This post, is a part of my thinking and research for my new book, centred around the tensions between productivity and creativity. You can follow other related entries here.
Update: I’ve just realized that I posted a draft version of this post accidentally that included a few typos that I’ve corrected. Multiple tab fail!
One of the biggest detriments to both creativity and productivity is decision fatigue: depleting our limited reserves of willpower on making decisions. Research shows that when we spend sustained periods of time making decisions, the quality of those decisions will eventually start to deteriorate. According to Roy F. Baumeister, c0-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, “Making decisions uses the very same willpower that you use to say no to doughnuts, drugs, or illicit sex.”
That means every time you debate about what to wear, what to eat for breakfast, whether you should go work out, or whether you should have illicit sex – you are tapping into the limited supply of decision-making prowess that you might need to make bigger, more important decisions later on in the day. In order to protect this essential energy-pool, we need to critically reduce the amount of decisions we make and only focus on the stuff that matters. I’ve been experimenting with two solutions: automation and batching. In this post, I’ll go into detail about automation.
Automation: switching over to auto-pilot.
Automation refers to the practice of creating routines, doing the same thing so that you switch over to auto-pilot. Auto-pilot means the behaviour has become to familiar that you don’t even need to actively think about what you’re doing, preserving energy for when you really need it. Albert Einstein reportedly owned several versions of the same grey suit because he wanted to save his decision making abilities for important tasks. In a 2012 Vanity Fair profile, President Obama echoed the same sentiment. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” the President 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.”
Clothing: I decided to try this. Last weekend, I did a giant closet purge and eliminated nearly half of the clothes in my wardrobe. Since I work from home, I have a lof of flexibility of what to wear, but I decided to simplify the whole process: black leggings, white or black t-shirt, a cardigan if it was cold, and a pair of navy blue TOMs. That’s my new at-home uniform, everything else got tossed. I got rid of anything that was old, falling apart or ill-fitting. As for my regular wardrobe, I decided to take inspiration from the always polished Parisian women I see around the city and adopt a minimalist strategy. High quality classic basics, with fun trend pieces thrown in. Not only did I have way more room for everything, but getting ready to go out has been a much more pleasant experience. I no longer open my closet, bursting with clothes and wail, “I have nothing to wear!” This is definitely a work in progress.
I kept more than I should have, and could probably reduce it even further. I have noticed a dramatic decrease in the low-level stress I would feel whenever I had to pick an outfit to go somewhere. Now that I have my list, I also know exactly what I need, saving me the time I spent aimlessly shopping.
Another thing I automated was my workout regime. Having finally found an Ashtanga yoga studio and a kickass teacher, I was re-motivated to dive back into a regular routine, which is a good thing because Ashtanga involves practicing six times a week! Still, Ashtanga is a type of yoga that definitely embraces automation. You do the same series of poses every time and I really liked switching off my thinking and flowing into the routine of familiar moves. It’s been nearly three weeks now and I haven’t missed a single day. Additionally, that now that I’ve memorized the sequence I don’t even need a video or anything to guide me. I can do it anywhere, so this is one habit that is travel-proof, a huge bonus for me. I thought I would get bored, but I’m finding the opposite to be true and that surprised me.
I’ve also been experimenting with cycling through a few recipes during the week for food. I eat the same thing for breakfast, since I am not a morning person at all, and lunch and dinner involve a 3-4 basic options made from the same base of ingredients. This way, I get variety but within a limited context so I’m not overwhelmed. Each week I change the basic ingredients. LearnVest founder Alexa Von Tobel says that eating the same thing every, increases her productivity.
I took a deeper look at my calendar and implemented stricter control over my time. I now only take calls and meetings on certain days. I do the bulk of my planning during my weekly Sunday Check-In, to take into account the unpredictability of travel and client work. This ensures I can stick to my routines without having them fall apart the second something unexpected arises.
VERDICT: Overall, while I’ve been a fan of routines for a long time, automating some of the smaller tasks was something I hadn’t really tried before. I noticed big improvements in my productivity, but more importantly, my mood. I was happier, and I felt more at ease and less stressed out. I hadn’t realized before how much of my cognitive bandwidth I was wasting on these small-ticket decision items.
Other Resources I Found:
This LifeHacker article suggestions making important decisions early in the day.
99u goes into more details about Barack Obama’s routine, including his 7:30am daily work out.
Time Magazine offers an easy fix for decision fatigue: making things fun.
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