Two words: “ego depletion.”
No, I’m not talking about what happens when you check your Amazon ranking too often (don’t do that!). I’m referring to the stuff in this essay (adapted by John Tierney from his and Roy F. Baumeister’s forthcoming book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength). The focus here is on something called “decision fatigue”, the real physiological/neurological aspects involved in the decision-making process.
There’s a lot of fascinating research covered in the essay, which encompasses everything from judges deciding who to parole (and how if your case is up around tea-time, and the judge hasn’t had a snack, you’re screwed), to the brain-whipping effects of filling out a wedding registry, to why people in poverty are more likely to grab a candy bar from the impulse-buy section when checking out at the grocery store.
Basically–surprise!–we are limited in our ability to make carefully considered decisions. Our brains, making decisions big and small all day, eventually reach a point of surrender or collapse, where we are more likely to say OKAY WHATEVER I’M TIIIRED.
The article got me thinking about writing. What is writing if not a constant series of choices? Writing is decision-making. This word, not that word. This much detail, this emotional moment, this plot point. Though it may look like we’re just sitting on our asses doing nothing, we are engaged in a very taxing mental activity that calls on a “muscle” that can poop out just like your quads at the gym. Which explains why I (and a lot of other writers I know) find it difficult or impossible to work more than two or three hours a day before the law of diminishing returns kicks in. That number of hours is of course different for everyone, but it’s infinite for no one.
I liked this:
“Part of the resistance against making decisions comes from our fear of giving up options. The word ‘decide’ shares an etymological roots with ‘homicide,’ the Latin word ‘caedere,’ meaning ‘to cut down’ or ‘to kill,’ and that loss looms especially large when decision fatigue sets in.”
In other words: If “killing your darlings” or, less violently, “cutting,” is a necessary part of good writing, that gets harder to do as the work day wears on, and you are less likely to make good decisions, and more likely to spend ten minutes deleting that semi-colon, putting it back in, deleting it, putting it back in, etc. At that point, you might as well call it a day and go watch some Kitchen Nightmares.
Or, have a snack! The brain runs on glucose, and if your body is depleted, your ability to make decisions will be compromised. Research shows that eating gives a temporary boost to flagging decision-making capabilities. If you were at SCBWI-NY, you may recall that I suggested writing with your hand in a bowl of M&Ms wasn’t the best idea, and that solid nutritional habits are an asset to the writing life. Perhaps I spoke too soon.
“The problem is that what we identify as sugar doesn’t help as much over the course of the day as the steadier supply of glucose we would get from eating proteins and other more nutritious foods.”
I love it when science-y people tell me I’m right. But, yes, there is a physiological reason for that weirdly intense need for snacks while engaged in under-deadline revisions and longer than usual writing days.
This all goes back to my recent posts about the importance of taking care of yourself, thinking about what you say “yes” to, separating the real “have tos” from the imposters, and accepting limitations. If you feel, somehow, that you’re a slacker if you’re not writing six to eight hours a day, and that if you only had more willpower, you could just do it, science says you’re wrong.
Tierney writes that successful decision-makers “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 counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.”
I add: Every page of good writing is the result of good decision-making. It’s real work. Do what you can to conserve that energy. Respect your brainz. Sustainability. Slow and steady wins it.
Speaking of resting, I wrote a bit more about my time off and what I’m doing for my brain and spirit, here at Good Letters.
See you back here next week!