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!

Instead...

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).