Decades ago, Roy F. Baumeister discovered that willpower is a finite cognitive resource. And every decision you make, from what to wear in the morning to whether or not you’ll stand up now or later, chips away at your ideal decision-making state. Eventually, you reach a state of decision fatigue. You’ve made so many decisions, you simply can’t make any more good ones.
The problem? You make thousands of decisions each day. And studies have shown that the act of committing to a decision is often the most difficult part of any task.
Luckily, there are ways to hack your willpower. With these tips, you can conserve your energy for the big decisions.
1. Automate as much as possible.
The best way to conserve willpower is to stop making decisions. Habits make your action automatic, so the more habitual your life is, the better self-control you have for the tough moments. That’s why writers are far more likely to finish books if they write one page a day, instead of binge-writing a few times a month. So set bedtimes and wake-up times, morning and evening rituals. Make regular appointments with a friend to hit the gym. Decide what you’ll have for meals each week – even if it’s as simple as a bowl of cereal every Monday morning. Schedule social media posts, have iTunes mixes ready to play the next song and limit the amount of time you spend on distracting websites with software. The less you do, the more you can do.
2. Pick one habit at a time.
Yes, I listed a ton of habits to implement into your life just now. But to keep them consistent, implement them one at a time. When you successfully accomplish a goal, you’re motivated and thus have more willpower to implement more habits. Don’t want to pick up a lot of habits? Just break down a big one into small steps – it’ll give you the same effect.
3. Delay decisions.
Sometimes, you can’t eat or take a nap before a tough decision. But you can delay them. Not only does this let you reach optimal willpower times, it also activates your subconscious and helps you come up with a better solution.
There are a lot of hacks you can use to simplify the decision-making process. Delegate all the decisions you can to someone else, and use a partner to help for tough ones. You can also try making “decision rules.” For example, vow to spend only 15 minutes debating on buying something less than $100 or participate in Meatless Mondays. Use the ones that work best for you, and get rid of the rest.
5. Get emergency buffers.
You know how everyone tells you to get an emergency fund? They’re good for more than one reason. When you’re in a crisis, your willpower goes out the window, making you far more vulnerable to dangerous situations. Buffers protect you and help you make rational decisions – whether they’re financial or spiritual.
One of the best ways to go through with a goal is to tell everyone you know about it, a.k.a. “precommit.” That way, you’ll be more embarrassed when you don’t follow through. So if you have a big goal, post it on social media and share it with all your real-life friends. Not your speed? You can also create a “persona” to help. Imagine yourself as this person, and then put cues around your house and office to help you live it.
7. Get adequate sleep.
The best way to get more willpower, other than eating, is to sleep. Put yourself in a high-willpower state at the beginning of each day by sleeping an adequate amount. Take naps if you need to, and give yourself regular mental and physical breaks from the stresses of your day. Remember, sleep deprivation gives you the same amount of cognitive function you would have if you were drunk. It’s not something you need when you want to conserve your willpower.
8. Be generous.
Most of us lead selfish lives, but being selfless could actually help you make better decisions. Helping your friends and family learn about decision fatigue will help them understand willpower and make better decisions – which will help them assess if you’re not in a decision-making state. You could also try adding a spiritual element to your decision-making. Instead of asking, “what’s in this for me?” try asking, “what impact will this decision have on others?” Tapping into your inner Gandhi could be the key to making a decision you’ll celebrate, not regret.
9. Listen to yourself.
Ultimately, only you know if you’re capable of making good decisions – and what that state looks like. So pay attention to how you feel. Are you sleepy? Hungry? Is your intuition screaming at you to get out? The more you’re in touch with yourself, the better life you can lead.