Reducing Mental Effort – Part 6

Our series on reducing mental effort continues.

Do less

One often overlooked way to reduce mental effort is simply to do less. Pull back from obligations. Decline invitations. Withdraw from projects till your plate is less full.

Working with a very full plate can be stimulating, but it’s best as a short-term condition. In the long run, it’s great to have excess capacity, especially for developing fresh creative ideas, investing in some long-term projects that will never be urgent, and rejuvenating yourself.

When everything on your plate becomes a have-to, especially when there’s constant urgency involved, you never get around to those important but never urgent items that could make a real difference in your life. Yet those are the projects that often grant the greatest feelings of satisfaction.

Remember the high cost of saying yes. You can only fit so much into your life, so make each yes as high-value as you can. A good standard here is to ask whether a yes is closer to a “hell yes” or a “mostly yes.” If you fill your plate with the latter, you may not have the capacity to accept or even to recognize when a true “hell yes” comes along.

Consider that one really good “hell yes” opportunity can produce greater results than lots of “mostly yes” obligations combined. Saving some capacity for the occasional “hell yes” could save you a lot more mental effort in the long run.

Make planning time sacred

Doing even a modest amount of planning for your weeks and days can save you a lot of effort later. Whatever you invest in planning, you’ll usually make up for many times over in saved execution time.

When we get overly busy, planning is often one of the first activities we cut because planning doesn’t immediately appear to more workflow forward. However, to reduce mental effort, it’s important to do the opposite. When the time crunch is coming up, carving time out for some sensible planning can make a big difference.

Sometimes when I feel exceedingly busy, I pause for a few minutes to sketch out a simple plan for how to achieve what I’d like to achieve. Often this involves deciding which aspects are truly important and need to be done soon versus those aspects that could wait or be cut.

A tip I learned from Brian Tracy is to occasionally pause and ask two questions:

  • What am I trying to do?
  • How am I trying to do it?

If all you do is ask and answer those two questions, you have the basics of a simple planning approach.

Ideally it’s wise to make planning a long-term habit. Many people map out their days the night before, which is a good start.

As Stephen Covey noted in the book First Things First, weekly rhythms are usually the best for routine planning because a week is a long enough time frame to address most (or all) of your important roles. You can’t necessarily give much attention to every important role in a single day though.

Do your best to treat planning time as sacred, even when you’re tempted to skip it or cut it. You may carve out an hour or two on a weekend to plan your week as many people do. I often like to begin the week with a planning session on Monday morning because that’s a time when I’m freshest mentally and emotionally, after I’ve taken some restoration time over the weekend and let go of the previous week.

Decide first; then do

A simple but powerful habit for smooth workflow is to separate deciding from doing.

Work in two phases. First, take some time to decide what you need to do and how you’re going to do it. Write down your action steps in order, and make them pretty granular. Don’t worry about doing any of the steps yet. Just figure out what they are, and write them down in order.

I use a daily work journal for this, which is just a basic spiral notebook. Each day, often multiple times per day, I make short lists of the action steps for whatever I need to do next. This usually takes a few minutes.

Sometimes I may list only enough steps to carry through the next 30 minutes. Other times I may list a few hours worth of steps. And sometimes I may list enough action steps to last 2-3 days.

You may wonder if it’s enough to have a typed to-do list on one of your devices. I think that’s fine, but I still recommend writing down the action steps with pen and paper as part of your daily flow, even if you’re just copying them directly from a screen. I’ve experimented with this a lot, and for some reason I find that handwriting the action steps and crossing them off as I do them is way more satisfying than checking off or deleting items on a screen-based list. I also find that writing the steps makes me feel more committed to doing them. The handwritten list feels more personal and makes me feel like I own it. A screen-based list feels a bit more distant. A handwritten list on a screen (like with an Apple Pencil) still doesn’t quite feel as good as simple pen and paper. I suggest you do your own experimenting here to discover what gives you the best feelings of commitment, progress, and flow.

Once you have your steps listed, you can focus on doing. There’s no need to occupy part of your brain with figuring out what needs to be done once you’ve already made those decisions. You can just do one step at a time, checking each one off as you complete it.

You may even gain a small sense of accomplishment just from creating the to-do list – a boost which can help you flow into the action phase with a little more motivation.

Mixing deciding and doing tends to be less efficient than separating these phases. The mind goes into different modes of thinking for each phase, so it can devote all its best resources to one type of thought.

What if you run into a snag in your doing phase, and you realize that your original action sequence won’t work? If you no longer have good cause to trust your existing list, go ahead and switch back to decision mode. You may be able to modify the remainder of your current list, or you may feel that it’s best to drop the old list and create a fresh one.

We’ll continue with Part 7 of this series tomorrow.

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Read Reducing Mental Effort – Part 6 by Steve Pavlina