It would be pretty awesome if we all had plenty of mental energy to stay motivated and disciplined all day long, to be highly productive and highly creative whenever we needed, and to always feel vibrant and optimistic about the future.
However, the more you try to control elements of your life – whether it is to improve your health, wealth, social life or whatever – the more apparent it is how finite and scarce this “mental energy” can be.
In particular, it seems that whenever we use willpower – in any form and for any reason – we are using up resources from this pool of mental energy, much faster than the pool is replenished.
Psychologists have carried out plenty of experiments that strongly appear to confirm this model of willpower – Jason Shen and Sebastian recently put together a great post about it here: http://sebastianmarshall.com/developing-willpower-by-jason-shen which is very much worth reading if you haven't already!
Psychologists have also shown that decisions on matters that affect us can deplete the same mental resource as willpower. In some sense, these decisions and willpower are the same:
- it requires willpower to consciously focus our attention on different complex options and their shortcomings in order to make a decision.
- when we use willpower, we are making a decision whether to override whatever action we
would otherwise have taken.
Below are some of my concrete suggestions for keeping one’s mental energy high, and I’m interested to hear more ideas from other readers – so please tell us: what tricks do you know for maximising your mental energy?
- Build habits and routines: this reduces the number of superfluous decisions that you need to make on a daily basis, especially involving recurring temptations.
- Avoid temptation in the first place: for example, when I buy food, I intentionally buy only healthy items. Then later at home, I never have to use any willpower to convince myself not to eat unhealthy food, as all the choices are healthy.
- Make unimportant decisions quickly: a decision that is thought about for a long time is likely to be slightly more accurate than the same decision made quickly, although vastly more expensive for the mind. So trivial decisions, such as which colour shirt to wear [like Obama: 2], or which dish to order from a menu, are best made quickly even if this risks overlooking a slightly better alternative.
- Get out of bed soon after waking up: this helps for two reasons. Firstly, it teaches your body to transition properly from “asleep” to “awake”, and I’ve found this gives you better quality of sleep and better wakefulness during the day. Secondly, if you have a tendency to laze around for a long time after waking up, then every morning you’re losing the fight against the temptation to stay in bed several times before getting up, throwing mental energy down the drain before your feet have even touched the floor!
- Focus on one complicated task at a time: I used to improvise on the piano during breaks from work, until eventually, I realised how expensive it was to switch back to “proper” work afterwards! Every time I switched from playing the piano to whatever work I was supposed to be doing, my mind would still be naturally trying to think about piano, and so it required mental effort to refocus on the new task.
- Keep your blood sugar moderately high: Psychologists have done many experiments on the effect of sugar on willpower depletion, and the results are conclusive: people have more willpower when they have been given sugar. The reasoning is simple: the only fuel that the brain can use is glucose, so if your blood sugar is low, then your mind can’t do its job properly. When I feel my mental energy waning, I often take a glucose tablet to revert my blood sugar to “enough” (followed by a drink of water to avoid tooth decay!)
- Avoid sugar crashes: conversely, if your blood sugar is too high, then it will soon be enthusiastically removed to be stored for times of famine, leaving your mind with too little again.
- Avoid food that’s difficult to digest: after eating heavy, carbohydrate-rich foods, your body makes its digestive system a priority, so the brain doesn’t get as much glucose as it deserves.
- Keep active as you work: even light physical activity such as walking around will keep your blood flowing well, supplying your mind with a steady stream of fuel.
- Spend time only on activities that deserve your mental energy
- Sleep at the same time every night: The best way to replenish mental energy reserves is by sleeping well, and sleeping at the same time is an effective way to sleep better.
- Work with the right amount of background noise/music: For some activities, I prefer to work in silence. For example if I’m doing a maths exam paper, any music and any sounds distract me and I would have to expend effort focusing away from them. Other times, if the work is less demanding then my mind will wander, and I have to expend effort focusing back to the work. Then, music or background noise can be useful as it’s the first thing my mind will wander to, so it won’t wander far! For me, metal and foreign pop music are the easiest genres to work along to, but Classical distracts me too much so I avoid it. For you, it may work completely differently, so it’s worth experimenting with.
- Write down information to free your short-term memory: This is just one reason why to-do lists are so powerful – they save our minds from spending their energy on making sure we remember to do everything.
- Take “real” breaks: especially those which require no conscious decisions – long showers and team sports work well for me.
- For difficult decisions, write down a short list of options and work from that: this allows the mind to focus quickly on choosing the best option rather than holding various options its memory.
- Make travelling less effortful: I used to wonder why travelling would make me so tired – after all, most of the time is spent just sitting around on a train or at an airport! However, the whole time our minds are on alert, checking whether we have all our belongings, whether we’re on the correct platform, whether we’re running late etc. A little planning well before the journey can help here.
- Be a little more extroverted: one difference between extroverts and introverts is that introverts typically monitor details of their social interaction much more than extroverts do. As a result, extroverts can survive and enjoy social activity for much longer before their mental energy starts running dry. Mentally switching off some of the superfluous self-monitoring saves you energy for later.
Be less perfectionist: similarly, perfectionists can encounter decision fatigue from aggressive monitoring of
their work. (Of course, there are both benefits and drawbacks to being perfectionist!)
- Work and live in a comfortable environment: otherwise you’ll often have to distract yourself from these discomforts to concentrate on anything else.
- Choose to spend more time on activities that absorb your attention: in other words, seek flow activities.
So how about you? Suggestions about meditation or sport or travelling would be particularly useful, as I haven’t covered them much here!