How Willpower and Decision Fatigue Impact Productivity

a month ago   •   4 min read

By Zero Machina

Making effective decisions is key to maximizing productivity.

But there are two important factors to consider when making decisions: willpower and decision fatigue.  Willpower is a precious resource that gets depleted when used, while decision fatigue causes you to make poorer choices. By understanding how they work, you can make better decisions and be more productive.

Let's address them head-on.

What Is Willpower?

According to author and entrepreneur James Clear, “willpower” refers to a person’s ability to control themselves and their decisions. It's the ability to delay gratification and stick to your long-term goals.

You use willpower when you’re trying to break a habit or start a new one. For example, if you’re trying to quit smoking, you’re using willpower to resist the urge to smoke.  Or, if you want to start working out, you’re using willpower to get yourself to the gym.

Your actions require willpower until they become habitual and automatic  This is an important point. Willpower is a finite yet renewable resource.  It gets depleted when used, but it can be replenished.

In short, willpower is the ability to make choices that are in line with your long-term goals.

What Is Decision Fatigue?

A person experiencing decision fatigue feels overwhelmed and exhausted when faced with too many decisions.

It's a state of mental overload. And as a result, it can impede your ability to make intelligent decisions. As the number of decisions increases, you'll start to feel mentally drained. As a result, the quality of your decision-making tends to get worse.

Decision fatigue also causes you to procrastinate or make choices that are not congruent with your goals. For example, you might decide to skip the gym even though you know you should go, or you might choose to binge-watch Netflix instead of working on a passion project.

How Do Willpower and Decision Fatigue Work Together?

The more decisions a person has to make throughout the day, the more their willpower depletes. As they get more fatigued, their ability to delay gratification wanes and they start seeking short-term rewards instead.

An excellent example of this phenomenon is displayed in a 2010 study published by the National Academy of Sciences.

This study looked at 1,112 judicial rulings made by parole board judges. The results showed that one of the greatest influences on the judges' decisions to release prisoners on parole was the time of day during which they made their ruling.

At the beginning of the day, judges gave favorable rulings approximately 65 percent of the time. As the morning continued, though, they became less and less likely to rule in the defendant’s favor.

Things changed after the judge took a lunch break. When they returned, their chances of giving a favorable ruling returned to 65 percent. Then, they'd steadily fall again, reaching zero by the end of the day.

This study suggests that willpower is like a muscle. Every decision is like performing a rep at the gym.  And it weakens over time in response to the number of decisions you make. As you make more decisions, your "willpower muscles" become fatigued. This leads to less favorable decisions over time.

How to Be More Productive by Managing Willpower and Decision Fatigue

Willpower is like a muscle and becomes fatigued with use. But it can also grow stronger with proper training, and more efficient with the right strategy.

Here are some tips that will help you strengthen willpower, minimize decision fatigue, and boost productivity.

1. Make Simple Decisions in Advance

One way to reduce decision fatigue is to make simple decisions in advance.

For example, you can lay out your clothes, prep your coffee station, and decide what you'll eat for breakfast before you head to bed. By making decisions in advance, you can avoid having to make them when you’re tired or pressed for time.

This will help you conserve your willpower for more important decisions.

2. Prioritize Your To-Do List

Another way to reduce decision fatigue is to prioritize your to-do list.

Start by identifying your most important task, then schedule it when you have peak energy. This could be first thing when you wake up, after a morning routine, or following a break.

Make sure you’re choosing tasks that will yield the greatest results and contribute to a productive day.

To do this, you might want to use a tool like the Eisenhower Matrix to evaluate tasks and identify the one you need to address first. Focus on quadrants 1 and 2 below:

"7 habits decision-making matrix," licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

3. Delegate and Eliminate

The Eisenhower Matrix can also help you identify the tasks that you can delegate or eliminate.

Using the graphic above, quadrant 3 involves urgent and non-important activities. You can delegate these tasks to an assistant or other team members.  This will free up your time and energy for more important decisions throughout the day.

Quadrant 4 includes activities that are neither urgent nor important. You can eliminate these tasks altogether to simplify your day and reduce decision fatigue.

4. Take Regular Breaks

Referencing the study earlier, parole board judges were more likely to give favorable rulings after their lunch break.

Breaks give your willpower time to recover so you can return to tasks with fresh energy and focus.

Schedule regular breaks throughout the day, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Take a walk outside, do some breathing exercises, or eat a healthy snack. All of these activities can help you reset and return to work feeling equipped to make wiser decisions.


Next Steps

Willpower is essential for productivity, but it’s also a finite resource. You can minimize decision fatigue and maximize productivity by using the strategies above. And remember, like any muscle, willpower can be trained and strengthened over time.

By the way, Undock is a tool that can help reduce decision fatigue throughout the day. It instantly proposes the best meeting times for all participants across different organizations and time zones–now, you can take all the guesswork out of scheduling. It also takes calendar holds into account so you don't have to manually throw out a million holds after proposing meetings.

Sign up and see how it works, it's free!

Spread the word

Keep reading