Mark gets an early start on the day, arriving at 6am to check email, get organized for the day, and get a jump on his work.
After 45 minutes in his inbox, he’s mostly caught up on email, and after a few more minutes of planning for the day, he’s gotten a good morning’s work done before anyone else arrives.
As staff and students arrive, he greets them and chats, building relationships, checking in, answering questions, and making adjustments to his plans for the day based on what he learns.
After classes begin, Mark does an observation and a few quick walkthroughs, fills out the required forms, and heads back to the office to catch up on some desk work before first lunch begins.
He goes through the day’s mail, including paperwork from the district, and gets to the bottom of the pile fairly quickly.
But by the end of the morning, Mark is flagging. He decides not to dig into the big project he had planned for the afternoon, and decides to spend the rest of the day “being visible” and dealing with whatever comes up. His drive to conquer the day is gone, and he’s content to just drift through the afternoon. He’ll still work hard and make a difference, but without the intentionality and purposefulness that he started with.
What happened to Mark? It happens to all of us, and psychologists now know why (and what to do about it). To understand what’s taking place, we can start with the man who brought us the iPhone and iPad.
The Power of a Boring Wardrobe
Steve Jobs famously wore the same “work uniform” every day—his trademark black turtleneck. He wasn’t trying to make a fashion statement; he just liked the shirts and liked not having to think about what to wear.
But Jobs wasn’t just being boring; he was saving his mental energy for the challenges he knew he’d face on the job. He didn’t want to waste brain cycles on such a low-priority decision each morning.
Even if you want to wear a new outfit every day, you can apply the same strategy to save your mental energy.
Roy Baumeister and John Tierney’s excellent book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength explains that self-control, decision-making, and effort all draw on the same store of mental energy.
The most immediate application of Willpower for our work is this: We need to avoid making pointless decisions whenever possible.
It starts with recognizing this fundamental limitation of our minds. We simply can’t make an infinite number of decisions in a day, just as we can’t run infinitely far. We get tired.
And just as you probably drive to work rather than run (to save time as well as energy), we need to apply a similar strategy to our decisions.
Here are three powerful ways to avoid making decisions that you don’t actually need to make, so you can save your mental energy for the aspects of your work that truly demand it.
1. Rely on Habit
Habits allow us to operate on “autopilot.” If I already have habits in place that determine what I eat for breakfast, how I’ll handle my email, what I do to follow up after a meeting—I’ll be able to focus more on my actual work, and not on navigating the day.
We know how powerful habit is, because we feel the impact when it’s disrupted. Have you ever had your car in the shop, or had to change your kids’ morning routine? It’s not just that these changes consume time; they also consume willpower, because they require novel decision-making.
Rely on habit whenever possible, and save your energy for the truly unique.
2. Use Rules and Policies
Think of rules and policies as habits for responding to circumstances and other people: If X happens, I’ll do Y. If she says X, I’ll say Y.
Applying a rule or policy is less taxing than making a unique decision. The more clearly our personal policies are articulated (even if only to ourselves), the more we’ll be able to rely on them to get us through the day.
3. Separate Processing from Deciding
Sometimes, we don’t want to fall too far behind on our work, but we know the morning isn’t a good time to burn through all of our mental energy.
Like Mark, if you spend your morning processing your (mostly junk and FYI) email and deciding how to deal with the 122 other emails that came in, as if they were unique situations deserving special consideration, you’ll waste brain cycles on decisions that neither require nor deserve them.
If instead you start by filtering and processing your email, you can make fewer decisions overall (by relying on rules), and save the bulk of your real decision-making for a time (like perhaps late at night) when you’ve already made your important decisions for the day.
Thinking About Your Work
What works for you? How do you save mental energy for the aspects of your job that most demand it?