14 Surprising Things That Affect Your Willpower And Decision Making

Obamaeating18ReutersBarack Obama

President Obama only wears blue or grey suits.

As he tells Vanity Fair, it’s a way of managing his willpower.

“I’m trying to pare down decisions,” he says. “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

Obama’s focus on routine is backed up by research. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister has found that willpower is like a muscle — it can be strengthened or fatigued with use.

It’s a crucial insight, given that a 2011 study of 1 million people around the world found that people think that self-control is their biggest weakness or character failure.

As Baumeister details in his book “Willpower: The Greatest Human Strength” and a New York Times Magazine cover story, willpower and decision-making are interconnected. The house you grew up in, the number of decisions you made today, and what your friends are doing, all affect your decisions in weird ways. Here’s a look at how.

Make your most important decisions in the morning, before you experience 'ego depletion.'

'Freud speculated that the self, or ego, depended on mental activities involving the transfer of energy,' the New York Times reports. '(His) experiments demonstrated that there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control.'

As the day wears on, your energy reserves are further depleted.

Our finite supply of 'decision-making power' means that making a series of decisions can be exhausting.

Which would explain why shopping is so tiring.

Researchers found that shoppers who 'had already made the most decisions in the stores gave up the quickest' on a maths test.

Your unconscious plays a key role in helping you make good decisions.

President Obama's decision to 'sleep on it' -- it being whether or not to raid Osama Bin Laden's compound -- aligns with psychologists' recommendations for complex decision making.

'Because your conscious attention is limited, you should enlist the help of your unconscious,' according to the Harvard Business Review.

Even if you don't have the option to delay your decision for long, engaging in another activity will take your mind off your dilemma, and allow your unconscious to surface.

Your decisions are shaped by your friends and family.

Kate Moss And Jamie Hince Sighting in Paris - January 15, 2010

Breakthroughs in network science -- the study of social groups -- have revealed how many things we tend to think of as being individual, like whether you get fat or stop smoking, are actually collective.

As James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego, and Nick Christakis of Harvard Medical School have found, our behaviours are contagious. If your best friend becomes obese, you have a 57% greater chance of growing obese too. If a close colleague quits smoking, you have a 34% greater change of quitting smoking, too.

Sometimes, it's best to run your ideas by others.

Network science has insights into productivity, too.

When researchers tracked the successes of individuals at an aerospace company, including patents and products those individuals brought to market, they found that who a given engineer knew was tremendously important.

After experience, the relationships that an individual had were the greatest predictor of success. The people who had relationships up and down hierarchy and across departments were the most likely to succeed by the company's metrics.

Why? Because when you have quality relationships with people, you can combine ideas, gather feedback, and earn buy-in for your projects -- another reason that generous people succeed.

If you can exercise your willpower, studies suggest you're more likely to succeed.

In the famous 1972 Stanford marshmallow experiment, school children were asked to sit at a table with a marshmallow in front of them and not eat it -- for an excruciating 15 minutes. They got a sweet pay off if they made it: a second marshmallow.

As has been widely reported, the students that could wait for the second treat had higher SAT scores and lower levels of substance abuse than their more impulsive friends.

But the waiting game might not be the whole story...

Successful people don't rely on willpower, they build routines.

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