Saturday, August 20, 2011

Decision Fatigue and Daily Scheduling

Some recent psychological research indicates that making decisions causes us to feel mental fatigue, diminishing our ability to exert self-control. A NY Times article describes one study where researchers gave free products to college students. One group had to make a series of choices regarding the products: "Would they prefer a pen or a candle? A vanilla-scented candle or an almond-scented one? A candle or a T-shirt? A black T-shirt or a red T-shirt?" The other group was the control group, and were merely asked to evaluate these various products.

Then, after getting free stuff, they got to participate in a fun experiment:
Afterward, all the participants were given one of the classic tests of self-control: holding your hand in ice water for as long as you can. The impulse is to pull your hand out, so self-discipline is needed to keep the hand underwater. The deciders gave up much faster; they lasted 28 seconds, less than half the 67-second average of the nondeciders. Making all those choices had apparently sapped their willpower, and it wasn’t an isolated effect. It was confirmed in other experiments testing students after they went through exercises like choosing courses from the college catalog.
This is a significant effect, and it's especially applicable in my own case because I often find that the most unpleasant part of any productive session is the beginning. For example, when I sit down to write a paper, my mind is still on other things, I usually have no idea where to start and suddenly I might remember that I haven't checked Facebook in a while... But once I make it through that period, I'm in concentration mode. Then paper-writing can actually be enjoyable. This seems to be true for a lot of hard-but-rewarding activities. So the real enemy is that initial period where you really have to exert yourself to disregard distracting temptations and get to work. So a person who is able to exert self-control for 67 seconds is going to be much more effective than someone who can only exert self-control for 28 seconds.

The problem is that every day we are bombarded with choices. Every single moment of free-time is essentially a choice, unless you are already preoccupied with something so engrossing that you don't stop to think, "What could I be doing right now?" According to the decision fatigue hypothesis, these choices eventually deplete your store of self-control. People who are suddenly given great freedom (i.e. many decisions to make) may find themselves having problems with procrastination and lack of motivation.

When I entered college, it was not lost on me that suddenly I had more free time (compared to high school) but also more things to do. I think the single most important productivity tool I used was something I took from the Study Hacks blog, called Fixed-Schedule Productivity. The idea is simple: at the beginning of each day, you think about what you need to accomplish, and block out a schedule for yourself. I like to write it on a slip of paper to carry in my pocket throughout the day.

Here's a real example that I scrounged up, from my freshman year.

8 - Piano
9 - Class
12- Lunch
1 - Library: Physics PS, 5 problems
3 - English paper, Brainstorm
4 - Gym
6 - Dinner
7 - Read/Free Time
This may seem quite constraining, but the times were approximate, and the schedule itself was not set in stone. I could have decided, for example, that the English paper could wait, and that I wanted to watch a movie instead.

In the context of decision fatigue, this system is wonderful. It lends me the same amount of freedom that I would have in an unscheduled day (remember, the schedule's flexible) while vastly reducing the number of decisions that I have to make. Imagine if I went through the day, described above, without scheduling. I'd have to wake up, decide that I want to practice piano; then, after lunch, decide that I should probably get an early start on the Physics problem set; then, decide to work on the English paper, etc. Even if I heroically managed to get through all of those decisions, I'd probably be tempted somewhere along the way to waste time procrastinating. Then my block of free time might start at 8 or 9 rather than 7.

But, you ask, doesn't all the decision fatigue simply get collected into one dose at the beginning of the day? I haven't found that to be true. There seems to be an overhead cost in energy whenever I recall deadlines and tasks. Multiply that overhead by all the times I have to decide what to do next, and the result is exhaustion. With this system, I can sit in front of a calendar and get it done in one easy swoop. There's a certain joy in planning, like moving pieces on a chess board. And if you feel like you're in control, rather than the various deadlines that come and go, then deciding isn't such a chore after all.


  1. I agree completely with the decision fatigue phenomenon- just one thought: I usually find that when I write out schedules like this, which I've done on occasion for exactly the same reason, I feel disillusioned if something takes longer than expected and then I'm unable to complete one of the things I originally planned. Eventually, it happened enough where I got a bit frustrated and stopped writing out schedules, but this brings back the original decision-making problems that were initially annoying. I'm yet to find the middle-ground that I believe in. But for now I stick to the non-schedule writing, it oddly makes me feel like I have more freedom.

  2. I think the key is to not take the schedule too seriously. I view it as a list of suggestions more than a decree. If anything, I'm amused if something takes much longer than I expected. It just means that I have a bad idea of how long things take, not that I suck at completing things. Also, I don't block things so specifically anymore. In the example, I would now just list "1-3 Library (physics PS + eng brainstorm)" The idea is that however long things take is how much time I'll put in.

    It's important to experiment with it.

    An alternative to scheduling is to develop habits. If I always practice piano at a certain time per day, I don't have to think about whether to do it or not. If you're living a pretty structured day already, decision fatigue might not be a problem and scheduling won't be necessary.

  3. Right on, those are both really interesting points. I can definitely see the value of a list of suggested activities blocked out for a given day. Maybe I'll start doing it again, but experiment with it more.

    On a related note, I'll be interested to hear what your take is on it when you get to Germany. In a travel context, I feel like the rules change immensely, because sometimes so much of the joy of a travel experience is the complete and total spontaneity. But I wonder how that will change in a "study abroad" travel context, because we'll be taking classes and have homework rather than just traveling- in some sense, it's like we're just living in a different place for a year rather than just traveling. So is planning a day good or bad in this situation? I'm still not sure.