How many decisions do you make in a typical day?
15 to 20?
They add up pretty quickly: what time to set your alarm, whether to go to the gym before work or after, what to wear, what to eat for breakfast . . . And that’s before you’ve even arrived at work to tackle any higher order decisions for the day.
Research has shown that the simple act of making a decision impairs your ability to make further decisions. Like our reserve of willpower, our capacity to make crisp judgments is a finite resource that depletes throughout the day. It’s harder to pass on that afternoon cookie if you’ve already denied yourself a doughnut for breakfast. Similarly, if you spent 15 minutes debating what you were going to wear this morning, that’s already taken a small tax on your brain when you sit down later to figure out the research budget. It makes sense why people like Steve Jobs and Barack Obama keep a fairly homogeneous closet.
By eliminating (or at least reducing) choice for many daily tasks, you free up brainpower to tackle more impactful decisions. The key is to instill the right routines, of course—keeping the fridge stocked with fruits and vegetables, taking the stairs when it’s less than five floors, not bringing your laptop to bed 30 minutes before going to sleep, etc. The Power of Habit describes how you can introduce good impulses and alter bad ones by paying attention to the habit loop of cue, routine, and reward.
A second benefit of routine is its ability to nurture creativity. It’s a bit counter-intuitive at first, as we often associate the latter with spontaneity and trips to far-off places. But sustainable inspiration usually comes from an environment where the mind feels at ease, safe from external distractions and free to focus inward. That’s why writers and other artists typically have all sorts of idiosyncratic routines that help them get in the right mindset. Joan Didion, for instance, has to sleep in the same room as her book when she’s nearing the end of her writing process. And it’s why people are often struck by epiphanies during routine breaks like taking a shower or going for a run. Train your brain to expect periods in the day when it can put the rest of your body on autopilot and wander off on its own tangents. You’ll be surprised at how creatively productive that time can be.