Chris Guillebeau recently wrote a piece titled, “Reducing Decisions to Focus Better.” He describes how high achieving people often develop routines and systems to limit the number of decisions they have to make.
He includes this excerpt from Michael Lewis’s essay about President Obama’s decision-making process:
You 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,” he 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. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.
I love the amount of freedom my current schedule affords me, but reading this article helped me see why I feel frustrated at my productivity some days. If, upon waking up, I’m trying to decide which order to do things, whether or not to work out, and what to eat for breakfast, I’m depleting what I now recognize as a limited resource.
Choices are wonderful, but making them requires energy that can’t be applied somewhere else.
Laura Vanderkam’s book, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, also touches on automated routines and the cost of decision making, specifically decisions that require discipline or focus.
She describes a famous study in which students were asked to fast before coming in to the lab. They were put in a room alone with radishes, chocolate chip cookies and candy.
Some students could eat what they wanted, and some were assigned to eat only radishes. Then they had work on unsolvable geometry puzzles. The students who had eaten freely as well as a control group who’d arrived hungry but hadn’t been offered food typically worked on puzzles for about 20 minutes. The students who’d had to resist the cookies and chocolate only worked on the puzzles for 8 minutes.
Here’s Vanderkam on what this study means for us:
What the researchers took from this experiment is that willpower, like a muscle, becomes fatigued from overuse. This is a problem because while we think of our lives in categories like “work” and “home” the reality is that… you have one energy resource that is used for all kinds of acts of self control.
That includes not just resisting food temptations, but also controlling your thought processes, controlling your emotions, all forms of impulse control, and trying to perform well at your job or other tasks.
Even more surprisingly, it is used for decision making. So when you make choices, you are temporarily using up some of what you need for self control.
…Over the course of a day, dealing with traffic, frustrating bosses, and bickering children, plus, more insidiously, electronic temptations that are as alluring as fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, a person’s supply of will power is simply used up.
…in these early hours, we have enough willpower and energy to tackle things that require internal motivation, things the outside world does not immediately demand or reward…that’s the argument for scheduling important priorities first.
Combining what I learned from Guillebeau and Vanderkam, I’ve begun scheduling priorities, essentially making these decisions ahead of time. I schedule those priorities as early in the day as possible, particularly the ones that no one’s requiring of me but are progress toward important goals. Like President Obama, I eat the same breakfast everyday and on good days, plan my outfits ahead of time. And I don’t even have a staff!
What routines do you have? What do you do first thing in the morning?