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Knowing when not to trust yourself--and Who to trust instead

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“The best decision makers are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.” ~Dr. Roy Baumeister

Earlier this week, I read a fascinating article in The New York Times, Do you suffer from decision fatigue? The article explores several studies and includes interviews with researchers that conclude “the very act of making decisions depletes our ability to make them well” and then asks: “So how do we navigate a world of endless choice?”

According to the studies and researchers, our willpower weakens as the day goes on, like a tired out muscle—and our ability to make good decisions wanes with it. The more decisions we make, the harder it becomes to make good decisions and the easier it becomes to give into desires that thwart our goals (like eating that candy bar when we are on a diet or sending that e-mail when we know we shouldn’t). In addition, the level of glucose in our bodies also affects our decision making ability—the less glucose, the worse the decisions. This explains why, the article says, dieters have a harder time sticking to their diet if they don’t eat regularly throughout the day or as the day goes on. Or why judges tend to parole offenders in the morning and right after lunch but not similar offenders later in the day.

The article includes some good suggestions to combat decision fatigue. For example, be aware of the symptoms of decision fatigue, like low glucose levels or “the propensity to experience everything more intensely,” causing “[i]mpulses to eat, drink, spend and say stupid things feel more powerful.” Get solid rest, take breaks throughout the day, keep your glucose levels up with protein versus sugar, schedule things (like exercise), avoid fatigue and avoid making important decisions at the end of the day. The “people with the best self-control,” says social psychologist Roy Baumeister:
… are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.
But no matter what we do, say researchers, our willpower will wane throughout the day—and it’s best to be aware of that. As Baumeister concludes at the end of the article, “The best decision makers are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”

A thought-provoking and informative read—and one that made me think of some deeper truths.

First, I can’t help but notice how the studies reflect the human condition we find laid out in scripture. “I decide to do good, but I don't really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway,” as Paul puts it in a letter to Roman believers. “My decisions, such as they are, don't result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.” The studies reflect this; our willpower is broken and it will wane no matter what we do. On the Romans 7 side of Romans 8, there is no fixing it, only treating the flaw to minimize the damage.

I also appreciate how the researcher indicates that there is great wisdom that comes from knowing our shortcomings—and the solutions presented in the article also remind me of the benefit of discipline in our lives. I appreciated how the researchers suggest scheduling your day instead of running through it without a plan; or meeting with a friend for exercise instead of depending on your own willpower. (The Pomodoro Time Management Technique—one I use often—is a good application of their principles.) And when the researcher spoke of the people with the best control developing habits that help them make good decisions, I immediately thought of how Dallas Willard talks about spiritual disciples (like prayer, service, spending time in scripture, helping others, accountability with other believers, etc.) in the context of moving from someone characterized by the thoughts, feelings and habits of a ruined soul to one characterized by the thoughts, feelings, habits, and relationship with the Father that characterized Jesus.
But the power is not in the spiritual disciplines themselves; if so, they’d just be another self-help tool—“a band-aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it,” to borrow Paul’s words in that same letter to the Romans. Instead, spiritual disciplines point to the root of our problem: we can’t overcome our flaws, bent towards selfishness, and propensity towards brokenness on our own willpower. That dilemma is resolved in Jesus, through whom God “personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all.” God gives us a chance at a new life, one not ruled by broken willpower but by wholeness and life—one where we may, as Paul puts it, “still experience all the limitations of sin” but also “experience life on God's terms”—“a spacious, free life.

And this is where spiritual disciples come in. As folks like Dallas Willard and Richard Foster put it in the Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible, the disciplines help us cooperate with God in becoming the kind of person who experiences life on God’s terms:
 [Spiritual disciples are] the God-ordained means by which each of us in enabled to place the little, individualized power pack we all possess--the human body--before God as 'a living sacrifice' (Rom. 12:1). It is the way we go about training in the spiritual life. By means of this process we become, through time and experience, the kind of persons who naturally and freely express 'love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control' (Gal. 5:22-23). . . . 
A Spiritual Discipline is an intentionally directed action by which we do what we can do in order to receive from God the ability (or power) to do what we cannot do by direct effort. . . . The Spiritual Disciplines in and of themselves have no merit whatsoever. They possess no righteousness, contain no rectitude. Their purpose--their only purpose--is to place us before God. After that they have come to the end of their usefulness. But it is enough. Then the grace of God steps in, takes this simple offering of ourselves, and creates out of it the kind of person who embodies the goodness of God . . . .
In the end, the ability to make good decisions means we rely on a will other than our own. God doesn’t simply help us make better decisions or live better lives but changes us into the kind of people who live lives dripping with his fruit—the kind of people, as The Message phrases it, who are “able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.” As we trust and walk with him, we become the kind of people who experience life—a spacious, free life—on God’s terms, the way we were created and now enabled to live.

In the end, to turn a phrase, it could be said that the best decision makers are those who not only know when not to trust themselves but also know Whom to trust as well.


Benjamin Ady said…

I generally (pretty much always) really like your blog, and pop by occasionally to see what fascinating new article you'll have on a favorite tv show or movie, or perhaps on one I haven't heard of but know I'll like.

This post was a totally new experience for me on your blog. It really caused me to pause and consider. I used to have very similar beliefs to some of the ones you share in this post, and over the last few years I've undergone a series of fairly large belief changes. I no longer believe in that I as a human being have a fundamental problem or flaw that needs fixing. I used to believe I couldn't trust myself, and needed to rely on God, but I've come to believe I can totally trust myself, all the time, from beginning of the day 'til end of the day, whatever my glucose level. =)

Thanks for providing me a chance to notice and question my new beliefs. I feel actually really refreshed after reading your post and considering it. It's helped me rechoose, again, the new beliefs I've chosen, and feel, again, delighted and invigorated by them.
Carmen Andres said…
thanks--i think :)

seriously, ALWAYS good to hear from you! one of the things i've grown to appreciate about blogging is the connections and conversations i develop with folks i'd never meet in my own little spot in the world. while they may be brief and separated by blocks of time, it somehow makes me feel more, well, connected and engaged. blessings.
Donnie Manis said…
A different perspective from the first comment: This post hit the nail on the head for me and helped me by putting into words something I've always noticed. A colleague of mine and I often find ourselves faced with a highly technical and important discussion at the end of the day. Over time, we've learned to stop and save it for the next morning because a decision so late in the day is bound to be a bad one. The way you've connected it to Scripture just solidifies the point. I shared your post with my colleague today and he agrees with me - right on target!
Carmen Andres said…
donnie, i'm so glad it resonates with someone else! take care, blessings.