When in Doubt, Sleep on It!

September 22, 2011
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Ever wondered why you feel completely exhausted after making huge budgetary decisions?  Perhaps you’ve planned a wedding you financed yourself or like me, gutted and remodeled your kitchen.  There are so many decisions to be made with limited resources and the experience often renders people feeling completely depleted.  If this sounds familiar, the good news is that you are not lazy, weak or alone.

In a recent study of one million people worldwide, researchers found that most viewed self-control as their greatest weakness and character failure.

New York Times author John Tierney and social psychologist Roy Baumeister recently co-authored a book titled “Willpower: The Greatest Human Strength,” which looks at how willpower and decision-making are interconnected.  In it, they conclude that willpower really is a form of energy in the brain. Like the rest of our body’s muscles, it can be strengthened and fatigued with use.  Tierney stated “You only have a finite amount [of willpower] as you go through the day, so you should be careful to conserve it and try to save it for the emergencies.”

Baumeister coined this new discover decision fatigue as it involves a phenomenon called an ego depletion.  Decision fatigue explains why sensible people become angry at colleagues, friends and family members, splurge while shopping and buy junk food at the grocery store.  No matter how rational people try to behave, they simply cannot make a decision without paying a biological price.  It turns out that willpower really is a form of mental energy that can be exhausted.

The exhaustion is not the same as ordinary physical fatigue.  Instead, one becomes low on mental energy or willpower as decisions are made throughout the day.  Each decision becomes more difficult for your brain to process so it searches for shortcuts.  Either you become hasty by acting impulsively instead of expending the energy you normally would when evaluating a decision’s consequences, or you simply do nothing.  At times the fear of agonizing over decisions causes people to avoid making a decision altogether.

An example underscoring the impacts of decision fatigue shows how three men doing time at an Israeli prison were awarded parole.  The time assigned was not related to the men’s ethnic backgrounds, crimes or sentences, rather the timing of the reviews.  Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.  The mental depletion of ruling on case after day, all day long, clearly wore the parole members down.

The most important insights that should be gleaned from this study are:

  1. If you’re vying for a promotion or a raise, schedule the conversation with the decision maker for late afternoon when his/her willpower has been worn down over the course of the day.
  2. When in doubt over a new hire, purchase or anything else that impacts limited resources, ‘sleep on it.’ Get some rest before making a rash decision when your willpower is low.

This post is brought to you by the good folks at Dale Carnegie Training of Central & Southern New Jersey. We would love to connect with you on Facebook and Twitter @CarnegieJersey

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