Something does happen in the body when you are truly out of digital reach. No cellphones, computers or televisions. And in that digital silence, life takes on a different texture. In the splendid isolation of the Maine coast, worries and concerns begin unpacking and gently floating off your bow. In the words of Yeats, peace does come dropping slow.
That setting is also the perfect backdrop to what turned out to be our ongoing discussion of decision fatigue. Prompted by John Tierney‘s New York Times Magazine excerpt from his soon-to-be-released book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, written with Roy F. Baumeister, this was our conversational theme all week.
Tierney explores new research in the personal cost of making decisions, little ones as well as big ones. The results are sobering for all of us who live in the distraction-rich, small decision-ridden world of 21st century America. These findings scientize what many of us have observed in ourselves and others.
From Tierney’s piece:
The cumulative effect of these temptations and decisions isn’t intuitively obvious. Virtually no one has a gut-level sense of just how tiring it is to decide. Big decisions, small decisions, they all add up. Choosing what to have for breakfast, where to go on vacation, whom to hire, how much to spend — these all deplete willpower, and there’s no telltale symptom of when that willpower is low. It’s not like getting winded or hitting the wall during a marathon. Ego depletion manifests itself not as one feeling but rather as a propensity to experience everything more intensely. When the brain’s regulatory powers weaken, frustrations seem more irritating than usual. Impulses to eat, drink, spend and say stupid things feel more powerful (and alcohol causes self-control to decline further). Like those dogs in the experiment, ego-depleted humans become more likely to get into needless fights over turf. In making decisions, they take illogical shortcuts and tend to favor short-term gains and delayed costs. Like the depleted parole judges, they become inclined to take the safer, easier option even when that option hurts someone else.
There are many behaviors that we have adopted that are decision energy zappers. Spending time online. Weddings. (Tierney describes them as Decision Hell Week.) Shopping. The option-rich abundance that we have come to view as a sign of advanced culture. (What? That only comes in 8 colors?)
He also shares a valuable insight into the implications of these findings on the perpetual poor: “This sort of decision fatigue is a major — and hitherto ignored — factor in trapping people in poverty. Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class.”
And what does the body need most to replenish itself from decision fatigue? Glucose. Those candy bars at the check out counter are there for a reason. Your resistance is low after shopping, and you need a glucose hit to continue on.
In his concluding comments, Tierney offers up a profile of the optimal decision maker:
“Good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it’s always there,” Baumeister says. “It’s a state that fluctuates.” His studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.
“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.”
What are the implications of these findings on art making? Well, let’s start with how many decisions are involved in a single painting. The number exceeds what most non-artists would expect. (I am reminded of the line from a 90 year old Agnes Martin, delivered to a visiting reporter after her morning session in the studio: “Painting is hard work!”) Applying these findings to the life of an artist or maker, certain good work habits emerge as invaluable—a regular schedule for working, staying conscious of when the body and willpower are depleted, the importance of taking breaks. And perhaps I can now view my need for a bite of chocolate around 3pm as a righteous cry from the body for glucose reinforcements.
Great article. Available to New York Times subscribers here.