How to Be Productive: Preserve Your Energy for What Matters

My wife loves me, despite smirking that I am “boringly predictable.”  Every day, I go to bed at pretty much the same time, rise at the same time, pull on my khaki pants and brown shoes, frequent the same coffee shops, ride the same old bicycle, and exercise every weekday noon hour.  As I walk into my Monday-Wednesday-Friday breakfast spot, the staff order up my oatmeal and tea.  I’ll admit to boring.

But there is an upside to mindless predictability.  As my colleagues-friends Roy Baumeister, Julia Exline, Nathan DeWall and others have documented, self-controlled decision-making is like a muscle.  It temporarily weakens after an exertion (a phenomenon called “ego depletion”) and replenishes with rest. Exercising willpower temporarily depletes the mental energy needed for self-control on other tasks.  It even depletes the blood sugar and neural activity associated with mental focus. In one experiment, hungry people who had resisted the temptation to eat chocolate chip cookies gave up sooner on a tedious task (compared with those who had not expended mental energy on resisting the cookies).

President Obama, who appreciates social science research, understands this.  As he explained to Vanity Fair writer Michael Lewis, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. 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.”  Lewis reports that Obama mentioned “research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions,” noting that Obama added, “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

So, amid today’s applause for “mindfulness,” let’s put in a word for mindlessness.  Mindless, habitual living frees our minds to work on more important things than which pants to wear or what breakfast to order.  As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead argued, “Civilization advances by extending the number of operations which we can perform without thinking about them.”