You only have a certain amount of energy each day. When you make decisions, you deplete that energy and get tired and cranky. Continuing to make good decisions gets harder the more fatigued you become.
I struggle a lot with food. I make great choices for breakfast and lunch. I do my best to snack on plain almonds throughout the day. But by the time dinner and evening come, my patience and willpower drop to zero.
I develop a lethal combination of being hungry and angry, or “hangry.” Blue Bell makes a homemade vanilla ice cream flavor I find addicting. It’s difficult to deny myself a tasty bowl when I’m in such a vulnerable mood.
My clients have gone through the same problem with money. It’s hard to deny yourself pleasure when you don’t have the willpower to fight it. Often, it’s kids or friends wanting something. The kids want a new toy or some fast food. Friends want to get craft beer or pedicures.
I struggle with saying no to others, too. I almost never reject an invitation to go grab a drink or a bite to eat. Restaurants get expensive with artisanal cocktails.
If you struggle with this issue, you are not alone. The world of psychology and behavioral economics has a term called “decision fatigue.” It’s a phrase you can learn to help you fight your impulses. Late-night infomercials take advantage of it and prisoners applying for parole should, too.
Decision Fatigue Explained
Decision fatigue is when you tend to make easy decisions when you become tired. Rash or default decisions take a lot less energy. The most famous example is from a study of parole judges. Every day, parole judges hear case after case of prisoners asking to be released on parole.
The judges must decide whether to grant or reject a prisoner’s request. Most prisoners are rejected. The act of rejecting parole is the default decision.
The study found judges were far more likely to grant parole in the morning or after breaks. It seemed lunch and other breaks gave the judges time to relax and recharge. Their energy was renewed enough to spend more time on parole decisions. Later in the day, the default decision of denying parole was far more common.
As I mentioned before, this happens between me and food. I choose a good breakfast and plain almonds as snacks. But as the day gets longer and I get tired, my energy to keep making those choices gets depleted. I end up choosing the easy, default decision. Sweet, sweet Blue Bell ice cream.
The first change you need to make is to assume your willpower will be down to zero at some point in the future. It may even happen every day, and you need to prepare for it. Below are four tips to get ready.
1. Make Poor Decisions Hard to Choose
Making it hard to choose poor decisions is a great way to protect yourself. You can’t eat the Oreos in the cupboard if they aren’t there. When it comes to money, a great way to do this is to switch to cash. When you stop using a credit or debit card for fun purchases, cash has two major benefits. The first is the psychological and emotional pain you feel when cash leaves your wallet. The second is when the cash is gone, you’re done.
2. Suggest Other Ideas
Having a list of alternate ideas will prepare you for dealing with friends and family. Sharing food or drinks at home is much cheaper than going out to a restaurant. When your friends want to go out for wine, suggest you share a bottle at home on someone’s porch. If some friends want to go out to eat, suggest having a small potluck. The joy of sharing time with friends and family can happen at much lower prices.
3. Rules of Thumb
Create codes to live by and use them to make decisions. The benefit of using rules of thumb is you don’t have to think. The decision has already been made and is ingrained into your life. One of my rules is black coffee is the standard. Sugar, cream, and syrups are treats for special occasions. You probably have rules of thumb you already live by but forgot you made them. Create some more to help you automatically choose better options.
4. Make the Good Stuff Easy
Make responsible decisions easy to choose. An emergency fund works great because it’s cash that waits to be used instead of credit cards. If you want to save money grocery shopping, walk into a Wal-Mart instead of Whole Foods. Setting yourself up for success is important, and failing to plan is planning to fail.
In reality, you may have a bunch of situations you want to change. Pick one and decide which of these four tips (maybe all of them) will help you. Make a plan and try it. Since you are human, you will probably make a mistake. As long as you learn something new, you’re doing something right.