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How to Save Your Willpower by Avoiding Decision Fatigue

Andrew Syrios
5 min read
How to Save Your Willpower by Avoiding Decision Fatigue

“Imagine throwing a pebble in a pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact.” (From Getting Things Done by David Allen)

I’ve made it known before that I have found David Allen’s getting it done system to be extremely helpful. If you’re interested in that system, please follow the link, but here I want to focus on the key point that he makes in the above quotation: It is critical to respond to any given input with the correct amount of attention and energy.

The two mistakes people generally make here are obviously to either spend too much time and energy working on or making a decision for an unimportant matter or let an important matter slip through the cracks. I would argue that the first mistake is often the cause of the second. We spend so much time on unimportant tasks and decisions that we have neither the time nor the energy for the important ones.

Is This Really Important?

Oftentimes, all we have to do is sit back and think is this really important to realize that whatever task we are in the middle of is not at all important. Those tasks need to be put to the back burner, delegated, or just discarded. And if you are going to do them, the best time to do them is when your mind is fried, perhaps late in the day. Then you can just meander through them on autopilot at a time when there’s not much productive you could do anyway.

If you save the important tasks and decisions of the day until you’re tired and unfocused, those things will either get delayed or done poorly. I believe a lot of procrastination boils down to this.

man at desk with hand covering face taking a break from work with glasses and open laptop on desk symbolizing stress, frustration

Related: A Simple Way to Think About Expected Value (EV) When Making a Decision

And it’s not just poor delegation; it’s also the endless interruptions we receive throughout the day that can distract us from more important tasks. It’s the questions and decisions we have to make, especially as entrepreneurs who are “the boss.” It is important to remember that willpower is finite. The best illustration of this is the so-called radish experiment performed by Roy Baumeister, which he describes in his book Willpowerir?t=biggerpocke0a 20&l=am2&o=1&a=0143122231:

“When the college students walked into Baumeister’s laboratory, they were already hungry because they’d been fasting… The experimental subjects sat down at a table with several culinary choices: warm cookies, some pieces of chocolate, and a bowl of radishes. Some students were invited to eat the cookies and candy. The unlucky ones were assigned to “the radish condition”: no treats, just raw radishes.

“…the researchers left the students alone with the radishes and the cookies, and observed them through a small, hidden window. The ones in the radish condition clearly struggled with the temptation. Many gazed longingly at the cookies before steeling down to bite reluctantly into a radish. Some of them picked up a cookie and smelled it, savoring the pleasure of freshly baked chocolate…

“[Afterward] the students were taken to another room and given geometry puzzles to work on… in fact, the puzzles were insoluble. The test was to see how long they’d work before giving up. The students who’d been allowed to eat chocolate chip cookies and candy typically worked on the puzzles for about twenty minutes… The sorely tempted radish eaters, though, gave up in just eight minutes.”

Willpower is not just drained by staring at scrumptious but forbidden cookies. Nor is it just drained by doing work. Even the mere act of making decisions can drain your willpower. Decision fatigue is very real. Psychologists have found that decision fatigue can result in all sorts of things, such as poor decision making ability, reduced ability to make trade-offs, decision avoidance, and impulse purchasing.

Some famous people, such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, even made it a habit to wear basically the same thing every day. They have enough big decisions to make; why add picking what to wear? (Or you could approach it like me and just grab the first shirt that might kinda match the pants that I randomly selected five seconds earlier.)

Avoiding Decision Fatigue as a Real Estate Investor

As real estate investors, we call the shots for a real estate project on the marketing, acquisition, rehabbing, selling, leasing, maintenance, and financing decisions that are to be made. There are lots and lots and lots of decisions that come along with being a real estate investor. Most of these decisions, however, are rather trivial. The ones that are bigger and need more focus are usually rather obvious, especially given the prices attached to them. With smaller decisions, you need to proactively work on creating the habit of making snap decisions and then sticking to them unless something dramatically changes.

If you don’t, it would be like spending your time putting stamps on marketing envelopes or fixing a tenant’s leaky toilet. Yes, early on while you’re getting started, you will probably have to do some such things yourself. But as you grow, you’ll want to delegate them and do higher-order, more profitable tasks as soon as possible. What you’re not able to do because you do something else is what economists call an opportunity cost. And wearing out your decision-making capacity should be seen in the same way.


Related: Making Decisions & Taking Action: 2 Factors That Dictate Real Estate Success

You want to save your mental energy for higher-order decisions and not get stuck in the nitty-gritty. Sometimes you will be wrong on these decisions. But it doesn’t matter that much because these decisions aren’t that important. Learn to get over it! Being a perfectionist in this regard will make you a mediocre-ist very quickly (if it doesn’t simply drive you crazy). The small items don’t need to be perfect; they just need to get done. The big items—that’s what you want to spend your mental energy on.

Here are some examples:

  • Should you go with this $49 light fixture you normally use or this one that is nicer and normally sells for $89 but is on sale now for $69?
  • One painter’s bid is $2,500, and he can start tomorrow, while the other’s bid is $2,200, but he can’t start until next week. Which should you use?
  • You like two carpet types just about equally. Which should you pick?
  • Should you get black appliances or stainless steel, which would cost an extra $250?
  • Should you buy enough envelopes for two mailings and save a little with a quantity discount or just buy one?
  • Should you add X zip code as an area to market to?
  • Should you put a stripe on your business card design or not?
  • Should the first marketing picture you use on the Craigslist ad be this picture or that one or maybe this other one?
  • Should you set the rent price at $995 or $975?

The answer to these questions is, more or less, who cares? Just pick one and do it!

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Of course, other decisions require more careful thought, such as what to offer on a certain house or whether to accept a tenant or not. But if you take a step back, a decision’s importance is usually relatively obvious. Don’t let yourself get bogged down focusing on the little things. “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” as they say. If you do, you’ll just wear out your willpower for when you actually need it.


Do you make all the small decisions in your business—or do you outsource the minor choices to someone else?

Let us know how you avoid decision fatigue with a comment.

Note By BiggerPockets: These are opinions written by the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BiggerPockets.