Most medicine comes with side effects. What’s really swell is when the side effects are good. One of Ayurveda’s powerful tools for healing and change is called dinacharya: a healthy daily routine. A healthy dinacharya may help heal physical and mental maladies, but a less obvious benefit is its effect on the phenomenon of “decision fatigue,” something probably more of us suffer from, more often than we are aware.
“Decision fatigue” is a term currently used in Western science to describe a newly-coined, but likely ancient phenomenon that most of us probably experience on a daily basis. Like physical exertion, the act of decision-making requires glucose and, like physical fatigue, there is biological fatigue that sets in after a strenuous bout of decision-making. As excess physical exertion causes a reduced capacity for further coordinated, energetic, efficient physical exertion, excessive decision-making, may cause symptoms of decreased ability to make further appropriate or good decisions and choices in our lives.
Does this phenomenon really apply to us? Do we really have to make so many decisions in a day?
When we consider carefully what decisions are, the answer probably is yes.
Generally when we think of decisions, the bigger ones come to mind: Should I go to school? Should I become a carpenter or an engineer? Move? Marry? Divorce? But many decisions aren’t so easy to identify as decisions, and yet we encounter them on a daily—sometimes minute to minute—basis, especially when we consider that the act of exerting willpower is intimately connected to decision-making. When to meditate today, when to take that walk, should I walk or do yoga, when to eat, when to cook, when to bathe; should I or should I not eat that tasty ice cream, buy that shiny thing, have sex, listen to this gossip, watch this episode of Friends (again), whether or not to say what is on my mind or show certain emotions, eat alone or with my co-workers? All these things are decisions. Each decision made, or act of willpower executed, contributes to decision fatigue.
Some activities require us to make a surprising number of decisions in a short time. With an average computer-user looking at over 36 websites per day, online activity is generally very decision-making intensive. Should I check Facebook? Follow this or that link? Purchase something? Go get a snack?
Studies show that when we use willpower to repress tears, emotions, urges, or to avoid buying or eating impulsively, our willpower becomes fatigued. And we spend three or four hours resisting desire every day. As with other forms of decision fatigue, when we repeatedly exert willpower to repress urges, at some point the dam tends gives way and we begin to make poor choices.
Marketing gurus and seasoned salesman are well aware of this phenomenon and how to exploit it. It is no accident that impulse items are positioned at the checkout counter. You’ve just navigated yourself around the grocery store, managing some possibly fifty decisions regarding what to buy, what to leave, which brand to purchase, what would be good for you and your family, what to make for dinner, how much to get, etc., etc., etc. You are likely to suffer from decision fatigue by the time you reach the checkout lane, where the candy bars and the magazines await your decision-fatigued self.
If we don’t exert our willpower and avoid all the tasty treats, we could end up obese and ill. But there is a tenet of Ayurveda that says that we create disease if we repress our urges. So now we have a quandary: we need to exert willpower in order to avoid diseases associated with hedonism, but repression is an act of willpower that both increases decision fatigue and may cause other disease. What to do?
We can remedy this conundrum through the practice of dinacharya, a healthy daily routine.
These successful people rely on a daily routine to direct many important elements of their day, and save decision-making energy for other important things. They have a fixed schedule for self care: meditation, exercise, food, etc., thereby eliminating the need to decide when to address them, and are careful about when they make the other important decisions. They schedule important meetings and make important decisions in the morning, after breakfast, or just after lunch, when glucose levels support healthy decision-making, and avoid making decisions when they are tired, or on an empty stomach. They give themselves reasonable deadlines and don’t allow themselves to be scheduled back to back. Engaging in these habits helps us make better decisions more regularly, thereby avoiding crises.
Once we adopt a routine that makes sense to us and serves us well, and discard habits that do not, we corral our daily activities and behavior onto a track we have previously decided upon. We no longer have to decide when to eat, exercise, meditate, what ethical behavior we wish to adopt, and how we will spend our days. Thereafter, routine becomes a discipline. Discipline becomes habit, habit eliminates the need to make decisions, and our mental resources are freed up for new possibilities.
While it is useful to work with an Ayurvedic practitioner to formulate a daily routine tailored to our particular needs, there are few simple (if difficult) components we can start with:
- Wake before dawn each day and spend some time in meditation or contemplation
- Set aside some time, preferably at the same time each day, to engage in a form of exercise best suited to our constitution.
- Eat our meals at the same time every day.
- Go to bed, lights out, every night by 10pm
I recently read that as many as 15% of our genes are thought to be controlled by circadian rhythms. The ancient sages of Ayurveda knew that how we spend our days alters the course of our lives, and emphasized the practice of dinacharya. While times and experiences may change over millennia, the need for a daily routine may be more important today than ever.