How to Increase Willpower & Make Better Decisions

When author Michael Lewis was preparing an article featuring President Obama, the two spent six months in close company.

Lewis was participating in the President’s basketball games, sitting up front in Air Force One, and chatting with him whenever he had a free moment.

When Lewis presented the President with the following scenario:  “Assume that in thirty minutes you will stop being President. I will take your place. Prepare me. Teach me how to be President”, he gave some very interesting advice:

”You need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. You’ll see I wear only grey or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia (1).”

Decision Fatigue

The President’s ideas about ’decision-making energy’ is backed by science. One of the most fascinating examples of this is a 2011 study (2) in which psychologists examined the factors that impact whether or not a judge approves a criminal for parole.

The researchers examined 1,112 judicial rulings in which parole board judges decided whether or not to allow the criminal to be released on parole. (Some of the criminals were asking for a change in parole terms rather than release.)

What the psychologists found was that it wasn’t the factors you might think that most influenced these judges; it wasn’t the type of crime committed or what law had been broken that decided which way the ruling was going to go; it was the time of day.

At the beginning of the day, a judge was likely to give the criminal a favourable ruling about 65 percent of the time. Then, as the morning wore on, the judge became drained by making more and more decisions. As fatigue kept increasing, the likelihood of obtaining a favourable ruling steadily dropped to zero before lunch time.

After the lunch break the judge would come back refreshed and the likelihood of a favourable ruling would immediately jump back up to about 65 percent. The same scenario would then play out in the afternoon. The judge got more and more tired and at the end of the day, the chances of a favourable ruling were down to zero percent once again.

No matter what the crime was, this trend held true for all 1,112 cases(!!).

How could this be? Well, your willpower works like a muscle and just like a muscle in your body it will get tired when you use it a lot. The judges were experiencing what researchers refer to as ’decision fatigue’ – in other words, the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making (3).

When their willpower muscle was running out the judges found it easier to say no and keep everyone locked up rather than debating whether or not the criminal was trustworthy enough to leave prison.

Ego Depletion

All of the decisions you make throughout your day slowly drain your willpower muscle. When your energy for mental activity is low, your self-control is likely to be impaired and this is what researchers refer to as a ’state of ego depletion’.

In a key experiment on this area, psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues (4) showed that people, who initially resisted the temptation of chocolates, were later less able to persist on a difficult and frustrating puzzle task. They also found that when people voluntarily gave a speech that included beliefs contrary to their own, they were also less able to persist on the difficult puzzle.

Later research by Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues (5) has confirmed that repetitive choices deplete people’s mental energy, even if these choices are mundane or even relatively pleasant.

How to Increase Willpower & Make Better Decisions

There are three major takeaways from this research that you can use to keep your self-control high and make great choices:

1. Make fewer decisions. Every decision you make throughout the day depletes your willpower muscle and impairs your decision making. The obvious solution to this is to make fewer decisions. ”Identify the aspects of your life that you consider mundane — and then ‘routinise’ those aspects as much as possible” (6). Use evening and morning routines. Avoid early decision fatigue by planning the night before what you’re going to eat and wear. Have your most important tasks for the day written down. The more you can routinise, the more mental muscle you can free up.

2. Prioritise what’s most important. As we’ve seen, our willpower fluctuates throughout the day. Use this to your advantage by planning accordingly. Tackle your biggest and most important tasks when your mental energy is high. Usually first thing in the morning is a great time for these things. Also do your best to save your most important decisions for times when your willpower muscle is well rested. Research has shown that low levels of blood glucose impairs self-control and decision making (7) so it might be a good idea to eat some simple carbohydrates like an apple, a banana or a spoonful of honey when your willpower is starting to dwindle.

3. Start small. When you’re trying to create a new habit, avoid falling into the trap of asking too much of your depleted willpower muscle. Start so small that you don’t have to rely on high mental energy to do it:

Don’t worry about results when you’re just starting out. If you just stay consistent these small changes will naturally expand into the more demanding behaviour you want to create.

In short — the keys to increasing your willpower and making better decisions is to make less unimportant decisions, make the important decisions at the right time and avoid relying on willpower when you’re creating change.

Never cut a tree down in the wintertime.
Never make a negative decision in the low time.
Never make your most important decisions when you are in your worst moods.
Wait. Be patient. The storm will pass. The spring will come.

– Robert H. Schuller


  1. Obama’s Way
  2. Extraneous factors in judicial decisions
  3. Decision fatigue
  4. “Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource?”
  5. Making choices impairs subsequent self-control: A limited-resource account of decision making, self-regulation, and active initiative
  6. Boring Is Productive
  7. The Physiology of Willpower: Linking Blood Glucose to Self-Control