Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

Grief, despair, and decision fatigue: How you can cope? Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney attempts to answer that question.

RESTON, Va., October 17, 2011 – Most people know that grief can make even the simplest decision difficult. Seemingly in agreement, prudent financial advisors recommend that bereaved individuals make no major decisions immediately after the death of a loved one.

They counsel waiting awhile, sometimes as long as possible. 

But even if financial decisions can be delayed, the daily demands of life require decision-making. Even constantly saying “no” is actually a series of decisions. Staying in bed for two days is a decision. Not eating is a decision. Declaring, “I can’t help it,” is a decision because it is an act of refusing to engage the will, which, ironically, is also a decision.

Strength of will can’t necessarily control grief, not should it be expected to. Feelings come out, one way or another, and different people deal with them in different ways.

But is there a way to protect oneself against the feelings of exhaustion and despair that seem to complicate and sometimes even devour grief? 

All about “decision fatigue”

'Willpower' cover art.

‘Willpower’ cover art.

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney (The Penguin Press HC, 2011) mentions grief only once, and that’s in reference to turtles (p. 28)! If one is dealing with grief, however, this can be a compelling, although not necessarily a comforting book. 

Why? It explores the relatively new theory of “decision fatigue.” And dealing with the death of a loved one is riddled with decisions for those left behind.

What is decision fatigue?

It’s a depletion of one’s mental energy from having to make too many decisions throughout the day. Decision fatigue not physical tiredness, though you definitely feel as if you are being worn down.

Decision fatigue weakens self-control. Trade-offs become impossible. Tierney says, “Once you’re mentally depleted, you become reluctant to make trade-offs, which involve a particularly advanced and taxing form of decision making.”  Ordinary decision-making skills lock up, and impulse drives action. 

Even having to choose among many luxuries while you’re on a cruise can cause decision fatigue. (One response to decision fatigue is impulsive behavior, which doesn’t feel so bad when you’re having fun.)

People tend to respond to decision fatigue in one of two ways. If they’re not making rash decisions, they may avoid making them at all (“I think I’ll just lounge by the pool … “)

In the context of grief, however, the effects of decision fatigue (which is already taxing in and of itself), can incur serious long-term financial and relationship consequences. 

Mitigating the fatigue caused by grief and decision-making

Some of the corrosive effects of grief on one’s soul and heart simply can’t be avoided. They just are. We survive by participating in, rather than avoiding, the changes that sorrow and loss bring to our lives.

Perhaps the there’s a way to relieve some of the exhaustion associated with decision-making while grieving. At least a little. There are no perfect answers. Individuals have different preferences, and some people would rather invest their energy in grieving than exhaust it in decision-making. If you’re trapped in this kind of dilemma, here are some ideas that may help: 

Angel of Grief, suffering from decision fatigue.

Angel of Grief, suffering from decision fatigue.

  • Don’t confuse your fear of pain with actual pain. 
  • Decide whatever you can in advance. (Note: Funeral directors are not necessarily looking for fast cash when they advocate planning ahead.) 
  • Delegate decisions. What you can’t delegate, defer.
  • Ask someone you trust to pre-select options for you. Then select from those. 
  • Grief can addle comprehension. When financial or emotional decisions are required from you, look for bottom lines and verify these decisions, aloud, and in the presence of those who may be involved. 
  • Know that some decisions won’t make sense to other people. This is true even when you’re not grieving. 
  • Answer “Why do you” or “Why don’t you” questions with “Because that’s what I want,” or “I’ll tell you later.” Few people will remember to ask again, and by then you’ll likely be composed enough to respond they way you want to. 
  • Don’t treat comments about what he/she/it “would have wanted…” like revealed knowledge from The Beyond.

But perhaps the most important way of all to avoid decision fatigue as you grieve: Have No Regrets.


Frances Ponick’s book, Only Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available in paperback from the author and will soon be available online. She coaches written and verbal communications and is the writer’s block expert at AllExperts. Feel free to ask questions there, or connect with Frances at Twitter,Facebook, and/or LinkedInRead more about “Stages of Grief” in the Washington Times Communities.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Frances Ponick

Fran Ponick is a speaker, author, commentator, teacher, and coach. She has decades of experience in technical, business, marketing, and proposal writing and editing, and has won awards in journalism, formal poetry, and acting. She has also served as a consultant to DoD. Her book, Only Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available from Amazon.com.


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