I have a confession to make…
When I roll down the windows in my car I count to four…
When I fill a glass with water from the fridge spigot I count to ten…
No, I don’t suffer from OCD.
I do suffer a bit from Efficiency-itis…
Here’s the thing… the dogs love sticking their heads out the car window, jowls flapping, ears blown back, wind through fur… what’s not to like? But… if you put the windows down to far they can jump out. And while they may not decide to jump out while speeding down the freeway, as soon as we get a half-mile from Grandmommie’s house they start to cry and tremble.
If the windows are too far down when we arrive, out they go, right out the window… yeah it’s happened and it freaked me out! After that, I decided I need to roll the windows down a specific distance, just enough for pure wind enjoyment but not enough for escape. That’s a count to four… 1, 2, 3, 4… and the windows are perfectly set every time. No craning my neck looking back to make sure they are set right. Just 1, 2, 3, 4 and done.
I guess I’m a bit of a planner and I hate guessing… mostly I hate wasting time and steps. Not everything can be distilled down to a number count, of course, but when I can, I use it. It’s just one strategy that makes things a bit more efficient.
With the car window example, I can always set them right, even when I’m driving and it isn’t safe to turn around. I no longer have to think about the process, I just do it. No wasted brain energy. And when you have stop and think about a task, you use valuable brain juice… which is okay, except… the juice is limited.
Brain Juice Research
Years of research by Roy F. Baumeister have helped to confirm something he coined Ego Depletion. Basically, Ego Depletion is what most of us think of as willpower.
According to John Tierney, writing for the New York Times, Baumeister’s research “demonstrated that there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control.” And, here’s the thing… self-control includes all of the decisions and choices we make throughout the day. From which breakfast cereal to eat to which route to take to work to how far to roll down the windows – all these decisions sap your finite amount of mental energy. Even choosing what to wear and what to watch on TV are energy sucking choices.
This finite resource of mental energy makes afternoon choices difficult and evening choices even more difficult. By the time the end of the day rolls around, we’ve used up most of our mental energy. Things like going to the gym after work and grocery shopping after work can result in… well, skipping the gym and buying chips and ice cream.
What Baumeister and other researchers in the discipline have found, is that once we deplete our mental energy store, we simply stop choosing, we stop deciding. We default to making no choice or pick the easiest choice, i.e. no stop at the gym. And, worse than that, we can no longer resist temptation; so we grab the ice cream instead of veggies.
So what’s the one simple strategy that can create more balance in your life and work? Preserve your brain juice. You don’t have a lot of it and once you use it up your day can start to fall apart. When we preserve that precious brain juice we can have it available when the big decisions come our way.
Five Ways to Preserve Your Brain Juice
Break things down into smaller chunks, analyze, and systemize.
It’s one of the reasons I find the window-counting thing I do so important and effective. There’s no decision to be made, there’s no calculation to do, no checking, no thinking, no depletion of mental energy. I get to save it for more important things later.
The idea is that I eliminate decisions and choices by creating processes and procedures to deal with common tasks. I choose in advance, once. I decide in advance, once. The next time, and time after that, I simply default to those choices and decisions.
As you move through your day and week, look for patterns. What things are you deciding every day? Is it something simple like what to eat for breakfast? Or is it something bigger like choosing a proposal among 10 different vendors? What repetitive task are you doing that can be distilled into a more systemized process?
When we stop and take the time to see all the small choices and decisions we are asked to make each day, we can begin to take control of our brain juice savings account.
Preserving brain juice is one of the reasons I use scripting so much in my daily life. If I pre-script common conversations and responses I save mental energy. I avoid having to make a choice or decision. More importantly I don’t need to expend time and emotional energy trying to figure out what to do.
Scripting out difficult conversations in advance simplifies the process by helping you know what to say and how to say it. The process uses less energy than trying to figure out what to say at the exact moment that you need to figure it out, especially if it happens at the end of the workday.
Get Some Rest
When we are tired or worse, sleep deprived, our bodies and brains can no longer process glucose like they do normally. The brain needs glucose to work effectively, especially to keep our mental energy at working levels. The more difficult the decisions we need to make, the more mental energy we use, depleting our willpower even faster.
Getting an appropriate amount of sleep keeps the brain functioning optimally, which means it can use glucose effectively. The difference between the fully functioning brain and the sleep deprived one is something akin to intoxication. Imagine making decisions in that state… not good.
Get sleep! On days when you’ve had poor quality sleep, try not to make big decisions. And, don’t feel guilty if you have to find a quiet place to take a nap or even meditate. Resting your brain keeps your brain juice at its best level.
Have Some Food
We just covered the fact that your brain needs glucose to operate optimally. As your body and brain use up its stores of glucose, your brain juice is depleted. Everything becomes more difficult but you might not realize it right away. If you are paying attention you’ll notice how your decisions start to change. If you decided to eat healthy for the month and need to make a healthy choice for lunch each day, on days where your brain juice is low, you’ll become less likely to make the healthy choice.
You become more impulsive, you have less self-control, you start to make choices that are easy or you let someone choose for you. Everyone else is going out for pizza… yeah, that sounds great… no thinking, no choosing, easy.
Of course once you’ve eaten you’ll restore some of that brain juice and you’ll be ready to tackle more choices and decisions. But what if you could keep your brain juice even, what if you could keep your stores of glucose up so that you don’t run low? It is possible.
What researchers have discovered is that your brain uses just a small amount of glucose to operate, but it isn’t just the amount your brain uses, it is the amount your entire body uses. When blood sugar levels are raised in the bloodstream the brain benefits. You don’t need a lot, but keeping your glucose levels even will help you avoid brain juice burnout.
Snacks are the answer but not just any snack, low glycemic foods are the very best choice. Low glycemic foods keep your blood sugar levels steady. Some great choices include lean protein, nuts, beans, high-fiber grains, cereals, fruits, and veggies.
A Little Planning
Probably the best thing you can do to preserve brain juice is to plan things out in advance. Just like creating small strategies to save time and mental energy, making choices in advance can play a significant role in keeping you from depleting your brain energy stores throughout the day.
Planning out what you will eat in advance instead of deciding everyday at lunchtime removes one more decision from your daily list. More importantly if you choose in advance to have cereal every morning for breakfast, you don’t have to think about it. I tend to eat the same thing for breakfast every day. No thinking, no choosing, easy.
If you have a habit of eating poorly at lunch time, then make sure you decide your lunch meal in advance. Taking your lunch with you to work or enlisting a work buddy to join you will help to keep you on track.
Taking the time to sketch out your task list for the day the night before is a great way to preserve brain juice. Have your task list ready before you head into the office so that once you start getting pulled in different directions you can keep your focus on the list. Make the list your priority.
By getting up early, starting work early, or going into the office a little early, you can tackle your list before you start to get calls and emails asking for your attention. The longer you put off making choices and decisions the more brain juice you preserve, this strategy allows you to tackle tasks first. Notice I say “put off” decisions not avoid. Avoiding decisions creates stress and stress saps mental energy.
Brain Juice Highs and Lows
No one is perfect. We all forget to eat lunch when we are busy. We all fail to recognize our decision-making abilities are compromised. We all forget how important it is to eat well, get enough rest, and plan things out in advance.
Me too. I get it. I get busy, start moving at light-speed and before I realize it I’m eating my first bit of real food at 6:00pm and that bit of food is pizza… yeah, not the best choice but definitely tasty and easy.
The idea, of course, isn’t to be perfect, just to be better. With a little effort, we can all take steps towards better energy management.
“If there is a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention. It’s training the mind to recognize when you’re making a choice, rather than running on autopilot.” Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., The Willpower Instinct
Just a small amount of energy directed, every day, at what we are really doing can help. What choices are we making? What decisions are we making or failing to make? What is directing those choices and decisions? Simply stopping to ask the question is one really good start.
Whether you choose to have a snack or have a nap or even start counting, choose one and get started. Balance comes from an even, steady day. You create those days by paying attention, in advance, to how you plan to work the day ahead of you.
Choose wisely, but before you do, have a high protein snack, your brain will thank you for it.