Chez Moi: Decision Fatigue & Cooking

(Here’s me messing around with a cooking book idea.)

So I’m standing in front of a full fridge again and going, “I don’t want any of this stuff.”  I used to do this with closets, too:  a closet full of clothes and nothing I wanted to wear.  Or I’d be at a restaurant, looking at a menu for ten minutes and not know what to order.

I used to think it made me a bad, indecisive person.  Lazy.

Then I learned about decision fatigue.  Basically, I only have so much willpower to use any given day, and when I run out of it, I spin my wheels until I’m recharged.  Which looks a lot like indecisiveness.

The days that I stand in front of the open fridge door are the days when I have nothing left.  The days when I eat nothing but crap.  The days when I break down and make some chain restaurant solve my food problems.  I’m not lazy or indecisive (although I have struggled for years over making choices in socially fraught situations).

I’m tired.

We call it “stress,” but it often isn’t.  During the course of a normal day, doing normal tasks, it is possible to exhaust your willpower resources and end up too tired to make desicions.  Then we wonder why we’re such failures at reaching our goals.  Why couldn’t I just force myself to make better choices?

Add in some real stress…and things get worse.  Not only do we run out of willpower, but time disappears as your brain goes into forced shutdown mode.  When I’m stressed I will suddenly realize I’ve been on Facebook for two hours, with no idea what I’ve been doing other than skimming through posts.  I’ll read a book and have no idea of what I read.   I used to watch a lot of TV.  Same thing.

The first line of defense against having no willpower is to take the times that you have willpower, and plan ahead for the times you don’t.  When you make a to-do list for the day, that’s what you’re doing.

However, most people make crappy to-do lists.  I make horrible to-do lists.  I usually plan out an eight-hour work day with ten hours with of stuff.  I can’t help it.  “Maybe…if I finish up early…I can slip in a few extra things…”

And of course I end up a) not accomplishing everything on my list, and b) psyching myself out so that I don’t finish the six hours worth of stuff (plus email and the same kinds of breaks that normal employees get) that I could have, if I set things up right.

Let’s not do that.

Let’s not plan to make a meal that takes two hours to prepare on a weeknight, just because we “should.”  (If you promise, I will, too.)  Let’s not even feel bad about it.

Let’s not even plan to make a ten-minute meal that takes ten minutes’ worth of willpower.  Because there are going to be days when, honestly, that won’t happen.  Some days I couldn’t make myself a cheese sandwich, because that would mean trying to find bread and cheese in the post-apocalyptic landscape of my fridge.

Here’s my suggestion for a starting place:

  • Figure out what you normally go out for when you have a zero willpower day.
  • Go to the grocery story and buy at least three premade meals of that to stick in your freezer or fridge (freezer for preference).
  • When you get low on those, replenish.
  • No blood no foul.

Your chosen meal can be really, really horrible for you.  It’s still better for you than going out–I can almost guarantee it.

Sure, you “should” worry about eating healthfully.  You “should” worry about a lot of things.  But for the days when you have nothing left, you have one choice:  eat that one thing.

At least I don’t have to decide what to have for supper.

It’s weird.  Once you have that in place, the little voice in the back of your head that tries to make you into a Responsible Adult ™ gets a little quieter.  For me, it started with burritos.  Horrible, horrible freezer burritos.  Now it varies.  It could be freezer burritos of varying quality, it could be pizza, it could be french onion soup.  But there is always one thing in the freezer or fridge that is “the no-brainer meal.”

Some weeks we don’t touch it; some weeks it’s all gone by Wednesday.  But I’m not standing in front of the fridge feeling terrible about myself.

And that’s enough to start with.



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