Sunday, September 25, 2011

~ Decision Fatigue ~

Are your daily choices hurting your writing?

Death by 1000 Choices

NYTimes article on decision fatigue reveals some interesting ramifications for writers. [Skip to "For Writers."]

What is decision fatigue? 

The Times article begins with an anecdote: Three prisoners are appealing for parole. The first appears before the judge at 8:50 AM, the second at 3:10 PM, and the third at 4:25 PM.

Only the prisoner who appears first is granted parole.

Why? Basically, the judge's decision fatigue screwed the last two prisoners.

Decision fatigue is the effect of making decisions throughout the day, the depletion of your "finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control" [Times 2]. Willpower isn't a personality constant. Rather, it's in constant flux, and those who exert it early in the day will find it depleted for afternoon and evening tasks.

Decision fatigue usually leads to two responses:
  1. Making reckless decisions (impulsiveness).
  2. Doing nothing (procrastination).

Thus, the judge paroles the first prisoner while his decision-making reserve his high--in the morning--and declines the second two appeals in the afternoon--procrastinating, since they can appeal again. Other decisions from 8 o'clock on have depleted his reserve.

This reserve of willpower can be replenished:
  1. Get enough sleep.
  2. Eat breakfast and small snacks throughout the day: Studies show that an injection of glucose will re-energize the brain's capacity for good decision-making.
  3. Save big decisions for the morning, when your capacity for good choices is up.
  4. Conserve willpower by creating habits: A constant schedule--for getting up, work, eating, exercise, relaxation, and bedtime--will let you bypass small daily decisions, keeping your reserve high for extraneous or urgent decisions you might face. Like hiring someone, or buying a car, or cutting a plotline or character from your novel.
Ramifications of decision fatigue for writers.

Img from Word Wenches
There are three major parts of the writing process: research, drafting, and revision.

In research and drafting mode, the most important thing is getting the butt in chair. Motivation can be a major problem here. (Tips on motivation for writers.) But motivation can also be entwined with decision fatigue. Imagine you've been going about your day making great decisions, carefully resisting Twitter and Facebook, resisting temptations to snack or chat with coworkers or watch the news, etc.

Now, come evening, you must decide whether to put butt in chair. If your decision tank is low, you might 1. recklessly decide to write 10K words (drafting mode) or read an entire book on ghosts in the 18th century (research mode), thus blowing off, say, the report for work due tomorrow or the kids' soccer game you told them you'd attend... Either way, such impulsive decisions often lead to ineffective writing. Or you might 2. decide to research/write later. Procrastinate.

In revision mode, the butt-in-chair decision is equally important. But then you're hit with a milieu of tiny decisions that, if you're deep into decision fatigue, might make your butt-in-chair time essentially useless. You might recklessly decide that you're overusing the word stab: instead of checking each occasion by reading the context to decide whether it works, you impulsively find and replace. You might recklessly cut a chapter or plotline you're annoyed with because this is easier than fixing it; you decide to summarize, present that scene off-screen. Or you decide to leave it in and deal with it later. Let your betas find it. Procrastinate.

Don't write under the influence of decision fatigue!


Replenish your decision-making reserve before writing:
  1. Get enough sleep.
  2. Eat a small snack about 15 minutes before writing: This glucose injection will re-energize your brain's capacity for good decision-making. 
  3. Save big revisions for the morning, when your capacity for good choices is up. If you have a huge decision to make on a WIP, plan to do it in the morning.
  4. Conserve willpower by creating habits: A constant schedule--for waking, writing, work, eating, exercise, relaxation, and bedtime--will let you bypass small daily decisions, keeping your reserve high for extraneous or urgent decisions you might face. Like cutting a plotline or character from your novel.
  5. Query in the morning! Query when your decision-making tank is full, just as if you were sending out an important resume or doing an interview.

Do you suffer from decision fatigue? Do hundreds of daily choices zap your ability to make important WIP decisions? How do you replenish your tank or fortify your brain against decision fatigue?

Further reading:

Take a poll! Help Less Wrong research decision fatigue and akrasia (lack of willpower).


  1. This is awesome and definitely the reason I need to get myself into some sort of writing routine. And it's probably what my MC is suffering from right now ;)

  2. Oh I think I was born having a decision fatigue, that's how strongly it runs my life. It is so hard to arrange your life when you don't have to go to work every day. I find it really hard to adjust.

  3. Lora - this is fascinating. I love the tips. Thanks for sharing :)

  4. I read this when too tired, after having totally botched a paragraph - great post and so relevant!

  5. Oh yes! This is me in a nutshell! I just wrote today on how I can't find the time to write, what with blogging and commenting and working and the family. It's all too much.

    Now I just want to focus everything I have on my WIP, which is just starting to ramp up.

    Your tips are great, BTW. I do query in the morning since I live on the west coast.

  6. I totally suffer from this--I always strive to write in the morning, because my brain slowly depletes as the day goes on. Same with work; I have to do the complicated things in the morning because I'm too stupid by 2:00 to be any good to anybody. ;)

  7. Motivation is a BIG problem when researching. Ugh!

  8. I love this! I am a FOR SURE sufferer! I stress so much about the other things in my day and I put writing off until the afternoon sometimes so I can do those things. By that time I am burnt out on it all. What I need to do is take that break or write before I lose my mind.
    Great tips Lora!

  9. Unikorna, Lol! I know exactly what you mean. I have the option to work my day job from home a few days out of the week. Guess when I get the least done? ;)

    Angie, Thanks! Glad you enjoyed.

    Jaye, Thanks for the plug on your blog. Now if only I could put this post into practice in my own life... *sigh*

    Nancy, You totally should! You can post a "Taking a month off to finish the draft" notice. After all, writing is what matters. Good luck!

    Charlie, I'm stupid right after lunch :D Pretty much brain-fried. It's dreadful. I find going for a run reenergizes me sometimes, but it's so hard to work up the energy TO run... Oy.

    Alleged Author, Yup :) Pretty much the biggest for me. That and fear.

    Deana, Yay! Glad I'm not the only one ;P I usually get the most done on Sat or Sun, when I go out for a couple hrs in the AM with the fam at home asleep or watching TV.

  10. Lora,

    This makes so much sense! I tend to gear toward procrastination when fatigued, but I am also guilty of making rash decisions, for example changing words that seem repetitive without reading the full context or querying an agent before the letter is perfect. One of my problems is sometimes I want to force myself to work even in my mind is "not there" (because I feel guilt over not been productive) but now I'll know when I start making stupid decisions that I need a piece of chocolate or a bed, ha!

    Thank you for the helpful tips!

  11. Awesome post, Lora! Excellent tips, and I DEFINITELY suffer from this from time to time!