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Is Travel Draining Your Will Power?
The Science Behind Decision-Making & Travel

by Tony · 14 comments

Overwhelmed by travel guilt in a delicious marketThe sound of street vendors haggling with tourists is a loud buzz in my ears. The smell of marinated meat being grilled fills the humid air.

It is my first day in what many consider the world’s greatest Chinatown, right near the center of Kuala Lumpur, and I am overwhelmed.

I want to go explore the city and eat at all of the fabulous food stalls. But I know we only have a few days in the city and still haven’t fully planned the next leg of our journey.

We need to book flights to Bali, find a hotel there, book surfing lessons, figure out the boat to the Gili islands, book a place to stay on the Gili islands, and still go explore everything Kuala Lumpur has to offer… YIKES!

Have you ever been so overwhelmed by travel decisions that you actually lose sight of why you’re traveling?

Do you gain weight whenever you travel no matter how hard you try to stay fit?

The reasons why are the same… and guess what?

There are some simple ways you can help yourself.  But first, let’s look at WHY it happens to all of us in the first place.

What Researchers Have Discovered About Will Power

Will power and travel

Will power is a finite resource.

Meaning the more decisions you make in the first half of the day, the less will power you will be able to exercise later.

Take Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida University that was recently highlighted by Wired magazine, who conducted an experiment showing will power as a finite resource. In the experiment half of the participants were told to ignore a plate of cookies placed in front of them, while the other half were told to feel free to eat. Both groups were then timed attempting to solve a series of puzzles and the results between both groups were compared.

Guess what?

The group that was told to resist eating the cookies gave up on the puzzles much faster than the cookie eaters. Because they were repeatedly making the decision to not eat the cookies, they had less will power when then faced with the puzzle task.

This proved that even between two totally different activities (cookie eating and puzzles), people still only had a set amount of will power to tap into.

Successful people have known this intuitively for a long time.

Before Steve Jobs was famous for wearing jeans and a black polo every day, there was Albert Einstein buying many versions of the same grey suit. They both knew that by saving brain power on decisions like what to wear, it could be better used elsewhere.

President Obama, in a recent interview with Michael Lewis, discussed his own technique for limiting the small decisions:

You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions.

Bottom Line: The more decisions made in a day, the more will power you use. And since will power is finite, you are draining yourself of a critical resource.

So how does this research help the traveler?

How This Helps The Traveler

Managing will power as a traveler

So you find yourself gaining weight while traveling?

Or maybe you are stuck indoors planning parts of your trip more than you actually are outside enjoying it?

Or possibly you are even trying to work and make some money while traveling but find it near impossible to accomplish anything?

Don’t blame yourself. We are all governed by the same lack of infinite will power.

What you need to do is give yourself structure so that you preserve your will power for when you really need it. Here are some easy tips you can try right away that will simplify your travel lifestyle and save you some will power.

6 Ways To Limit Decision-Making While On The Road

  1. Limit Simple Decisions: This should be easy. You are most likely backpacking, so how many clothes could you have brought? Limit your daily selection and even set aside what you are going to wear the night before. Sounds silly, but it works.
  2. Plan Your Meals: Before you get to a new place, research a few great places to eat where you are staying. When you get there, you already know where you are eating and can focus on other tasks. Then, while you are walking to your predetermined restaurants, look out for cool little hotspots that you might want to try later. Travel can’t be all to plan, right?
  3. Eat At Same Restaurants: If you are staying in a place for awhile, have a few go-to restaurants. If you want variety, trying mixing up only where you eat dinner. The key is not giving yourself 1,000 decisions to make every day.
  4. Create A Workout Routine: Plan a workout that can be done anywhere (no decision needed about finding equipment) and have a schedule (every M W Sa). Plan to do the workout in the morning so that other things don’t get on the way. Also key? Plan enough off days! You are traveling to be happy, so make sure you don’t become a slave to your workouts.
  5. Schedule Work Hours: Are you working while traveling? Writing, consulting, whatever? Don’t just plan to work whenever you can. Set aside specific hours every day so that you don’t need to decide the day of when to squeeze it in.
  6. Don’t Overschedule Yourself: If you need to spend a few hours planning and booking the next leg of your journey, don’t expect to get more done. Know your limits and realize that travel planning is full of decisions and is a big drain on will power. Why not schedule a bunch of fun exploring after your hours of travel planning?

The biggest takeaway on how to limit your loss of will power while traveling is to develop habits. This is especially key if you are going to be in a new city for longer than a couple of days.

Also remember that while will power is a finite resource, everyone has different levels. The key to high performance is working within your own limitations.

Finally, don’t be too hard on yourself when traveling long-term.

Don’t restrict yourself too much.

This is a once in a lifetime experience and you want to be able to experience new things. I would much rather gain 5 lbs eating the deliciously rich food of Italy and loosen my belt one (or three) notches than to restrict myself and not have fun.

If you do it right, you can use the science of will power to not only accomplish some goals, but even end up having a kick-ass time while traveling.

About Tony
Quit his job to try actually following his dreams for once... and is currently loving it. He is working hard to to make this life-style permanent by writing about his adventures and brainstorming money making opportunities with his partner-in-crime, Meg.

Meg October 10, 2012 at 7:31 pm

Loved this post you guys. As new travellers it’s good to hear travel fatigue is commonplace! It’s funny that you guys posted this today as we’re using our day to plan out next steps and organize ourselves. It was comforting to wake up with this article before jumping into some of our own decision-making.

Tony October 11, 2012 at 4:24 am

Thanks, Meg!

It is amazing how ambitious we plan to be the night before… and how often we don’t accomplish half of our to-do list on the actual day. Travel planning totally zaps your will power because you end up making so many big decisions (but fun ones).

Glad it helped!

Barb October 11, 2012 at 8:08 am

Another helpful article!

Tony October 11, 2012 at 10:56 pm

Thanks for being such an avid reader and commenter, Barb!

Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) October 12, 2012 at 8:31 pm

Interesting article, though as someone with a PhD in Psychology, I am some of the studies and anecdotal evidence you provide only bring up more questions for me rather than providing answers! But that’s just the scientist in me being nitpicky… 😉

You make a lot of great points here, many which I have discovered in just two months on the road! I found at first I just bit off way too much in terms of predicting what I could get done and how I would feel afterwards. Now, I set myself one or two things that I would like to do each day, and don’t sweat the rest of it. If I get anything else done, whether it’s packing, or planning, or anything at all, it’s just a bonus. I guess worrying takes up plenty of mental real estate as well and if you can strip that away, you find you have freed up a lot of your brain for getting things done!

Tony October 13, 2012 at 2:27 am

Great point, Steph!

I need a scientific editor for these types of articles… my business school background doesn’t cut it! I think there is definitely some differing opinions on the studies and the end results.

But I just know from my own anecdotal evidence that it is true for me. Worrying really does take up a ton of mental real estate. So true.

I think that’s why a lot of organizational tips revolve around writing things down and not trying to remember too much. All that remembering adds worry and unneeded stress!

Thanks for the expert opinion!

(Love your site design by the way… tell Tony nice work!)

Martha October 14, 2012 at 10:25 pm

I love this article! I am obsessed with decision fatigue and use it as an excuse for almost everything. Another great article to add to your list:

Tony October 18, 2012 at 11:21 pm

Isn’t it fascinating? I wonder how much of our lives are changed because other have “ego depletion” (amazing phrase by the way)?

If “ego depletion” can cause certain people to not get paroled, then just imagine how much it effects something without the same stakes, like job interviews or thesis dissertations :).

Thanks for sharing the great article and glad to find someone else who thinks the topic is as interesting as I do!

Vicky from acoupletravelers October 18, 2012 at 9:24 am

Tons of great points here. Seriously after figuring out where to eat each day I already feel drained and yes having to make so many different decisions each day certainly cuts down on the will power to do anything else. We are only a little over a month into our trip and I already know exactly what you;re talking about when you’re stressing over all the logistical planning that is involved!

Tony October 18, 2012 at 11:28 pm

hahaha People might think you’re joking, but I totally get it. After picking out our place for lunch, we need a break! So many good food options make life awesome, but also full of decisions! Sometimes it’s nice to have a hostel that just gives you a set breakfast… one less decision in your life!

Yesterday we spend 4 hours planning or last stop on our trip in Australia and I was SPENT! The rest of the day was a waste, so it’s good to know how that planning affects you so that you can work around it.

Hope your trip is going well one month in!

Colette October 18, 2012 at 11:02 pm

Great article – it’s applicable to more areas than just travel too. After 2 years of non-stop traveling Vinko & I eventually hit that fatigue in Nicaragua and ended up locking ourselves in a hotel room where we watched movies and ate the same take-out from the street stall across the street every day for almost a whole week. Not even FOMA or guilt to get me out of there – it was necessary at that point!

I agree that the constant need to make decisions when traveling can wear you out faster than you need, which is one of the reasons why I think our site will be so useful for long-term travelers: find a like-minded local, pay them to show you around. Hardly any decisions to be made there. I’ll prove that to you when you guys come to Sydney, I believe Brooke is going to put us in touch.

Happy travels, look forward to meeting you soon!


Tony October 18, 2012 at 11:57 pm

Hi Colette!

We just got Brooke’s email and will get back to you shortly!

At a certain point in your travels, everyone hits that wall where they just can’t make anymore decisions. We are BIG believers in taking time to slow down and relax and definitely don’t believe in feeling guilty about it!

Watching movies and eating street food all week actually sounds quite wonderful…

See you in Sydney!

Andy November 2, 2012 at 1:18 pm

Interesting thoughts Tony. I have often wondered why I get so flustered at some of the simplest decisions. Partly, because I am over-analytical, but also possibly because I focus on the wrong decisions. Thanks for the post. Your family’s story is inspiring!

Tony November 2, 2012 at 7:03 pm

Analysis paralysis can be debilitating! My old manager used to always preach how you had to be conscious to avoid it as too much information can be just as bad as too little if you are not equipped to handle it.

Thanks for the kind words, Andy!

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