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Immoral Afternoons

Good advice.

Good advice.

I used to work for a CEO who had one hard and fast rule when it came to making decisions: he wouldn’t make any important decisions after 2:00 in the afternoon. I used to think it was an odd and unnecessary rule … but then I started counting calories.

My little food diary app keeps track of what I eat and lets me know if I’m getting too much of this or not enough of that. It’s interesting to keep track of what I consume. But what really surprised me was not what I eat so much as when I eat. I eat a well-balanced, healthy diet throughout the day. Then, around 7:00 at night, all hell breaks loose. On a typical day, I eat roughly 50% of my calories between 7:00 and 10:00 at night. If I went to bed at 7:00 pm, I’d be much healthier.

My experience reminded me of Daniel Kahneman’s story about the Israeli parole board. The default decision in any such hearing is to deny parole. To permit parole, the board has to find information that would point toward a positive outcome. In other words, it’s easy to deny parole. It takes more work – sometimes quite a bit more work – to grant parole.

Kahneman reports on a study that tracked parole decisions by time of day. Prisoners whose cases were considered just after lunch were more likely to win parole than those whose cases were considered before lunch. It all has to do with energy. Our brains consume huge amounts of energy. Making difficult decisions requires even more energy. Just before lunch, members of the parole board don’t have much energy. Just after lunch they do. So before lunch, they’re more likely to make the default decision. After lunch, they’re more capable of making the more laborious decision.

Energy doesn’t just affect decision making. It also affects will power (which, of course, is a form of decision making). When our bodies have sufficient stores of energy, we also have more will power. Why do I eat so many calories after 7:00 pm? Perhaps because my energy stores are at a low and, therefore, my will power is also at a low. It might be smarter to spread my calories more evenly throughout the day so my energy – and will power – don’t ebb.

Energy also affects ethics. A research study published in last month’s edition of Psychological Science is titled, “The Morning Morality Effect”. The researchers, Maryam Kouchaki and Isaac Smith, ran four experiments and found that people “… engaged in less unethical behavior … on tasks performed in the morning than in the same tasks performed in the afternoon.” In fact, “people were 20% to 50% more likely to lie, cheat, or otherwise be dishonest in the afternoon than in the morning.”

What’s the common denominator here? Energy depletion. As the day wears on and our energy levels drop, we’re less able to make complicated decisions or resist temptation. The parole board example suggests that we can combat this to some degree simply by eating. I wonder if taking a nap might also help – though I haven’t seen any research evidence of this.

Bottom line: my old boss was right. Make the tough decisions in the morning. Take it easy in the afternoon.

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