How to maintain your capacity for decision making as a project professional

How to maintain your capacity for decision making as a project professional, Martyn KinchTo-do lists: I start the day with one, I refer to it regularly, and at the end the day I add to it.  Sound familiar?  I’m sure it does: there are plenty of studies which show people perform better when they write down what they need to do.

But does a to-do list alone ensure we achieve?  Surely decision making and willpower must fit into this too.

It got me thinking and after some Googling I came across interesting research from Roy Baumeister, a well-known and respected professor of social psychology.  He has found that willpower is finite and becomes depleted as we use it.  He also proved that we use the same reservoir of willpower for everything we do; there is no separate source for work, another for exercise or dieting.  So basically, no matter where we exercise willpower or self-control, it draws on the same source of energy we use to deal with tempting food, frustrating traffic, or demanding workload.

I found the article fascinating (you can read it here) and thinking about how my performance changes from Monday morning and Friday afternoon, I could certainly see how Baumeister’s findings apply to me.  It was also interesting to see that food has a direct link to willpower, because eating a decent lunch is certainly never on my to-do list.

So what does this actually mean for us as project professionals and how can we use these findings to get the most from the time we have?

Well after making a lot of decisions your self-control is lowered, and equally, after exerting self-control your capacity for making decisions is lowered.  Therefore, as we move through the working day and week where decisions are continually made, the energy we have available is gradually depleted and subsequent decisions are more passive – this is where we tend to go with the default option.

Working in the project management industry I am constantly making decisions, and if I take Roy’s views into account, certainly the best decisions I make are made in the morning early in the week.

I also discovered that willpower depends on a limited energy supply.  As we use it, our energy stores fall and our willpower gets temporarily depleted, which is where food comes in.  As the day wears on and more decisions are made, we get worse and worse and more likely to give in to temptation.

Let me explain this a little bit more; you decide to eat a lunch, that’s one decision.  Or you can decide to not eat lunch, another decision.  But the impact of this one is that you will more than likely experience temptation to snack, but what should you eat?  What do you have handy?  Crisps?  Or should you go for the chocolate?  All of these are decisions and each one is drawing on your decision-making reserve.

Is it possible to conserve willpower?

Well, yes. You can conserve your energy by reducing decision making at every opportunity.  For example, Barack Obama wears only blue or grey suits; one less decision.  He also has a set morning routine, further reducing decision making so he is at his best when he begins work.

We can maximise our supplies of willpower with food, exercise and rest, showing the importance of recovery at weekends.  And interestingly, Baumeister found that if we use willpower a lot, our capacity improves because we can change how we allocate energy.  It’s basically like a muscle and with practice we can improve.

Well there you have it; proof that the exhausting Friday-feeling is real and comes from the fatigue of continuous decision making throughout the week.

To help you get the most of your working week here are my top take-away tips:
  • Create and stick to a routine before you even get to week, conserving your willpower
  • Take time to eat well so mid-afternoon hunger pangs don’t draw on your willpower
  • Make important decisions early, both in the day and the working week
  • Never make an important decision on Friday afternoon
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