Why Making Decisions is a Waste of Your Willpower

All the two Israeli men could do was hope.

Hope that the judge would hear their cases thoughtfully and free them to return to society as reformed convicts.

Each case was the same:

They both committed fraud.

They both were serving 30-month sentences.

They both were well-behaved during their 18-months in prison.

The only difference – at least on paper – was the time of their parole hearing. One was at 8:50am and the other was at 4:30pm.

The lucky man with the morning hearing was granted his freedom, while the unlucky man with the late afternoon hearing was to spend the next 12 months behind bars. [1

The Rapid depletion of decision-making

After learning this anecdotal evidence, researchers conducted a study to determine if the time of a parole hearing really made a difference in whether or not a prisoner was set free.

They discovered that prisoners who were scheduled first thing in the morning were granted parole 65% of the time. While the ones who were scheduled in the late afternoon were granted parole only 10% of the time! [2]

Which means those who had their parole hearing in the morning were more than 6 times more likely to be set free!

How could this be? How could the morning make that much of a difference?

Being a parole judge is hard work. The decision to set a man free has many significant consequences. If you set him free, you make him and his family happy, while also saving the taxpayers money.

However, there is the moral burden that the judge must face if the prisoner commits another crime. Innocent people might be in danger! So the easy decision is to keep the prisoner behind bars.

As the judge weighs the costs and benefits of granting parole, she depletes her willpower. With each prisoner she sees, she uses more mental energy to decide if the risk of letting him go is worth it.

So as the day goes on, the easier decision to keep the prisoner locked away becomes more tempting. Thus, there is the huge disparity in parole rates between the morning and afternoon.


When you come face to face with a decision – even an enjoyable one like choosing a bottle of wine, or an outfit for the evening – your brain will begin depleting your willpower to make the final decision. [3]

Typical decisions don't dramatically decrease your willpower – you don’t usually make choices that impact someone’s freedom like a judge does. However, sometimes simply making a decision can impact whether you stick to your goals.

When you hear your alarm and contemplate whether to go to the gym or hit the snooze, you waste valuable willpower that you will need to lace up your running shoes and push through the gym doors.

When you get to the office and contemplate what you should work on first, you waste valuable willpower you will need to get those tasks done.

When you get home from a long day of work and contemplate what you should cook for your healthy dinner, you waste valuable willpower you will need to avoid the easy option of fast-food.

Even if you end up making the right decision, it will now be harder for you to execute on your goal because you have wasted precious mental energy deciding. 


Aside from simply being mindful of the fact that making a decision will make it harder for you to execute on your goals, there are several things that you can do to make fewer decisions and conserve your willpower for what is important.


One of the most important uses of willpower comes right when you start each day – getting yourself out of your nice, warm bed. This is also when people overestimate their willpower the most.

When you are planning to wake up early the next day, you have no idea how your sleeping self will feel when you hear your alarm go off. You will be tired and you will be tempted to hit the snooze to get “just 10 more minutes” of sleep.

That is why some plan for this weakness with a different kind of alarm clock – the Clocky.

When the Clocky goes off in the morning it isn’t just loud, it starts moving around your bedroom – forcing you to get out of bed and chase it down. Now you are already out of bed and your adrenaline is racing.

This makes the right decision – to get out of bed and start your day – that much easier and hitting the snooze that much harder.

So see what you can do to plan for your weaknesses and make the right decision easier.


Some of the world’s most successful people have one strange characteristic in common – they wear the exact same thing to work every day.

Steve Jobs wore the same black turtleneck. [4]

Barack Obama wears the same suit. [5]

Mark Zuckerberg wears the same grey t-shirt and hoodie. [6]

That is because these men have other, more important decisions to make on a regular basis. So they don’t want to waste their willpower on things as trivial as their daily outfit.

They all chose something that works for their profession, and wear it every day. (Taking their lead, I also wear the exact same black t-shirt every day).

Avoiding trivial choices will allow you to use your willpower on more important things.

If you avoid the choice of “what should I eat?” you will have more willpower to resist something unhealthy.

If you avoid the choice of “what should I work on?” you will have more willpower to execute the task at hand.

If you avoid the choice of “what should I wear to the gym?” you will have more willpower to push yourself through your workout.

So plan ahead and avoid choices wherever possible.


When Starbucks was going through its massive expansion, it faced a lot of growing pains. The biggest among them was ensuring that the mass influx of new employees were properly trained and provided excellent customer service.

For many employees, Starbucks is their first job. They haven’t had to deal with a packed line or an angry customer before. So even though they all wanted to do a good job. as soon as the “heat” was turned up, many of them snapped at customers – or snapped at each other. 

To help employees deal with those situations, Starbucks came up with a simple solution – the "if-then" strategy. They added an extra page at the end of every employee handbook which had lines like, “If a customer yells at me then I will ______”. 

The employee would then write in advance what their response would be to this and other tough situations. It allowed employees to plan their response with a cool mindset, so they didn’t need to decide under pressure and risk losing their willpower. [7]

So plan your decisions ahead of time. "If ____, then ____" Then you will be able to use your willpower to execute on your pre-loaded decision, rather than have to think on the spot and risk losing your self-control. 


One of the biggest wastes of your willpower is when you burn through it simply trying to make a decision. You waste precious mental energy every time you weigh the costs and benefits of a particular choice.

This waste of mental energy is so drastic that it can even lead a judge to be 6x more likely to deny parole to someone just because they had the unlucky fate of being scheduled in the afternoon.

To defeat decision fatigue, plan for your weak moments, avoid choices wherever you can, and use the “if-then” strategy so you know you can follow the decision you made ahead of time.

This will save your willpower for its most important purpose - execution.


  1. Baumeister, R., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. New York: Penguin Press.
  2. Danziger, S., Levav, J., & Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 6889-6892.
  3. Baumeister, R., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1252-1265.
  4. Smith, J. (2012). Steve Jobs Always Dressed Exactly the Same. Here's Who Else Does.
  5. Lemona, H. (2014) Mark Zuckerberg Explains Why He Wears the Same T-Shirt and Hoodie Every Day. Hypebeast.
  6. Baer, D. (2014) Always Wear The Same Suit: Obama's Presidential Productivity Secrets. Fast Company. Work Smart.
  7. Vohs, K., Baumeister, R. Schmeichel, B., Twenge, J., Nelson, N., & Tice, D. (2008) Making Choices Impairs Subsequent Self-control: A Limited-resource Account of Decision Making, Self-regulation, and Active Initiative. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 94.5 : 883-98