Shower, Shave, and Clean Your Gun
Decision Fatigue and the Willpower Muscle
“Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”
One day, I showed up hangry to Talmud class.
No, that is not a typo,1 and yes, that is a real word.
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“Hangry” is a portmanteau of “hungry” and “angry,”2 defined by Webster’s as “irritable or angry because of hunger.” We’ve all been there before. Typically, Talmud class took place the period prior to lunch, and thus I suspect that since I was eager for lunch in the formerly delicious JTS Cafeteria,3 my patience was wearing thin.
My professor, a wonderful Israeli gentleman named Moti Arad, had a soft spot for me. He smiled and said, “Josh…you know what I do when I’m cranky? I shower, shave, and clean my gun.”
Honestly, I have no idea whether or not Moti owned a gun, and there will be no political sermon about a metaphorical or literal gun. All I remember is when Moti said that, I laughed, and to this day when I’m in a bad mood in a work context, I tell colleagues that I need to “shower, shave, and clean my gun.”
We like to imagine that leadership ability can overcome basic human needs like hunger or sleep, but research grows every year that there is a direct causal relationship between the satiation of basic human needs and effectiveness as a leader.
Of course, we learned this from Moshe thousands of years ago in Parashat Yitro, a classic story of decision fatigue; Yitro observes that Moshe will “נָבֹ֣ל תִּבֹּ֔ל,” or “wear himself out” from being the only person making decisions for the Israelites, hearing disputes from morning until night.4 Yitro’s statement foreshadows this week’s concept.
I have been hangry many times, but I have never been up for parole, nor do I plan on it (unless I am trying to start a second career as an actor like Tobias Fünke and get a part as frightened inmate number two). But if I ever needed to sit before a parole board, I would like to know that the people making decisions about my future would maximize objectivity and minimize subjectivity.
Shai Danziger, Jonathan Levav, and Liora Avnaim-Pesso find that this is not the case.5 After reviewing over 1,000 parole cases in Israel, these researchers conclude that the primary factor in whether or not a prisoner got parole was not the crime or even the background of the prisoner (e.g. Jewish, Muslim, etc.), but whether or not the parole hearing took place at the beginning of the day or the end of the day. The earlier in the day, the more likely the prisoner would get parole. The later in the day, the less likely.
John Tierney popularized the term “decision fatigue” when sharing this research in a 2011 article in The New York Times Magazine.6 The more decisions a person needs to make, the worse they are at making decisions. Going back to Yitro and Moshe, the problem with Moshe’s approach is that the sheer volume of decisions he needs to make means that he will become worse at making them over time, no matter Moshe’s connection to God.
Moreover, Tierney argues that when people experience decision fatigue, their brain starts to look for two highly problematic mental shortcuts.7 First, people become “reckless,” making critical decisions without thinking them through (i.e. “I am going to make a decision about parole “from my gut,” because I have no energy to read all the background material”). Second, people develop decision paralysis and choose to do nothing over making any decision (i.e. “If I don’t release this prisoner, I don’t have to think through the consequences”).
Think about how decision fatigue might play out in terms of when most Jewish organizations hold meetings of their lay leadership (i.e. executive committees, boards of directors, etc.). Since most board members of nonprofits have jobs during the day, most board meetings are held at night, a time during the day when people are more likely to suffer from decision fatigue. And worse, all of us have been in an evening meeting about a critical issue where the debate stopped or the chair forced a rush decision because people wanted to leave or go to sleep. One wonders how many bad decisions were made by organizations simply because the people sitting around the table were too tired to think clearly.8
If the concept of decision fatigue resonates with you, I highly recommend reading Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, written by John Tierney and psychologist Roy Baumeister.
While the book focuses on case studies like the one I shared above the Israeli court system, it’s important to note that Baumeister was pioneering research in this area through what he calls “ego depletion,”9 a more technical term than what Tierney reframes as “decision fatigue.” Baumeister and his colleagues find that attention and other mental faculties are finite resources, like any muscle in the human body. As such, muscles can be underused and overused, and we need to manage attention the same we manage any muscle. Of course, many people do not manage their muscles well, but it’s a great reminder that we need both.
My favorite life hack about decision fatigue? Laying out my work clothes and exercise clothes the night before, instead of picking out clothes during the day; turns out President Obama has the same approach. When I wake up in the morning, I want to focus on the things that are most important. Choosing one of my fifty (!) blue dress shirts may seem like a small matter, but I am saving energy for decisions that require focused attention.10
How Chat GPT Will Destablize White-Collar Work: Professionals in what Richard Florida calls “the creative class” are overconfident about whether or not computers will ever do work better than them (honestly, I could easily see a computer writing a better D’var Torah than me in the next ten years). As such, every reader of this newsletter should look at this take on artificial intelligence and the future of white-collar work.
Why Starbucks Fans Are Steaming: I don’t drink coffee, but I love a good rewards program (what comes from years of traveling for work). Here is a fascinating article about why Starbucks fans hate the new rewards program, even though the changes benefit the consumer.
Best Techniques for Evaluating Character: In the end, a person’s character may be the most important factor in how they perform at work, but “character” is notoriously hard to measure. I found this article helpful and effective ways to evaluate character.
Holocaust Education in the TikTok Era: Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is rising at exactly the time when there are fewer and fewer survivors of the Holocaust to tell their stories about the stakes. Here is a perspective on how to address Holocaust Education to the new generation.
Sticking with Strategy: Many previous issues have discussed the danger of pursuing a strategy that will inevitably fail, but less attention has been paid to when a person should stick with a strategy in the face of resistance. This piece from Roger Martin, one of the world’s foremost experts on strategy, was a fascinating analysis of how to decide whether or not to stick with a strategy.
The Dark Side of Productivity
Yes, just because I want you to be more productive does not mean that productivity comes with no cost. Listen to learn more.
Cue Shira Kaplan nodding and saying, “honestly, you’re such a bad profreader that I wasn’t sure.” (See what I did there?)
The best well-known example of a portmanteau is “brunch” (i.e. “breakfast” and “lunch”). You’d love it; it’s not quite breakfast, it’s not quite lunch, but you get a little slice of cantaloupe at the end…
The glory days of Flick. Those who get it, get it. Mmmmm….Meat Day.
Shemot 18:18. By the way, what’s interesting is that even though Moshe willingly adopts Yitro’s proposal, there is good reason to believe that Moshe still withered away over time from the total amount of decisions he needed to make…
I do not have any evidence that supports a causal relationship between holding meetings at night and groups making bad decisions. That said, I wonder how it would help decision-making if a board gave members time to vote virtually after a debate takes place to give people a chance to reflect when they are less fatigued. In other words, if a meeting with a debate takes place around a difficult issue at night, send a Google Form to all board members for them to cast their vote by a certain time the next day. After the president and secretary confirm the results, the decision is shared in writing with the board.
Roy F. Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne M. Tice, “Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 74, Number 5 (May 1998), 1,252-1,265.
Cue my wife nodding her head about how many blue shirts I own.