friends–who wish they had the “determination” or some other quality that would help them make the changes they want to make for themselves: eat better, work out, take time alone, sign up for a class, etc. Sometimes they talk about regretting their tendencies to self-sabotage.
I love my field of psychotherapy. I can really geek out on the theory. And …
Not everything we don’t like about what we are doing, thinking, or feeling represents a psychological flaw.
Not everything we are having difficulty with changing about ourselves is due to some psychological weakness
Sometimes, what we’re doing and not doing is related to human nature. And, well, we’re all human. Luckily, we can learn some workarounds to help us achieve our goals and build the life we want.
Furthermore, I want to add that many of us are doing the best we can in a flawed and stressed-out society that prioritizes doing over being; productivity over conservation; and depletion of restoration. Rather than getting down on ourselves about what’s wrong with us, we could really use some acknowledgment of just how much we are managing in these times.
Decision Fatigue Results in Reduced Willpower:
Now that we know this about human nature, let’s look at ways to work with it.
Take Advantage of Habits
Habits can help us. We can perform desired actions at the same time or day of the week to help them form into habits. As these actions become regular, we don’t make a decision about whether or not to do them. We just do them. This helps reserve our willpower for the decisions that really matter
OK. I’m not very good at this. In fact, the people I know who are good at it tend to be surrounded by a support system that I just don’t have. Even when I do schedule activities for the same day/time, logistically, something comes up. I’m the person who deals with those things.
I prefer the following variations on this theme:
I rely on flexibility to respond to all the various last-minute situations that need tending to with my family. I find it difficult to schedule regular times to walk the dogs, exercise, or write. I would love to do all three of those things right when I wake up, but the tension of prioritizing which one to do regularly is anxiety-provoking. Therefore, I allow myself the freedom to do whichever one feels natural at the time.
Instead of doing something specific at a specific time, I have a habit of what I do on which days. For instance, I know which days I run, work out, do yoga, etc. So when I have time for exercise, I don’t think about what to do, I figure out when to do that particular form of exercise. That time tends to vary according to the day’s priorities. I do the same with food. I know which days I cook pasta, an international dish, beans, rice, soups, etc. I set aside an hour before dinner to cook and help with homework because I can generally do those at the same time and in the same place.
Have firm boundaries around work.
I have learned to have firm boundaries around when I work and when I do not work. Whatever I don’t get done during work hours is put off until the next day. This also helps me when scheduling clients, consultations, supervision, workshops, etc. I offer different types of work during different time blocks. This makes scheduling very easy. If I don’t have time to finish a project, I simply don’t have time. I go on to the next time block.
In the past, when I felt pressured to perform at a higher level, I ended up scheduling clients on multiple evenings and on weekends in order to accommodate them. This not only required more decision-making on my part, but it also invited anger and resentment toward myself. Adhering to boundaries shields me from unnecessary decisions and from getting mad at my own time-boundary violations.
Have firm boundaries around play.
I alluded to this above, but I feel that it deserves its own subheading because it is just as important. Don’t just fit in time to relax and play, schedule it and stick to it.
Read more about the importance of self-care for parents here: An Exploration of Good-Enough Parenting.
There are many creative ways we can rearrange our life and calendar to lower the number of decisions we make in a day. The main takeaway, to me, is that it is really important to understand human nature and to learn to work with it rather than view the troubling things we are doing and not doing through a pathological lens. Let’s be just as understanding of ourselves as we are of others.
Baumeister, R. F., Tice, D. M., & Vohs, K. D. (2018). The strength model of self-regulation: Conclusions from the second decade of willpower research. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(2), 141-145.