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Conserving Mental Energy

In a Vanity Fair profile piece from 2012, writer Michael Lewis shared some of President Obama’s productivity habits.

One of those habits involved routinizing mundane daily decisions. Since Obama has to make many difficult high-level decisions each day, he doesn’t want to waste his mental energy on smaller decisions. So he puts the mundane choices on autopilot.

For instance, the article states that Obama only wears blue and gray suits. He keeps his wardrobe choices simple, so he doesn’t bleed off mental energy fussing over what to wear.

Obama follows the same structured daily routine when he’s in the White House: Get up at 7am, go to the gym and exercise for 45 minutes, shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, glance through the newspapers, review the daily security briefing, and then head to the Oval Office. In the evenings his family goes to bed around 10pm, but he stays up till 1am working solo, including preparing for the next day.

Much of his actual work involves making decisions. The easy decisions are made by others, so the ones that reach him are usually the tough ones; they’re the types of decisions that don’t have obvious correct answers. Such decisions require careful thought and often involve difficult trade-offs and significant risk. Making these decisions is a key responsibility.

To conserve his mental energy for thoughtfully considering options and making decisions, Obama does his best to avoid wasting this energy on low-impact decisions like what to eat or what to wear. He either lets other people make those simpler decisions for them, or he makes those decisions once and puts them on autopilot, so he doesn’t have to think about them repeatedly.

How much mental energy do you squander on low-priority decisions each day? Could you make those decisions once and put them on autopilot?

Here are some examples of mundane decisions you could routinize:

  • Sort your clothes into reasonable, pre-determined outfits, and wear them in the same order again and again. When an outfit wears out, replace it with something virtually identical.
  • Eat the same meals every day, such as having the same formulaic breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This simplifies your shopping list too.
  • Pay your bills on the same day each month.
  • Always listen to audiobooks while driving, thereby putting some of your self-education on autopilot. Purchase new audiobooks once a month on the same day.
  • Exercise every day at the same time and for the same duration.
  • Run your errands at the same time on the same day each week. Weekday evenings are often great for shopping errands, while most people are at home watching TV.
  • Pick a brand of phones, computers, or tablets that you’ll stick with, and decide in advance how often you’ll upgrade. Only investigate and purchase a new model when your upgrade appointment appears on your calendar.
  • Always repurchase the same soap, shampoo, deodorant, etc.
  • Do your dishes at the same time every day.
  • Decide in advance how often you ought to clean your home and in which order you should do the cleaning steps; stick with that recurring appointment.
  • Use the same hairdresser and get the same haircut you did before.
  • Always tip the same percentage.
  • Begin each workday at the same time.

I’m sure you can come up with plenty of other ideas along these lines as well.

Now this may sound like a very boring, uncreative approach. No argument there. That’s the point. When you avoid investing your creative energy in low-impact decisions, you free up that creative energy to be put to good use elsewhere.

If you observe that you lack the drive and focus to consistently invest in high-level creative work, one reason may be that you’re wasting too much of your best creative energy on low-level decisions like what to eat, what to wear, and how to spend your time each day.

It’s well established that your daily mental resources are limited and fatigable. Relative to other parts of your body, your brain is a resource hog. Parts of your brain tire easily, and as their fatigue level rises, your access to their associated mental resources diminishes significantly. So it makes sense to be conservative in your use of such resources.

Routinize your mundane daily decisions, so you can wisely invest more of your precious mental energy in your high-impact goals and projects. Don’t drain your focus, concentration, and creativity on small, low-impact choices. Hold yourself to a higher standard, and adopt a more intelligent use of your mental resources.

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