About Decision Fatigue and Ego Depletion
This episode covers the mechanism of decision fatigue and ego depletion, the effects on our lives, and how to overcome them.
So today I’m going to talk about two phenomena of the human brain that are heavily impacting our ability to take quality decisions and to maintain self control and apply will power. And these two phenomena are called ego depletion and decision fatigue. Now, first of all, let me start with giving a definition because there are like a parenting, but they are not entirely.
Same thing. Decision fatigue is referring to the process of deterioration of decision quality over a time period. Typically a day and you all know all that. When we are waking up in the morning, we are fresh, relaxed, and our brain is working perfectly. So the decision quality, according to studies, the maid is high.
So we are taking rationally based decisions. That are typically rendering desired outcomes as the day progressed. And we are making more of those decisions and we do have also emotional aspects kicking in. Then the, the quality of our decisions is going to be worse and worse. And that’s typically when we, for example, in the morning, a very healthy, rational decision is to go to the gym in the afternoon.
And we had this topic in a previous podcast. And then when at 5:00 PM, we should go to the gym. Our tired brain is making the decision not to go and . And in the previous podcast, I was referring to one aspect of that, and that is the different mind States we are in between the point of time when we are making the decision.
And the point in time when it comes to executing. Now the additional factor when it comes to executing, is that not only you are in a different mind state, because you may be tired, you may be distracted. You may have other things in your mind right now, but also the fact that there is the decision fatigue kicking in, right.
And by the time in the afternoon, when you are averting to go to the gym, that you are not going. You make a decision and that is a bad decision because your brain is tired as well as in a different state. And this decision you’re making is to simply not sticking to the original one, but to really decide and reconsider and not going.
So that is decision fatigue. In part, the other part is what is called ego depletion and ego depletion refers to the fact that over the day between the wake up and then a rest period or a break or a replenishment period, we have a decrease in self control and willpower. Which is also kicking in at 5:00 PM.
So your willpower to stick to the original, I go to the gym decision is weakened by the fact that your brain energy, your battery. As I call it is deeply. So studies actually show that ego depletion and decision fatigue are related to the fact that all these processes in the brain related to decision making self control and willpower are drawing from the same battery that is drained over the course of the day.
So there are a couple of studies that have been done effectively. They were many studies having been done this and this area. And one was search, a particularly active in their domain is Roy Baumeister and his team. So for example, in 1998 AIDS, they conducted a study where they led people, the choice between eating cookies or eating radishes.
So the task was to resist the temptation to eat cookies for five minutes in the subsequent exercise, the people had to solve difficult puzzles. And what the research team actually found is that those people who had to resist to eating the cookies were. Inclined to solve the puzzles for justice eight minutes, rather than the 21 minutes that those people were solving them puzzles that did not have to resist the temptation.
Plus they had the sugar intake from eating the cookies. So let’s see, imagine that you have to do something that is actually. Draining your willpower and draining yourself control for a pretty short period of time. Like you’re sitting in a meeting and you would like to say a, something and speak up and you just resist because you know that this is going to lead nowhere or it’s going to be counterproductive.
Then the chances are high that you are actually failing or you are client to give up on subsequent difficult tasks, more easily. There is a negative impact related to the Slack of self control and will power that Baumeister and ties showed in a study from 1997 and there, they found that people who procrastinate.
So they have a limited ability in regulating. Their use of time effectively. And these people are, are suffering from greater stress and health problems, others. So that’s an effect that this limited willpower management or self controlled management actually has as a secondary effect. So that is going to cause stress on health problems.
If people are tending to procrastinate, Another study that was conducted in 2010 by a team of searches with two parole boards of four prisons and SRL solar research team actually reviewed the outcomes of over 1,100 judiciary rulings in these parole boards representing. Like 50 days of rulings over a 10 month collection period.
So what these researchers found was that the proportion of favorable rulings was significantly declining as the day progressed and they were kicking up again. In favor of the subjects after the breaks. And that is really significant. If you’re looking at the graph in the show notes, you will find that in the morning when they’re started and after the breaks, the ratio of favorable rulings was around zero seven, zero eight, and it declined to virtually zero versus the end of that particular session.
Now, these are just three studies I quote around here, but there are many more out there. If you are interested in the subject area, just go and Google that ego depletion and decision fatigue. Now, what does tell us for our day to day life? Basically, we are all suffering from the fact that our brain has one single battery for self control, willpower, and decision making.
And over the day when we are using that energy, because we are continuously making decisions. And we continuously have to use willpower and also self control that better is depleting. And if we are not watching out to replenish that battery on various points throughout the day, we are at the risk of totally losing it by the afternoon or by the end of the day.
As an example, I have recently talked with one of my coaching clients. Let’s call him Eric, which is not his real name for obvious reasons. And in the first discussion we had about the topic, Eric came and said, Hey, Mark. I have trouble with like controlling my day in the morning. I create my plan for the day I lay out my agenda and I do know exactly when I have to do what, but in the middle morning, everything is fine.
I just follow the plan. But in the afternoon, regularly, each and every day I fall off the wagon. Why is that? Can you help me fix it? Now I am a big believer in awareness based change, which means that before you can actually change your habits or change the way you are doing things, you need to have awareness what you’re currently doing and how that is impacting either way positive or negative, the desired outcomes.
Based on that strategy, what I told Eric was to. For a period of two weeks measure certain key performance measures and to figure out what has current life looks like. The way we are doing that is we are slotting the day into like two hour slots from 6:00 AM. When he actually started his active day.
Down to 10:00 PM when it typically goes to bed in two hour slots. So like six to eight, eight to 10 and so on and so on. And for every two hour slot over these two weeks, he had to note on a scale from one low to 10 high, various key performance measures so that we could actually average over those two weeks and see what the curves would look like.
Now, these measures we are taking are typically including the general energy level of the person, the ability to focus on a particular task, the susceptibility. To distraction. So how easily somebody is being distracted from something and the level of creativity, like how easy is it in that particular time slot to execute creative task, like developing stories or PowerPoint?
Decks or whatever you need to do in business and so on and so on. And we are collecting this data typically over two weeks, we are then averaging out and we are going to show all that in graphs. And the particular example of Eric is attached below the show notes. So what we basically see here is that from a general energy level, as well as from the ability to focus.
We are starting out pretty high in the high range. And then generally speaking, we are declining over the day. Whereas the susceptibility to distraction is eventually starting on the low end and raising over the day. Now, depending on how the person is structuring their day. You can exactly see when they are doing breaks, when they’re doing meditation, when do they eat something light and healthy and so on?
So on was after those activities, the ability to focus on the energy level is typically going up, whereas the distractability is going down. Another phenomenon that is not intraday, but intra week. So to say is when people are not well regulating their energy level across multiple days, and they are not getting either enough sleep or enough sleep quality.
Is that the points where they are starting in the morning in terms of energy level focus distractability and so on. They are generally worsening all the time from basically Monday to Friday over their work week. And then they seem to recharge some sorts over the weekend. And then they are starting at the high end on Monday again, but all the week, every day, the are like starting one point lower or half a point lower than the previous day.
And that is a clear indication that they don’t get enough sleep. They don’t get enough recovery across the day. And overall they are unable to really thrive at peak performance levels. Well, I do not define peak performance as having continuously high output 24 seven. But what you want to have is the balance between output and input between delivery and recovery, between the energy expenditure and the energy intake of some sort.
Now let’s talk about strategies to cope. What can we do in order to actively manage our ego depletion, our willpower depletion and our decision fatigue. And the sense of awareness space change. The first thing to do is to know yourself, right? So there are a couple of things you need to understand. One is what is your intraday curves looking like in terms of key performance measures?
So you would want to make sure, sure. Your general energy level, you would measure your. The ability to focus your distractibility and any other measures that matter to what your day looks like. The other important aspect is to understand your sleep. What is your sleep routine? What is your sleep quality?
And sleep is a very big topic for me because over the years I’ve found that most of the people don’t manage their sleep quality. And their sleep routines properly. So it is important that you give your brain, that your body is sufficient time in the evening to wind down so that when you go to bed, you actually do sleep right.
And then throughout the night, you’re really recovering. The other topic is what are you doing when you’re getting up? What is the first. Half an hour. What is the first hour of every day looking like for you? That is really important in order to prime yourself for having a day ahead, that is actually directly tid towards what you want to do, what you want to achieve.
Then decides which decisions you want to put on autopilots, because there are many decisions that we are taking throughout the day that actually can be put on autopilot. So you don’t have to think about all of these things. Over and over again, and expense decision energy on things where inherently you would not have to decide each and every day over and over again.
So there are a couple of topics in here and aspects in here. That we can look into. So one is the overall daily routine. How do you structure your day typically for most of the people, their work days, their off days, what is your standard daily routine looking like? And that significantly depends on the outcomes of your key performance measurements.
For example, when is generally a good time for you to be creative, when is a good time for you to do deep work? When is a good time for you to just work down your emails that does not require so much brand power than eventually being creative. And having these deep thinking and deep working,
think about what you’re wearing every day. And as for me, I do have a very simple dress code, either formal or informal. And the informal one is composed of t-shirt middleware and jeans. I do have a selection in my cupboard and I just go from top to down and from left to right. So where I am wearing different stuff every day, I don’t have to think about it because everything’s like sorted and I just pick the stuff that is either left most or top most.
In my cupboard, there are a couple of famous leaders that have the, of varying the same clothes every day. So for example, the late Steve jobs was famous for his turtleneck and jeans. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is varying a great t-shirt every day and so on. So is that something that you want to implement as well?
Because. Deciding on what you wear every day is one decision you can actually avoid also food. Let’s talk about food. I am eating very honestly, most of the days, not the same thing, but I do have a like limited choice. That I draw from that has nothing to do with, um, not liking any food or, you know, like not caring about the taste, but it is really easing up my life because I don’t have to take every day, the decision, Oh, what do I cook for, for my dinner?
And that is really very helpful also because most of the things that I’m typically cooking are like very easy and they are like fast made. So I don’t have to actually spend a lot of time with selecting my food and cooking. Working out at the gym or running or whatever you’re doing in terms of sports is also something that you may want to put on autopilot.
It’s not useful. I think to decide each and every day. Oh today, do I go to the gym? Don’t I go to the gym? What am I doing? It’s more useful to have like fixed days and times in your weekly and monthly agenda, where you have the decision that you make once. What is my workout plan? Looking like week over week.
Rather than deciding every day. And once it is in your monthly or weekly calendar, then you just follow up on implementing and going and the work field for regular meetings. It’s also something to put on autopilot. When do you have your regular one to ones with your key stake holders, whatever. And the same thing goes for.
Deep work times so well, depending on the measurements in the KPMs key performance measurements that you took, what is the regular deep work times? What is through regular email processing times? What is the regular you name at times? In your work schedule that you want to have in there every day. If possible, I told him realizing that not everybody is in a position to plan their work agenda with total control.
A to Z, because they are dependencies on availability of other people on deadlines that you have to meet, et cetera, et cetera. But if you really go after it, you will find that at the high level, for deep work times, meeting times, creativity, times and so on. There is a possibility to actually preplan them and to fit them into your agenda.
If you leave sufficient room for flexibility as like quiet for you specifically. Eliminating distractions is another really important aspect because inhibition from a brain perspective is costly. So when you do have a phone call an SMS, a message, a Facebook messenger message, a Facebook. Um, events, notification or anything coming in on your phone, on your iPad, on your screen, whatever you are currently focusing on is momentarily leaving your working memory and is replaced by the attack for the, the incoming disruption.
Now what happens even if you are clicking away the alerts on the screen or on the phone? The damage in terms of attention is already done on a brand level. So what happens is your working memory is basically unloaded it’s reloaded with the dealing of distraction and then unloaded again and reloaded with your original focus.
So what research found is that with every distraction, We are losing focus, time measured in minutes, and that is acquiring the switch from one context to the other. That’s really, really costly. So it’s not just clicking away the Bing and then your back. But manfully speaking is really takes lots of energy and lots of time that you can avoid by just eliminating all these distractions upfront.
Planning for intraday recovery is very important when I start working with clients and we are going over their daily agendas very often. I do see. Back to back meetings. I see working slots in the most ideal cases. I see working slots and meetings, interspersed one with each other, but still there is so much back to back stuff in there.
And most of the time the luxury would be a one hour lunch break. Now the point is that nobody can maintain their attention, their focus, and their brain energy level, as high as the quiet for all of these activities. And to end, as we have explained them, the first part, there is a need to recover and to replenish the brain battery intraday at various opportunities, just to make sure.
That you are not running down to zero at any point in time, there are a couple of things that are like easy to implement and that really help. One is to meditate. You have certainly heard that time over and over again. And the question here is, are you really planning for like 10 minutes meditation every two hours, or at least once in the morning, once in the afternoon, because that is giving you a very high boost in terms of brain energy.
There are studies around that. Yeah. And I just recommend everybody to plan like one 10 minute slot in the morning and one 10 minute slot in the afternoon in order to just wind down a little bit, we plan this your brain. Food is the other important thing. And when we look into what people eat over lunch, especially when they’re going to the corporate cantines, um, much of the food that we are seeing here is not really ideal.
It’s too heavy. It’s too heavy in carb load, whatever. So clearly this is not a podcast about how you should eat, but. Choose your food wisely and make sure that whatever you take in is really giving you an energy boost. Because often I see that people’s KPM curves are going down after the lunch or after a four o’clock snack or whatever ever just the recommendation be really conscious about what you eat.
And there are lots of other things you could do to replenish. For example, take a walk, go to the gym. Why can’t you go to the gym throughout the day? Like over lunch break or something like that, or go to a run, whatever helps you to get out of the energy expenditure and get into the recovery mode.
Regarding of days. I noticed a tendency of people that are really under high pressure on work days, too, to the exact opposite on their off days. It’s like basically doing nothing, not having a plan, getting up late, sleeping in. And then they can’t get to sleep on a decent time, which means that, you know, like sleeping maybe at midnight and then getting up at 6:00 AM and the Monday morning is not really ideal.
So the very first thing I recommend everybody is not making a difference in sleep schedule between the workdays or the on days and the off days. It sounds a bit strange. If you have to get up at 5:00 AM for a work day to also get up at 5:00 AM on a off day, however, from a biological and brain rhythm state, that’s the best thing you can do.
And whenever. I have a client and he tried, or she tried to implement that. The first reaction was, Oh, no, I don’t want to do it, do that. But after three to four weeks of following through, they realized that it would give them lots of benefits in terms of energy level and terms of regularity and routine.
So that ultimately they draw lots of benefits from it. So totally not having a plan for the off days is not necessarily a good thing, because then you’re going to overload yourself again with decision making and linking back to the procrastinators that are unable, or that have limited ability to use their time in a planned way.
And that increases their stress level. Um, in the same way we may experience increased threat levels on the off days, if we are just navigating them as they come, rather than having at least a high level plan. So active recovery on the off days is really an important aspect. Keeping the rhythm is an important aspect and also having a high level plan really makes sense.
So to recap on this episode, we have been talking about decision fatigue about ego depletion and willpower depletion, and the strategies, how to cope with them. Current signs indicates that there is just one battery in our brains that is draining. When we are taking decisions when we have to control ourselves, when we have to inhibit undesired behavior based on outside impulses, and there is a need for us to actually plan for.
Intraday activities that help us to better manage the energy level and to pull in recovery points or recovery, the walls in our pact workdays. So with that, I want to close for today. I hope you enjoyed, but more. Important that you got value out of this podcast episode, please head over to marckilian.com.
That’s m a r c k i l i a n.com. Or theconsideredlife.blog, the considered life is written as one word to get more insight about my work and what I’m doing. So also you can leave your feedback. You can ask any questions that you want and see you in the next episode. That’s coming soon until then enjoy and lead a considered life.