Decision Fatigue

Whenever you commit to a new health & fitness goal...

It will be at a time when your motivation is sky high.

You'll typically set an ambitious target and a strict time-frame (possibly overly ambitious?)

And you'll tell yourself something along the lines of...

"I'll get a programme that produces the results I want... and follow it perfectly!"

To be clear... Setting ambitious goals is a good thing!

And so is creating accountability and discipline through setting voluntary deadlines.

But it's also important to make sure that your goal is realistically achievable (nothing will kill your motivation quicker than realising that you completely overestimated your possible rate of progress and that your goal is actually a lot more challenging than you first thought).

So... while making sure that you're maintaining a sense of optimism (as this is also vital for motivation)...

Remember you are human... not a robot!

How Many Decisions Do You Think You Make Every Day... How Many 'Good' Decisions Do You Think You Can Make Every Day?

The assumption that you will maintain "perfection" 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, is not only unnecessary to achieve most goals... but sadly, it's also unrealistic!

Firstly, if you are truly interested in long-term results, you need to remember that maintaining a programme (and therefore maintaining the results of that programme), means that the initial programme itself needs to be sustainable.

Secondly, unless you have a very good reason not to, you will probably want to find a balance between achieving noticeable progress, while also preserving a large proportion of your previous lifestyle (spending time with family, your social life, freedom to enjoy your favourite food and drink, etc etc...)

Then... we also have to acknowledge that there is a limit to how many "perfect" decisions and actions we can consciously make.

Just like your muscles during a workout or a run...

Your decision making "muscle" gets tired.

This is "decision fatigue".

It applies on a micro and macro scale...

Meaning that there is a very good reason why you make bad choices;

  • late in a short-term event... eg. you finish a workout and then rush, or skip, your cooldown and stretches (usually the "easiest" part of the workout) despite knowing perfectly well that you are risking negative consequences

  • late in the day... eg. food choices (think about the food decisions that you regret the most... they're likely to happen later in the day or after a stressful situation. You don't crave dessert after breakfast... right?)

  • late in the week... eg. "It's Friday... I've had a long week... lets order takeaway!)

Most of us usually feel guilty about these apparently "bad" decisions. Later on, when we return to a more rational state of mind, we question why we have done something that contradicts our long-term goals.

The reality is, it's possible that you just ran out of conscious 'decision making energy'... and the instinctive, impulsive, subconscious part of your brain took over.

"So it's not my fault then?"

Yes and no...

Decision fatigue is very real... and it will affect anyone if you ask them to spend enough time throughout the day making decisions.

Some people might have a little more decision making endurance than others... but it's definitely not limitless...

As we said, you are human... and humans have limits. That is clearly not your fault.

However, that doesn't mean that you can't do anything about it... (see below)

Decision Fatigue In The Real World...

In case you're thinking that decision fatigue is just a theory, or something that can be easily ignored now that you're aware of it... consider the following examples of decision fatigue in the real world;

  • shops and supermarkets will often deliberately place special offers and low cost "extras" (chocolates and sweets) close to the checkouts. They are fully aware, that not only will you be forced to stand directly next to those items while queueing, but because you're at the end of your shop, you are far more likely to be experiencing a greater degree of decision fatigue compared to when you walked in. In other words, your discipline is likely to be reduced, and you are more likely to pick up a spontaneous 'treat'. (Was that really your choice?)

  • have you noticed that higher priced items are usually ones that come with the most optional extras? After thinking long & hard about buying, perhaps negotiating back & forth over price, and eventually making the decision to buy - you are less able to make further rational decisions. A good salesman knows this... and this is when they reveal the list of extras... which you are now far more likely to agree to, having been encouraged to suffer from decision fatigue. Again... did you really make that decision yourself?

  • and if you think decision fatigue only affects relatively trivial decision-making... Even when the stakes are high, decision making ability is vulnerable to fatigue. Studies have observed the decision making of parole boards and judges, and discovered that once all other variables have been accounted for (seriousness of the offence committed, show of remorse, percentage of sentence completed etc), a prison inmate is more likely to be granted parole if he/she has their hearing earlier in the day versus later in the day. The suggestion being that as the day wears on, and the judges become more and more fatigued during the series of hearings, their decision making reverts to an instinctive comfort zone, rather than carefully considering all aspects of the decision... in this case, unfortunately for the inmates who have their parole hearing scheduled for the late afternoon, that means being more likely to err on the side of caution by denying parole. (Similarly, a judge is more likely to hand down a harsher sentence in the first place if they do so later in the day).

  • Barack Obama famously explained that he deliberately wore the same, or very similar suits and ties every day while he was the U.S President. This was a conscious attempt to reduce the need for trivial decision making. If you know that you are going to spend most of your day making potentially life and death decisions, do you really want to be "wasting" decisions on choosing your outfit every morning? While most of us don't quite have the same responsibility placed on our shoulders... there are clear parallels to your health & fitness. If you are waking up early for a workout, and you have not already packed your gym bag and at already decided what you will be having for breakfast, that means that you are going to have to make a series of decisions immediately after waking. Seems simple enough... but how might the accumulation of decisions affect your decision making when it comes to food choices later, or deciding whether to walk or drive to work? (A simple solution would be to make these relatively easy decisions before bed the night before).

So you can see that decision fatigue affects everyone. It isn't something you can simply ignore.

One interesting note on decision fatigue, and it's apparent relationship with willpower, is that while most of us do have a limited amount of willpower, the effect is greater in those who already believe that they lack willpower... a self-fulfilling prophecy. So while there is probably a limit to anybody's willpower... a potential solution (although not easy to put into practice) is to develop a more positive mindset.

Note: the key words being 'practice' and 'develop'. Mindset is a tricky area to work on. Your beliefs about yourself, whether positive or negative, are likely to be deep-rooted. Accept that taking a more positive and optimistic view of your life-long habits, and your ability, to change them, is probably going to take some work. Nobody should be expecting to simply wake up tomorrow and think more positively... You will need to treat this similarly to your physical fitness... design a programme/method and follow it consistently to gradually reap the rewards.

Also, understand that the importance of decisions is not that relevant. Obviously a major, potentially life changing decision will require more brain power than deciding what to put in your sandwich... but ALL decisions contribute to decision fatigue (hence Obama's clothing choice strategy). And for most of us... it's actually the overwhelming number of small decisions that we make everyday that are causing us to make poor decisions, potentially affecting our long-term health and fitness. (Having said that... it's no coincidence that most of us will usually make more spontaneous decisions, such as food choices, after a stressful or emotionally exhausting experience).

Modern Decision Making...

The amount of information that we are exposed to, and therefore have to try to process, and make decisions upon, has increased exponentially throughout our evolution...

  • access to worldwide news 24 hours a day, including constant updates through apps on your phone - you try to keep up with politics, you need to know what your favourite celebrities are up to, there's a catastrophe somewhere, the environment is being destroyed etc etc...

  • the endless updates of thousands of peoples daily lives through social media, and the decisions that you have to make based on that information - what do you post on your own timeline? How much effort do you need to put in to make sure your post gets plenty of likes? Who do you follow? Who do you respond to?

  • more TV series and films than you could possibly ever watch on Netflix, Amazon etc... people often 'joke' that they spend more time choosing a film than watching it...

  • websites, youtube videos, blogs about every/any topic that can be imagined...

  • constant exposure to marketing and advertising (including the subliminal ads that you process without realising)

  • fashion trends, music trends... generally trying to keep up with "what everybody else is doing"

And that's before you even try to manage your personal relationships or go to work and try to focus on doing your job, which is likely to require many more decisions!

The point is, it's easy to see how you can get mentally fatigued.

It might seem like the above doesn't require too much actual decision making, but it does... you probably just aren't aware that you are making tens/hundreds/thousands of subtle decisions about all of that information as you consciously or subconsciously become exposed to it. And if we assume that there is a limited number of good quality decisions that we are able to make each day... what happens when we are 'wasting' them on the above?

And the one thing that's missing from the list? all of the decisions that are part and parcel of your health & fitness programme.

Once your brain has processed all of that other information, and made hundreds/thousands of decisions in a single day...

Do you really think you are going to have the bandwidth left to maintain perfect workout, diet & lifestyle decisions 100% of the time?

In this context, we usually wrongly identify decision fatigue as "a lack of willpower or motivation".

Again, this has nothing to do with "motivation" or "being lazy"! The fact that you have a goal and a fitness programme shows that you are motivated! Even if you do continue to make "bad" decisions.

We're Supposed To Conserve Energy...

To help understand why our instinctive decisions are usually seen as 'negative' ones... it's worth remembering that, as humans, our evolutionary instincts are not designed to help us deliberately exercise and manipulate our diets to achieve a specific goal (especially weight/fat loss).

Quite the opposite...

As humans evolved, our number one priority was obviously survival... and maintaining the energy to do so was not as easy as it is now. Food was significantly harder to find and we faced much greater physical threats to our safety.

Energy (in the form of food), was scarce, and we were more likely to need to expend significant amounts of energy to cope with or defend ourselves against those threats.

So survival often depended on conserving energy as much as possible, and making sure that we had enough left over when needed.

In other words, being instinctively lazy... only burning off a lot of energy when absolutely necessary, was an evolutionary advantage.

And this was the case for millions of years... shaping our instincts until now.

These instincts haven't left us. Our default impulse is still to conserve energy, and/or to obtain more energy - aka eating (to this day, more or less every technological invention that we have ever used was invented to make our lives physically "easier" or to increase food security).

As a result, if you wish to achieve a specific body shape, reduce fat, build muscle... you now have to make a deliberate effort to make "good" decisions that require you to apply effort (exercise), say no to high energy (and tasty) foods when you don't "need" them, taking the time to cook fresh food instead of ordering takeaway...

Once decision fatigue sets in, you will start to gradually return to your lazy, evolutionary instincts (again... this doesn't meant that you are lazy!)... and abandon the more positive habits that produce positive results, but require more effort!

So What Can You Do About It?

The point of decision fatigue, just like muscle fatigue, is that it builds over time.

Think of your ability to make a single decision like a 'rep' when you're training with weights (except you'll be far less aware of decision fatigue!)...

The early reps in each set are obviously going to be easier, smoother and more likely to be performed with correct form, compared to the reps at the end of the set which are going to be affected by fatigue.

So if you can identify patterns of 'bad decision making' later in the day, such as regularly skipping workouts after work...

A simple solution is to move that workout to an earlier time. This might seem obvious... but turning up to 95% of your workouts, instead of 60%, is going to very quickly pay dividends and show visible results... so it's worth reinforcing.

And although an earlier start may seem unappealing, the reality is that if you schedule your workouts earlier in the day, you are far less likely to make a "bad decision" by skipping the workout simply due to decision fatigue (plus you decrease the chances of something happening before your workout which would otherwise give a genuine reason for cancelling).

And this doesn't just apply to workouts...

Even if your workout time remains later in the day, you can bring forward all of the "preparation decisions" that are required before that workout.

For example, you can plan the workout in detail, plan and prepare your pre-workout meal, pack your gym bag etc... all the day before... So rather than relying on perfect decision making at all times... remove the decisions which can/do go wrong and would sabotage your programme if left undealt with.

You can further remove the need to make decisions by forming non-negotiable habits...

You already have a number of habits that you will maintain regardless of how physically and mentally tired you are... brushing your teeth before bed, showering daily etc...

So think about how you can you integrate your health and fitness plan into your daily routine in a way that makes it automatic, rather than something you need to think about and 'decide' to do?


- exercise at the same time everyday (don't leave it until the day to figure out a schedule)

- commit to walking to work instead of driving (attach the activity/movement to something that you are already doing daily)

- write down recipes that fit in with your diet goals (rather than making up meals as you go along)

- reduce choices - same breakfast everyday for example? (without sacrificing the 'joy' of eating or negatively affecting your nutrition)

- buy your favourite workout outfit multiple times and wear the same thing every time (like Obama)

The point is simply to try to remove as many decisions as possible (even if they seem trivial... In fact, that is the point, as these are the decisions that are going to accumulate and "waste" the greatest amount of energy)

Thirdly, you can try to reduce the severity of decision fatigue by addressing other issues that might compound the problem;

- a positive attitude towards your willpower (remember what we said about the self-fulfilling prophecy of viewing your own willpower negatively)

- prioritise sleep (at least start each day with as much focus as possible)

- eat! (stay fuelled, don't give your subconscious any more distractions to deal with than necessary)

- leave your phone alone! (reduce pointless, attention grabbing screen time - especially social media!)

- practice meditation and/or yoga (learn how to process your thoughts and focus attention)

Holistic Benefits...

It's worth remembering... the benefits of reducing/avoiding decision fatigue will carry over into every aspect of your life, not just health & fitness.

While it's impossible to make perfect decisions all of the time, most of us would benefit from a higher proportion of quality decision making throughout our daily routines...

If you're staying up late to meet a work deadline, shopping late in the day, or frankly doing anything important while experiencing decision fatigue... be aware that you are far more likely to be impulsive, reckless, or simply look to take shortcuts. This isn't laziness, and you can't simply "focus more"! So generally, it's perhaps worth knowing when to make big decisions, and when to leave them until the next day.

But certainly from a health & fitness perspective, thinking about how you can automate your process, or rearrange your routine to at least mitigate the effects of this common pitfall, is definitely a worthwhile exercise.