The Best Time of Day to Make Decisions, Uncovered

In the old days, when choices were limited and personal freedoms had yet to become a battle cry of the first world, making decisions might have been as simple as choosing the only option, or making a pro-con list.

We don’t know. We weren’t there.

But we do know decision-making is so contentious today because we’re saturated with options and constantly asked to compromise (an ability unique to the human mind among the animal kingdom).

We’ve even come up with tons of fancy psychology words to describe our new predicament…

The paradox of choice, consistency theory, bias correction, to name a few.

And in studying the mechanics of decision-making, the theory of decision fatigue arose from a study about ego depletion, harkening back to Freud’s ideas about how we compartmentalize “the self”.

We don’t need to get too in the weeds on that idea. It’s dense and complex. But easy to define!

Ego depletion refers to the phenomenon whereby our decision-making becomes less rational the more decisions we make because we only have a limited supply of self-control to begin with.

It has to do with why we’re so tired all the time – our lives are simply more packed than the lives of our ancestors were. 

In today’s language, ego depletion is a bit like the spoons theory.

Spoons Theory and the Two Options

A popular method of explaining the conservation of our mental energy is envisioning that it comes in the form of spoons.

Depending on your individual experiences, neurological balances, socioeconomic circumstances, metabolic efficiency in creating energy, everyone begins each day with a certain number of spoons, denoting how much energy they’ll be able to spend that day.

When you’re out of spoons, you’re out. You have no more energy. No more doing things for you that day!

Or worse, you borrow spoons from tomorrow’s energy. (See: adrenal fatigue – too much of your body’s power being used for much of the time. This is actually such a common issue, dedicated a huge portion of this docu-series to talking about it. Click here to check it out.)

Not having enough spoons and experiencing ego depletion are very similar! When your ability to resist temptations, feel confident in your decisions, and spend energy weighing the respective values of trade-offs runs low, the quality of your decisions reflects that.

Usually leading to two options…

  1. Behaving without care. 
  2. Choosing not to choose.

You tend to either act recklessly, flying in the face of your rational thinking and deciding to have ice cream after a long day of making healthy choices…

Or become paralyzed with fear about making the wrong choice and invoking risk, resulting in your unwillingness to challenge the status quo and potentially force more decisions to be made. 

There’s a model for decision-making used by psychologists who study this field in particular…

The Rubicon Model and Glucose

The Rubicon model of action phases actually stems from a decision made by Caesar, when he was returning to Rome after defeating the Gauls.

He arrived at the Rubicon River and had to make a choice. Cross without his legion, which the Romans would have wanted him to do so as not to seem like he was attacking Rome, or cross with them and risk it. 

He chose to cross it and accept the consequences.

Thus, we can break decision-making down into three components:

  1. Weighing and measuring your choices
  2. Acting upon them
  3. Facing the consequences

Guess which takes the most energy?

It’s actually phase two – acting upon them.

Throughout the day, the more decisions you make and act upon, the less energy you have to make the next set of decisions. And consequently, the worse your decisions become. 

You start to think with a limited dimensional scope – making decisions based on only one or two criteria and not the whole picture, or you allow others to make your decisions for you.

That’s why our best decisions, the ones most reflective of our personal values and ideals, get made in the morning.

You’re fresh, you’re ready, and you’re the least discerning about how to spend your available energy.

That’s why advertisers tend to blast you with deals later in the day, why midnight infomercials are successful at all, and why in-store salesmen often include more expensive add-ons towards the end of a presentation – they’re hoping you’re tired and reckless.

But here’s a secret that will help…

The best way to restore your reserves of will power and self-control…

Is glucose!

Your brain loves it and needs it to work.

Yes, candy can be effective. But complex glucose from proteins, fruits, and other healthy options are obviously longer-lasting and better for you.

If you’re feeling in danger of making bad choices late in the day – stop! Don’t do it! Wait until tomorrow.

And if you absolutely must… eat an apple first!

Unless, of course, you don’t feel energized in the morning. If that’s the case, you’ll want to sign up to watch the docu-series “Exhausted!” and pinpoint the source of your energy drain. If you can’t get yourself right with your energy, nothing else is possible.

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.