Each choice you make throughout the day can effect how and whether you make later decisions. This effect is called decision fatigue. Decision fatigue has been studied by a number of psychologists- most with the same results. The result being that making a great deal of decisions is more likely to reduce will power and self discipline throughout the day.
The more decisions you make, the more difficult each choice is for your brain to make which may result in two outcomes– 1) avoiding decisions, 2) being impulsive.
So you want that cookie? Or maybe the new shoes in the store window? A bigger laptop or television perhaps?
Research shows that we are more likely to cave into that cookie or bigger laptop or pair of shoes later in the day than we are at the start. In fact, a study found that women who had their brains scanned both before and after a being given a mentally depleting task had an increase in activity in the reward center of the brain and decreased activity in the impulse control area of the brain. So when these women were shown food choices after this mentally depleting task, the impulse control for food was much weaker while the appeal was much stronger.
Does this sound like a familiar pattern to anyone? I know that after a long day, I am more inclined to give into temptations. I hear this frequently from my patients too…”I do great in the morning and at lunch, but evening is my most difficult time for snacking”. You are not alone and you are not an anomaly. The complexity of the brain and decision making process leads us to this result. But this post is not a hall pass for smoking behind the gym (or whatever the cool kids do these days). The solution lies within a plan.
It is part of the Health Holiday Series because decision fatigue around the holidays is much more likely. On top of your everyday life and decision making, throw in a whole slew of other decisions—Who’s family Christmas gets knocked off the list? What gifts to buy (or not to buy)? Should we go to Susan’s holiday party? Are all of the visitors staying at our house? Do I need to dust before everyone comes? You get the picture….
This same research, found that a steady supply of glucose from proteins and healthy vegetables can help temporarily improve self-control. However, a temporary solution is not always ideal. So here are my thoughts on how to avoid decision fatigue and the pitfalls that will come with it.
It might sound too simple. But creating an environment where decisions about food occurs less frequently will help keep you from reaching for the soda or hitting the drive thru when you are mentally exhausted. Start your meal planning now, not when you are knee deep in snow and Santa wrapping paper.
Rid your home of temptations.
When mental exhaustion hits, reaching above the refrigerator for the “hidden stash” is too easy. Don’t make it easy on yourself, make it hard. Removing those all too tempting foods from your house (or car) adds an extra step of effort to your day. And if you are anything like me, the last thing I want to do after a long day is to have to go back into the world for something sweet. I keep sugar free popsicles in my freezer just for that instance.
Get on a regular schedule.
Do not force yourself to go to bed at a certain time, get a workout in, or eat breakfast. Make it part of your schedule. When you do something only sporadically, you have to make the decision to do it. Everyday tasks, like brushing your teeth, are not as mentally taxing because they are part of your regular habits. Make your meals, workouts, and sleep habits consistent everyday and save your will power (or brain power) for the important stuff.
Remember, this Healthy Holiday Series is about building on our habits to make this holiday season easier and healthier. How are you going to make improvements this month for your health? ~Lauren