Over the summer, New York Times science columnist John Tierney wrote about “decision fatigue”, a recent discovery that willpower gets depleted with use throughout the day, much like a muscle. His most interesting example came from an Israeli prison parole board: prisoners who went before judges early in the morning received parole 65% of the time; those who went late in the day won parole 10% of the time. Why? After 4pm, judges were low on mental energy and decided to punt on the willpower-demanding decision of whether to let a prisoner go free.

I was thrilled to find out that this was an excerpt from a new book, Willpower, by Tierney and Florida State social psychologist Roy Baumeister, the leading researcher on the topic. For the first time in my life I pre-ordered a book – and it lived up to my expectations.

The decision fatigue research – while fascinating and a core premise of the book – is the focus of only one chapter and I found many other parts of the book even more interesting and applicable. The topics range from to-do lists to Mint.com to dieting, parenting and drug addiction.

Here are my 3 biggest takeaways from the book – things that I’m using to try to increase my willpower and improve my decision-making at work and beyond.

1. Good routines and habits are the key to self-control.

One of the discoveries that most surprised Baumeister and his colleagues is that people with the most self-control actually use willpower less than others. How? They focus their willpower on the “precommitment” stage: setting up effective routines like, say, writing 3 pages of their book every day or running 3 miles every morning. As the authors put it, “they use their self-control not to get through crises but to avoid them.” When a challenging task or decision does arise, they have plenty of willpower stored up to tackle it.

In the past I often had to make all of the following decisions in the morning, before starting something substantive at work:

  1. What time should I get out of bed?
  2. Should I exercise now or at lunch or after work?
  3. What exercise should I do? Lift? Swim? Yoga?
  4. Where should I work today? Office, home, or library?
  5. How should I deal with these 15 emails that came in since last night? (That’s really 15 additional decisions.)
  6. What project should I work on first?

Most of these seem trivial, but each of them sapped my mental energy enough that by the time I started real work on the first project of the day, my willpower was already far below full strength. By late afternoon, my reserves were often close to empty.

Now I strive to eliminate all 6 of these early-morning decisions – and the additional decisions and willpower drain that go along with that first run through email – by setting these routines:

  • Get to the pool by 6:00am every day.
  • Go to the office every day unless planned otherwise in advance.
  • Don’t check email before 11am. Ever.
  • Schedule in advance the first project you’re going to work on that day.

Tackling that first project has become much more do-able with this set-up, which is good because I’m also following this advice …

2. Schedule your most difficult task for first thing in the day.

This has become common advice among self-help gurus. But “decision fatigue” is the first compelling explanation I’ve heard for why this strategy works.

I hate writing proposals and used to put them off until the end of the day, where they would drag on as my willpower waned. Now I’m trying to schedule them for the start of the day, and I find I make much faster, better, and more painless decisions about pricing, schedules, and scope of work.

3. Use clear, unambiguous rules when setting resolutions.

Like many people, I’ve struggled to control the impulse to constantly check email at work. In the last couple years, as I’ve realized how much of a productivity drain email is, I’ve become more disciplined in this area; but during stressful times when my willpower is spent, I still lapse back into spastic inbox checking.

My previous rule regarding email – only check email first thing in morning, after lunch, and at the end of the day – wasn’t bad, and it certainly helped. But after reading Willpower, I realized that it was too vague. When making resolutions, we overestimate the level of willpower we’ll have in the heat of the moment, and we underestimate how easy it will be to take advantage of ambiguity in rules in ways that defeat their purpose (e.g. “It’s 4pm … that’s sort of the ‘end of the day’ right?”).

To change ingrained behavior, you need “bright lines” – lines you can’t help but notice when you’ve crossed them. My new rule: only check your inbox 2 times a day, the first time not before 11am and the second time not before 4pm.

Using another strategy from the book (self-monitoring), I mark in a spreadsheet when I go astray of my rule. And by linking to that dorky spreadsheet from this article, I’m using yet another principle: public information has more impact than private information. I’ll let you know how I do, on our blog …

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