After a few reps at the gym your muscles naturally start to fatigue. It’s a sign that you’re working and your muscles are responding. In the same way that your muscles eventually give out during a workout, your mental muscle starts to fatigue throughout the day, hampering your ability to care, make choices, stay motivated, weigh decisions, and ultimately take action.
Radishes and chocolate chip cookies can help us understand why.
In 1998, Roy Baumeister and colleagues asked people to sign up for what participants thought was a taste-perception experiment. The researchers formed three groups: radish eaters, chocolate-chip cookie eaters and non-eaters (control group). They asked the participants to skip one meal and arrive hungry for their scheduled appointment. When the radish and chocolate-chip cookie eaters arrived for the appointment, they could smell freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies. On the table before them they found a bowl of beautiful red radishes and a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and chocolate candies.
The radish eaters were instructed to eat two or three radishes and told they could not touch the chocolate-chip cookies or candies. The chocolate chip cookie eaters were instructed to eat two to three chocolate chip cookies and/or candies but not to touch the radishes. The non-eaters did not participate in this part of the study.
Once the participants had finished eating, the researchers asked all three groups to solve an unsolvable spatial puzzle. The subjects could abandon the task at any time.
Who quit first?
The radish eaters. The chocolate chip cookie eaters and non-eaters stuck with the task longer and for more or less the same amount of time. The early quitters, the radish eaters, reported feeling more exhausted than the other two groups.
So what do these odd food choices have to do with making a company-wide decision or considering change?
It takes significantly more self-control to avoid the temptation of mouthwatering chocolate chip cookies and candies than it does to avoid eating radishes. Resisting temptation took a bigger toll on the radish eaters. That resistance depleted the mental energy needed to tackle the puzzle and thus the radish eaters to abandon the task more quickly. On the other hand, subjects in the chocolate-chip eating and non-eating conditions depleted fewer mental resources maintaining self-control and could more easily spend additional time with the puzzle.
If resisting cookies can make your mind weary, imagine what resisting a big change in the workplace can do to you, after adding in all the other stuff you do every day. Resources like willpower, decision-making acuity and focus are depletable properties of the brain. New and unfamiliar routines and choices challenge the comfort zone of our ingrained habits. When we effect a change or resist something that we would normally not resist, we force ourselves out of our comfort zone. It requires energy and can wear you out.
Psychologists call this ego depletion or simply, mental exhaustion. It’s a state of mind where you can lose critical elements of your self-control and other mental processes that require focus and conscious effort.
So think about it in these terms. Your alarm goes off. You make a decision about whether or not you are going to press snooze. Then you decide how frequently you are going to press snooze. Then you get out of bed and make a decision about whether or not you are going to take a shower. Hopefully you make the right choice. Then you decide what you are going to wear. Then you decide if you are going to work out. Then what to eat. Then what the kids are going to eat. Then what direction you are going to drive to work. Then this and then that. By the time you get to work, you have made so many decisions already that your decision-making capabilities are already depleted. The good news is that if we know this universal truth about our brains then we can operate a bit differently.
Here are some very simple things you can do to counteract the radish effect:
- Routinize as much as possible: The more of a routine you have in the morning (e.g., waking up at the same time, eating the same thing for breakfast, having a system in place for prepping everything, etc.) the better off you are. When you leave options open in the morning, you are tapping into your limited well and causing depletion on tasks and things that really don’t require much thought. For that matter, if there are any tasks that can be routinized throughout the day, not just the morning, do so. Your brain will thank you when you have to focus and decide on the things that really matter.
- Do what you can do the night before: Before you go to sleep at night take care of the things that are easy to take care of for the next day (but can deplete you if you focus on them in the morning). Making simple choices like what you will eat for lunch tomorrow, what you will wear, or fleshing out tomorrow’s to do list will minimize the amount of energy you need for making these choices the next morning.
- Have a uniform: I am not suggesting wearing the same thing every day. However, I am suggesting finding a few looks that work for you and buying that look in different colors. The less time you spend agonizing over which shoe and belt works best with which pants or skirt, the more mental energy you will have when you are helping a client decide on the best avenue to take with your product line. Ever notice that Steve Jobs wore the same outfit every day? Some of the most successful people may not have the most creative outfits but they certainly make up for it with their power brains.
- Be diligent about replenishment: We all know we need to sleep, eat well, exercise, take breaks, allow for mindfulness and relaxation. But very few of us are as disciplined about these aspects of human functioning and performance than we are about checking our emails, responding with urgency, working around the clock, constantly being on, and all the other stuff that goes hand in hand with depletion. Be as diligent about creating the space for replenishment as you are about working. Elite athletes and performers understand that they can only practice for a set amount of time before they require rest. The same is true for every human and their mind. The mind is an athlete and can produce extraordinary results if provided with the replenishment it needs.
- Make the most important decisions first thing in the morning: Knowing what you know now, don’t save the life altering and company-altering decisions for the end of the day. If you have an important decision to make at work or in your personal life, do it first thing in the morning. Do the difficult stuff when you are the least mentally taxed and save the easy stuff at the end of the day.
- Sleep off the emotion: If you are having a strong emotional reaction (positive or negative) to something, keep the decision at bay until the storm of the emotion blows over. Although emotions are incredibly informative and provide useful information, when an important decision is made through the lens of emotion, decision-making can become skewed. Give it some thought and let it marinate over a good night’s sleep. Remember, negative emotions can skew logical thinking just as much as positive emotions can. Unless you’re an emergency room doc, you probably can give the decision 24-48 hours to marinate.
Being disciplined with these simple steps gives your mind the foundation it needs to be rock solid when it comes to making decisions and tackling problems.
Nicole Lipkin, Psy.D., MBA is a organizational psychologist and the CEO of Equilibria Leadership Consulting. She is a sought-after speaker, consultant, and coach and has shared her expertise on NPR, NBC, Forbes, Entrepreneur, CBS, Fox Business News, and other high-profile media outlets. She is the author of "What Keeps Leaders Up At Night" and the co-author of "Y in the Workplace: Managing the "Me First" Generation." Check out the award winning book trailer for What Keeps Leaders Up At Night.