Decision Fatigue. No, I’m not going to revisit the fit v fat v working out drama from the past few days; today I’m writing about an article in the NYT a few months ago.
No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways.
One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?)
The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. You start to resist any change, any potentially risky move . . . .
Why would a blog about diet and exercise bring this up? Because it has implications for our efforts, as implied in the quote above:
We make dumb decisions when we’re mentally tired.
I’ve had many days in which I’ve fasted all day, gotten home around 5, eaten a good SCD meal, and been none the worse for wear. Then again, there have been days when I’ve fasted all day, gotten home around 5, and given in to temptation, adding a Cheat Meal (or, at least, a bad snack) to my daily intake.
Considering that both happen after fasting, it can’t be as simple as that. Looking at it in light of this new information, what I haven’t consciously tracked is, on days when I’ve eaten things I shouldn’t have, did I have to make lots of decisions on those days?
To study the process of ego depletion, researchers concentrated initially on acts involving self-control — the kind of self-discipline popularly associated with willpower, like resisting a bowl of ice cream. . . .
The brain, like the rest of the body, derive[s] energy from glucose. . . . To establish cause and effect, researchers at Baumeister’s lab tried refueling the brain in a series of experiments involving lemonade mixed either with sugar or with a diet sweetener. The sugary lemonade provided a burst of glucose, the effects of which could be observed right away in the lab; the sugarless variety tasted quite similar without providing the same burst of glucose. Again and again, the sugar restored willpower, but the artificial sweetener had no effect. The glucose would at least mitigate the ego depletion and sometimes completely reverse it. The restored willpower improved people’s self-control as well as the quality of their decisions: they resisted irrational bias when making choices, and when asked to make financial decisions, they were more likely to choose the better long-term strategy instead of going for a quick payoff. . . .
The discoveries about glucose help explain why dieting is a uniquely difficult test of self-control — and why even people with phenomenally strong willpower in the rest of their lives can have such a hard time losing weight. They start out the day with virtuous intentions, resisting croissants at breakfast and dessert at lunch, but each act of resistance further lowers their willpower. As their willpower weakens late in the day, they need to replenish it. But to resupply that energy, they need to give the body glucose. They’re trapped in a nutritional catch-22:
1. In order not to eat, a dieter needs willpower.
2. In order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat.
As the body uses up glucose, it looks for a quick way to replenish the fuel, leading to a craving for sugar. After performing a lab task requiring self-control, people tend to eat more candy but not other kinds of snacks, like salty, fatty potato chips. The mere expectation of having to exert self-control makes people hunger for sweets. A similar effect helps explain why many women yearn for chocolate and other sugary treats just before menstruation: their bodies are seeking a quick replacement as glucose levels fluctuate. A sugar-filled snack or drink will provide a quick improvement in self-control (that’s why it’s convenient to use in experiments), but it’s just a temporary solution. [emphasis added]
So we’re screwed, right? Not so fast:
. . . sugar doesn’t help as much over the course of the day as the steadier supply of glucose we would get from eating proteins and other more nutritious foods. [emphasis added]
Woohoo! We’re saved. Eat protein throughout the day and it will provide the slow-release, longer-term glucose you need to continue to make good decisions.
So how do we short-circuit the short-circuiting which leads us to bad diet decisions?
(1) Avoid temptation in the first place.
- Don’t go into Benny’s All-U-Can-Eat Sticky Bun Palace in the first place and, ta-da!, you’ll find it a hell of a lot easier not to eat the damn sticky buns.
- Ask your spouse to hide the pie or cake or PopTarts or candy so you don’t see it. Put it in the back of the fridge. Put it in a covered dish. Make it just ever so slightly harder to (a) see it and (b) get some if you want it and you’ll find that you are much less likely to go to the effort. You might even forget that there is a pie in the fridge and be happily ignorant of the temptation you might have given in to.
(2) Eat some protein and fat (with as many associated carbs as your stage of the diet will allow) in the early afternoon.
- Keep some beef jerky handy.
- Sunflower seeds are good, too.
(3) Watch for signs of weakness and take appropriate action.
- If you find yourself veering toward temptation, first call the A-Team.
- If they can’t help, eat some protein and fat.
- After you’ve eaten something good, physically remove yourself from the area near the temptation and find a task to complete (which doesn’t require decisions! ;-)) which will take your mind off of food for at least 10 minutes.
“Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low,” Baumeister points out. 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. “The best decision makers,” Baumeister says, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”
Have a great Tuesday!
Plan for Week 44.*
Red = a negative deviation | Green = a positive deviation | Blue = a note