Night-time cravings, decision fatigue and the Obama routine saviour.

Night-time cravings, decision fatigue and the Obama routine saviour.

Small or large, every decision saps our willpower. There is a real reason why it’s so difficult to resist the chocolate at the end of the day!

There was recently a Vanity Fair article on President Obama which included a short reference to how he favours a very routine day to day life, wearing only gray or blue suits, and he prefers other people to decide what he eats every day. His reason is to save his “decision power” for the many important decisions he needs to make every day. It reminded me about decision fatigue; which is where our power to make decisions gets depleted through the day with each choice you make.

There is an excellent New York Times article on Decision Fatigue which I quote extensively below.  The famous study on decision fatigue, tested to see when prisoners were more likely to get parole. It turned out that judges were much harsher, (for prisoners with exactly the same crimes and time served) at the end of the day and right before lunch time, when they had already made many parole decisions and had not eaten in hours.

“Your brain does not stop working when glucose is low. It stops doing some things and starts doing others. It responds more strongly to immediate rewards and pays less attention to long-term prospects. ” –New York Times

You are more likely to make decisions based on short term parameters when you are fatigued, forgetting to weigh up the long term impact because you don’t have the reasoning power to do so. This creates what I like to call the “ah stuff it!” response. In my experience, whatever you decide to do when you say “ah stuff it”  is a short term / instant gratification type of choice which will likely have negative long term affects. i.e eat the chocolate, sleep in, buy those expensive Choos … ahem…shoes.

Your brain needs glucose to make decisions.

Decision fatigue absolutely affects everyone who is actively trying to lose weight. If you’re sick and tired of spending all day weighing the pros and cons of what to eat and actively resisting the temptation of the office cookie jar, you are literally exhausting your choice power.

“The discoveries about glucose help explain why dieting is a uniquely difficult test of self-control — and why even people with phenomenally strong willpower in the rest of their lives can have such a hard time losing weight. They start out the day with virtuous intentions, resisting croissants at breakfast and dessert at lunch, but each act of resistance further lowers their willpower. As their willpower weakens late in the day, they need to replenish it. But to resupply that energy, they need to give the body glucose. They’re trapped in a nutritional catch-22:
1. In order not to eat, a dieter needs willpower.
2. In order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat.”


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The everyday traps for your fatigued brain.

This is the reason why car dealers ad all those “extras” after the sale of the car, tinted windows, mag wheels, paint protection are all thousand dollar decisions they are forcing you to make when you are fatigued, knowing that statistically you are more likely to just default to the recommended “popular choice”. It’s also why the candy is at the checkout of the supermarket, after you’ve made so many decisions of what to buy and not buy, resisting the candy at the checkout is much harder. It’s not called an impulse purchase for nothing!

We tend to go for sugary things when fatigued. The quick glucose hit…

“…After performing a lab task requiring self-control, people tend to eat more candy but not other kinds of snacks, like salty, fatty potato chips. The mere expectation of having to exert self-control makes people hunger for sweets.”

And we tend to go for sugar around that time of the month… egh.

“A similar effect helps explain why many women yearn for chocolate and other sugary treats just before menstruation: their bodies are seeking a quick replacement as glucose levels fluctuate. A sugar-filled snack or drink will provide a quick improvement in self-control (that’s why it’s convenient to use in experiments), but it’s just a temporary solution. The problem is that what we identify as sugar doesn’t help as much over the course of the day as the steadier supply of glucose we would get from eating proteins and other more nutritious foods.”

How to know when you’ve got decision fatigue…

Once you know what it is, you are more likely to recognize it in action, You might feel tired,  frustrated or irritable… when you say  “I should do X, ah stuff it!” you know that’s the fatigue talking and you’re not making a good decision…

“…When the brain’s regulatory powers weaken, frustrations seem more irritating than usual. Impulses to eat, drink, spend and say stupid things feel more powerful (and alcohol causes self-control to decline further).”

Beat it like Obama.

Obama reduces his decision fatigue by reducing his decisions where they don’t really matter. You can do this too, and make it easier to lose or maintain your weight, by creating a meal plan of foods you like and sticking to it every day Monday to Friday. Perhaps if you live with a partner and they don’t fancy eating the same thing every dinner, you could eat the same breaky, lunch and snacks and rotate 5 dinners per the day of the week. This sounds like it’s quite restrictive, but you probably do this with your dinners anyway. We are creatures of habit, and I doubt you’re whipping up a new gourmet creation every night!

Instead of trying to decide each day whether to exercise or what to eat, set yourself up for success by diarising it, booking it in beforehand with a friend or PT, or a workout buddy you meet at your morning Pump class.

“(People with good self control) instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.”

Join the conversation

Share your experiences with decision fatigue and your favourite “I could eat this every day” meal plan. I’d love to know what yours is… I’ll write mine below too. 🙂

Comments (10)

  1. Ok, so my latest favourite “I can eat this every day” meal plan is:

    Breakfast – 2 cups mixed green veggies: spinach, silverbeet, broccoli quick stir-fried in coconut oil with a 2 egg omelette with a sprinkling of parmesan and cayenne pepper. Weak long black with dash of cold milk.
    Snack – 1 piece sourdough rye toast with natural peanut butter. Green tea with pomegranate.
    Lunch – mexican salad bowl, 1/4 cup beans, 1 1/2 cups green veg, chicken or steak & tomato salsa.
    Snack – avocado cacao banana protein shake OMG Yum.
    Dinner – Chicken tenderloin strips, smoked paprika baked sweet potato ‘fries’ and steamed green veggies.
    Snack – 5 almonds & 2 pieces dark sugar free chocolate. Green tea with pomegranate.

  2. Have you ever had days where you've eaten really well, only to give in to temptation at the very end of they day? Check out this interesting article about decision fatigue…

  3. Ahhh this is so me! I am not known for my ability to make quick decisions, especially when it comes to food ha ha! I can over analyse something to the point of exhaustion where I make that snap (often wrong) choice.
    So I do exactly this – meal plan, prepped & cooked ahead Monday to Friday. (Dinner changes a little but is basically protein with salad or veggies so easy.)
    Currently eating this:
    Breakfast – organic chicken/turkey/meat & nuts with a little green veggies plus tea or green juice
    Snack – two organic eggs & green beans
    Lunch – turkey mince & broccoli, eggplant, cauliflower mash
    Snack – if hungry, some tuna & oil
    Dinner – organic chicken/turkey/fish with green veggies or salad
    Snack – if hungry, pea protein shake or sometimes organic yoghurt
    GREAT article!!!

    • Thanks for your comment and sharing your meal plan. Love it! I’m so glad you liked the article.

  4. GAH! Perfect explanation and makes me understand why I can see that the people who eat food more routinely as habit instead of trying to be master chef all the time – inevitably are more successful in the long term!

    Cooking dinner and using the left overs for lunches the next day is probably one of the biggest time saving, fat burning, body slimming, money saving habits you could ever include!

  5. Oh god this is so me too….. With a second child not sleeping – fatigue it the status quo… at the moment…At least I can be more conscious now and do my best not to get so hanckry (hungry/cranky) and eat the wrong things….

    • So true Michelle, It’s exhausting sometimes. I’m so glad now you understand what’s going on!

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