How Decision Fatigue Can Sabotage Your Fitness Goals
On any given day, most of us have to make all sorts of decisions…
Some of these are big decisions – like those that have to do with work or family issues.
Others are a lot less important – like which shirt to wear or which brand of shampoo to buy at the store.
And for most of us, what to eat also falls into the blend of daily decisions that we need to make.
What should I have for breakfast? Oatmeal, cereal, or that donut?
Should lunch be a turkey sandwich or a salad – or how about 2 slices of pizza?
I’m sure you see what I’m getting at here…
Every day, along with all of the other decisions that we need to make as part of our daily lives, what to eat is an ever-present part of the decision making landscape.
The Tradeoff Of Having Choices
Now if you were to ask most people whether they would rather have options, or live in a world of limited choices, most would pick the former.
We think that we like having lots of choices.
Choices add a sense of variety to our days, and let us feel like we have an element of control over our lives and environments.
Choices allow us to feel free.
It would be hard to imagine living in a world without having these basic choices, even some of the more banal ones.
However, having too many choices means having to make lots of decisions; and having to make lots of decisions can lead to something called “decision fatigue”.
Decision fatigue is pretty much what it sounds like – the fact that having to make lots of decisions reduces our capacity to make later decisions as effectively.
Our decision making capacity is literally a finite resource, and when it is exhausted we tend to make increasingly poor decisions.
For example, studies have shown that judges often make less favorable rulings later in the day, since their decision making capacity is spent by that point.
And it is also (likely) the reason that supermarkets tend to put all sorts of tasty, single-serving treats and junk food right next to to the checkout counter…
They know that by the time many people reach the checkout line they are probably experiencing decision fatigue, and are therefore more likely to make stupid choices and buy crap.
Decision Fatigue & Your Diet
You’re probably wondering how all of this specifically relates to your diet, right?
Well, decision fatigue can actually hurt you if you’re making too many dietary choices each day.
This might sound like I am making an argument against flexible dieting, and advocating a strict, no-fun diet.
Believe me, that’s not the case!
Your diet can be flexible without needing to make lots draining food-related decisions all day long.
Let me explain.
Basically, if you don’t have any of your meals planned in advance, then it means that each time you have a meal you have to decide what to eat.
And with the cumulative mental stress of all of these food decisions, you’ll be more likely to make bad food choices as the day goes on.
Meaning that by evening, you’ll be more likely to binge on that pizza or dessert – potentially messing up an otherwise good day.
The solution to this is actually pretty simple…
You should strive to plan your meals in advance as much as possible.
This doesn’t mean that you need to have a fixed meal plan, where you eat the same thing each and every day.
While this obviously helps reduce decision fatigue, it also gets boring and repetitive really quickly…
No, what I’m saying is that your diet can still be flexible and planned at the same time. They are not mutually exclusive.
This comes down to a strategy that I like to call pre-logging.
At some point at the end of the day, you take 5 minutes to pre-log what you plan to eat the following day in your favorite food logging app.
You make it fit your calorie/macro targets as best as you can, basically creating an ‘ideal’ potential eating day for yourself.
Then you go to sleep, and when you wake up you try to stick to that day as much as possible.
You’ll find that this greatly reduces decision fatigue, since you won’t have to be making nearly as many dietary decisions on the fly.
At the same time, it won’t feel nearly as restrictive as a meal plan, since if you are craving something you can just work it in the next day when you pre-log your meals.
What About When Things Don’t Go To Plan?
I know what you’re probably thinking…
“Sure, that sounds good, but sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to eat the next day – especially if I have an event, or a work lunch/dinner.”
“Sometimes I plan to have xyz for lunch, but then my friend calls me and wants to have lunch at a different place”.
Yes, these things happen, but all that means is that you have to be able to adjust what you pre-logged the day before!
Remember how I said that you were pre-logging an ‘ideal’ version of the next day?
Well, as we all know, even the best laid plans don’t always pan out…
So if you log that you are going to have a chicken salad for lunch, but then end up going to a burger joint, then you delete the chicken salad and log a burger instead.
…and then you reduce some of what you planned to eat later for a snack or for dinner, so that everything roughly adds up.
Is it a perfect, infallible system?
Of course not!
But you’ll find that by pre-logging you are able to get into a rhythm where you eat what you logged for the majority of your meals – and learn to be flexible for the ones that don’t go to plan.
On balance, this should greatly reduce decision fatigue – meaning that you’ll make better choices and meet your targets more regularly – while still allowing you to eat varied, enjoyable foods each day and not feel deprived.
When following a flexible diet, a little bit of planning definitely goes a long way…