11 Surprising Things That Affect Your Willpower And Decision Making
Mark Zuckerberg wears the same gray T-shirt every day.
Being a boring dresser helps him take care of his brain, the Facebook CEO says.
"I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible," he explained in a recent Q&A.
A growing body of research shows that the willpower used in decision-making is like a muscle.
As Florida State psychologist Roy Baumeister details in his book "Willpower: The Greatest Human Strength," you can only use so much willpower in a given day.
That's why many executives, like Zuck, avoid tapping into their willpower reserves by limiting the number of decisions they have to make. "I feel like I'm not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life," he said.
As Baumeister's research has revealed, willpower and decision-making are interconnected. The house you grew up in, the number of decisions you made today, and what your friends are doing all affect your decisions in weird ways.
To increase your willpower, minimize the number of decisions you have to make each day.
Zuckerberg isn't alone; Barack Obama is a boring dresser, too.
He's always clad in a blue or gray suit.
"I'm trying to pare down decisions," he told Vanity Fair. "I don't want to make decisions about what I'm eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make."
Obama isn't the only one concerned for his decisions: A 2011 study of 1 million people around the world found that people think that self-control is their biggest weakness or character failure.
Make your most important decisions in the morning, before you experience "ego depletion."
Baumeister and other decision researchers talk about "ego depletion," which states that you only have so much mental energy to make decisions or exercise self-control in a given day.
The term is a nod to Sigmund Freud, the Austrian doctor who invented psychoanalysis.
"Freud speculated that the self, or ego, depended on mental activities involving the transfer of energy," the New York Times reports. "[His] experiments demonstrated that there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control."
That means the more complex the problem, the earlier in the day it should be tackled.
Your brain needs glucose in order to make good decisions.
"Even the wisest people won't make good choices when they're not rested and their glucose is low," Baumeister told the New York Times. "That's why the truly wise don't restructure the company at 4 p.m. They don't make major commitments during the cocktail hour. And if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach."
Grocery retailers discovered this decades ago.
Candy and soda are positioned at the checkout line to take advantage of decision fatigue: You just waded through the whole store making dozens of decisions, so the quick hit of energy in a Dr. Pepper or a Snickers looks even more attractive than usual.
If you want more willpower, get better sleep.
Studies equate sleep deprivation — getting less than six hours a night — with being drunk. As Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal said, sleep deprivation messes with the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with decision-making.
When you're sleep deprived, "the prefrontal cortex is especially hard hit, and it loses control over the regions of the brain that create cravings and the stress response," she said.
But if you're tired, research shows that you'll be more likely to lash out.
"Unchecked, the brain overreacts to ordinary, everyday stress and temptation," McGonigal said.
Your unconscious plays a key role in helping you make good decisions.
Obama's decision to "sleep on it" — it being whether or not to raid Osama Bin Laden's compound — aligns with psychologists' recommendations for complex decision making.
"Because your conscious attention is limited, you should enlist the help of your unconscious," according to the Harvard Business Review.
Even if you don't have the option to delay your decision for long, engaging in another activity will take your mind off your dilemma, and allow your unconscious to surface.
Your decisions are shaped by your friends and family.
Breakthroughs in network science — the study of social groups — have revealed how many things we tend to think of as being individual, like whether you get fat or stop smoking, are actually collective.
As James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego, and Nick Christakis of Harvard Medical School have found, our behaviors are contagious.
If your best friend gets fat, you have a 57% greater chance of getting fat, too. If a close colleague quits smoking, you have a 34% greater change of quitting smoking, too.
Sometimes, it's best to run your ideas by others.
Network science has insights into productivity, too.
When researchers tracked the successes of individuals at an aerospace company, including patents and products those individuals brought to market, they found that who a given engineer knew was tremendously important.
After experience, the relationships that an individual had were the greatest predictor of success. The people who had relationships up and down the hierarchy and across departments were the most likely to succeed by the company's metrics.
It can be valuable to cave in and say "yes" to the "wrong choices" once in a while.
Occasionally giving in to your desires can reinvigorate you, so you don't feel completely deprived all the time, according to the Times. It helps you stay on track for the long-term.
That's why physical trainers and dietitians recommend "cheat days" to their dieting clients.
If you stick to a strict diet six days a week, set aside one day for enjoying the heck out of your meals.
"I think splurging on a diet is mandatory, not an option," said David Grotto, author of "101 Foods That Can Save Your Life."
As he told WebMD, you choose what you want, how much you'll have, and then "eat it with full consciousness ... lick your lips, and then move on with your life."
There's a reason why people celebrate Mardi Gras before the Lenten season.
If you make an obligation to someone, the decision gets easier.
Are there decisions you don't have to make right now, or you can have someone else make for you?
For instance, if you want to keep jogging as it gets cold outside, make it an appointment with a friend — then you'll be more likely to stick to the workout plan, since you won't want to let that person down.
If you can exercise your willpower, studies suggest you're more likely to succeed.
In the famous 1972 Stanford marshmallow experiment, school children were asked to sit at a table with a marshmallow in front of them and not eat it — for an excruciating 15 minutes. They got a sweet pay off if they made it: a second marshmallow.
As has been widely reported, the students that could wait for the second treat had higher SAT scores and lower levels of substance abuse than their more impulsive friends.
But sometimes what looks like weak willpower could be quality decision making.
If it looks like the opportunity to act might disappear, it can be better not to wait.
In 2012, University of Rochester researcher Celeste Kidd published a study that challenged that marshmallow experiment. When she was younger, Kidd spent time working for homeless shelters — she remembers wondering how growing up in such an unstable situation would affect decision-making.
Those kids, she thought, would eat the marshmallow right away.
But not because they didn't have enough willpower. Rather, they grew up in situations where they couldn't trust adults to follow through on their promises.
In Kidd's study, children were primed to think that researchers were reliable or unreliable. In one part of the study, the experimenter gave the kids a piece of paper and crayons, telling the child to use those art supplies or wait for better ones. Then came the twist: For one group of students, the experimenter brought back markers and crayons; for the other, the experimenter came back and apologized, saying there weren't any nicer art supplies.
Then came the marshmallow test. Nine of the 14 kids from the "reliable" set were able to wait 15 minutes for the second marshmallow, but just one of the 14 waited it out.
The lesson: What looks like willpower might also be trust.
Now see how your parents affected your personality: