In research of the parole-granting patterns of judges in 1,100 court decisions in Israel, Professors Jonathan Levav of Stanford and Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University discovered the following:

70% | Percentage of prisoners paroled who appeared before the judges early in the morning
10% | Percentage of prisoners paroled who appeared before the judges late in the afternoon

The researchers found nothing malicious or even unusual about the judges’ behavior. According to Levav and Danziger, the judges were simply displaying the common pattern of  “decision fatigue.”

It’s the same kind of fatigue that routinely warps the judgment of all of us, says John Tierney, a science writer for The New York Times and co-author of the book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.*

Quote from Tierney:

“Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.”

It’s also what makes tired and hungry judges deny prisoners parole.

Group of business people at long boring meeting

What causes decision fatigue?

Blame glucose, the simple sugar that is the energy source for most living organisms. Glucose levels rise and fall throughout the day, impacting anything that requires mental effort. Things like self-control and thoughtful decision-making are influenced by these swings in the level of glucose.

Business meeting

So, when are the best times of day to pitch for a major contract?

There are all types of activities related to running a small business that can be impacted by decision fatigue. The more you know about how it works, the better you can plan for it. For example, if you know you are going to be making a presentation to potential buyers of your product, you want to make sure not to schedule such a meeting at a time likely to be in their decision fatigue zone.

When are the decision fatigue zones? To find out, let’s follow through the day the previously-mentioned judges and learn when you want to appear before a group of decision makers.

A little before 10:30, the judges were served a sandwich and a piece of fruit.

20% | Chance of getting a parole right before snack time
65% | Chance of getting a parole right after snack time

The snack time buzz lasted only a short period of time. You really don’t want to appear in front of a panel of judges around noon when lunch is moments away.

10% | Chance of getting a parole right before lunch
60% | Chances of getting a parole right after lunch

Bottom line | Make your pitch immediately after the decision-maker(s) eat.

“Good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it’s always there. It’s a state that fluctuates.”

– Roy F. Baumeister, Social Psychologist

What are the best ways to cope with decision fatigue?

According to Roy F. Baumeister, co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength and professor at Florida State University, people who cope best with decision fatigue are the ones who structure their days in ways that conserve willpower. Here are some of the tactics to maximize the amount of time during the day you can make good decisions:

  • Never schedule endless back-to-back meetings.
  • Establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. (A wardrobe of jeans and black turtle necks worked for Steve Jobs.)
  • Don’t wait until the morning to force yourself to exercise, set up regular appointments to work out with a friend.
  • Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.

“Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low,” Baumeister points out. That’s why the truly wise don’t restructure the company at 4 p.m. They don’t make major commitments during the cocktail hour. And if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach. “The best decision makers,” Baumeister says, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”


This first appeared on on May 11, 2016

Photos: ThinkStock

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