Reducing Mental Effort – Part 7

Our series on reducing mental effort continues. This is the final piece in the series.

Reduce decision fatigue

Consider how many times you may ask yourself questions like these during a typical week:

  • What should I do now?
  • What should I eat?
  • What should I wear?
  • Do I feel like exercising today?
  • What should I watch now?
  • Should I go out or stay in?

Even if you don’t ask that question consciously, your subconscious mind still has to address it.

Or do you ever have thoughts like these come up?

  • I should go shopping soon.
  • I really ought to do laundry.
  • I should catch up on emails.
  • I need to remember to pay my bills this week.
  • When am I going to find time to _____?

Are you really facing unique and different options each time you ponder these questions and thoughts? Or are you actually making very similar decisions each time?

Your work and your typical days probably involve a lot of patterns. You can leverage the predictability and stability of your known patterns to make many decisions less often. And you can also replace some chaotic decisions with patterns to systematize your daily and weekly flow even more.

A common objection here is that if your life becomes too predictable, it will become boring because you’ll be removing so much of the surprise aspect. And that is a valid objection in general, but it’s easier to get past it by asking this question:

If you didn’t have to spend much mental energy repeatedly making daily decisions like what to eat, what to wear, or what type of activity to do each hour of your week, what else could you do with the extra decision-making capacity?

Mental energy is a limited resource. If you spend this resource making lots of small decisions, you’ll have less of this resource available for making bigger and more interesting decisions.

Have you heard of the concept of decision fatigue? When you must make many decisions throughout your day, your decision-making circuits eventually become fatigued. When decision fatigue builds up, you may notice that at the end of the day, it can feel challenging just to decide what to watch on Netflix. That shouldn’t be such a difficult decision, but it can feel like a form of real work when your mind is mush from making so many other decisions throughout the day.

Decision fatigue can be cumulative over many days as well, so after several days of making lots of little decisions, you may feel inclined to have a “veg out” day where you barely have to decide anything. This isn’t such a bad idea, as it allows your decision-making circuits to rest and repair.

When you pile up decision fatigue, your self-discipline goes down as well. As fatigue increases, you’re more likely to make poor choices. One part of your mind may wish to make wise and intelligent, health-affirming choices, but the part that does the actual deciding just wants to rest and has basically checked out from the process. When you experience this state, it feels like your self-discipline has gone offline for a while, which is pretty close to what’s actually happening.

The way to alleviate decision fatigue is to make fewer decisions. Use this resource wisely. Instead of squandering its capabilities on recurring decisions, try to make each type of decision less frequently.

Systematize your days and weeks

As a direct application of the above, a good way to make fewer decisions is by structuring your days and weeks in advance. Map out what types of activities you want to fit into each week, and decide once what general purpose type of week works for you.

You can always adapt your general plan to incorporate unique changes for each week. And even if your weeks look very different from each other, you can still pre-decide how you’ll spend various blocks of time.

You can do this mapping with any decent calendar software. I recommend using the weekly view, so you can see the overview of your whole week.

Alternatively you can use a spreadsheet, setting it up much like you would with a calendar.

You could do this mapping very loosely by breaking your days into several blocks, such as: early morning, late morning, early afternoon, late afternoon, and evening. The decide what type of activity you’ll assign to each block of time. With this approach you’d have 5 blocks per day, so that gives you 35 blocks to allocate for each week.

Alternatively you could structure your day in more granular segments like by hours. Using 30-minute blocks currently works well for me. Of course some activities may require multiple blocks.

The types of activities you might use to populate your recurring weekly calendar could include:

  • Hygiene (shower, shave, dress, brush teeth, etc)
  • Exercise, meditation, and other health-related activities
  • Creative work (writing, designing, etc)
  • Project work (marketing, launches, etc)
  • General business or admin work
  • Communication (emails, phone calls, video chats)
  • Personal development (journaling, reading, courses, etc)
  • Skills practice (speaking, filming, guitar, etc)
  • Weekly review and planning
  • Housework (cleaning, laundry, repairs, maintenance)
  • Naps and other breaks
  • Meals
  • Errands and shopping
  • Entertainment or leisure
  • Social time (date nights, time with friends, meetups, etc)
  • Sleep
  • Free time

Note the last item on this list. I think it’s wise to have some pre-scheduled free time that you can use at your discretion. You’ll be able to make better use of this time if you aren’t so overloaded with micro-decisions all throughout your day. Then it’s actually nice to look forward to some free time where you have the option to choose your activities. This free time will feel ever freer when you’ve adequately pre-decided when to handle all your must-dos and should-dos, and you can use your free time to enjoy some of your nice-to-dos.

When you get used to flowing with a weekly structure, it tends to feel freeing and less stressful. When you’ve intelligently pre-decided how to fit in the important stuff each week, you can relax and trust that you’ll get to everything that matters over the course of the week.

Even attempting to create a weekly structure can show you when you’re overloaded, and you need to scale back some commitments. When I first started using this approach, I caught myself designing 12-hour workdays to squeeze in everything I thought was important, and I soon realized that wasn’t very sustainable for me. So I re-thought what’s really important, and I scaled that back. I also learned to work with different quarterly priorities, so I can create a different type of balance across the quarter and across the whole year, which frees me from feeling that I need to address every type of activity each week.

Remember that the structure is meant to empower you, not handcuff you. You can always consciously break from it when you choose to. It’s there for you to slide back into it as your default approach when you’d rather get into the flow of doing and spend less time deciding.

One of the most empowering benefits of following some kind of pre-decided weekly flow is that you have more mental processing power for thinking bigger. You can take on those kinds of projects that you’ve always wanted to do but never had time for. It feels really good to be finally completing some of those major projects that I’ve had on my creative bucket list for years, such as publishing a major deep dive course on Subjective Reality, or leading people through a transformational deep dive course on character sculpting.

Even blogging this series was an exercise in reducing mental effort since I pre-decided the theme for a week’s worth of blog posts, so that was one less decision to make each day for a while.

This concludes our series on reducing mental effort. I hope you enjoyed it!

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Read Reducing Mental Effort – Part 7 by Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina is an American self-help author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur. He is the author of the web site and the book Personal Development for Smart People.

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