The Power of Routines, Rituals and Habits: How to Conserve your Brainpower to Achieve your Goals

Posted on Posted in Decision fatigue, Focus, Habits, Routines

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Habits brainpower

Do you feel mentally exhausted at the end of the school day? Do you find it hard to make simple decisions and get started with your schoolwork?

There’s a reason for this: like a battery that needs to be recharged, by the end of the school day your mental resources are running low.

Consider this …

After a good night’s sleep your mental battery is fully charged. But every time you have to make a decision (e.g. What will I have for breakfast?, What will I wear today? and Should I take the dog for a walk now or later?), you use up some of your battery power.

Decision fatigue

So as the day progresses, your mental battery gets depleted. By the time you get home from school, you’ve got a nasty case of decision fatigue. You can’t decide whether to start with your science homework or your English essay. It all feels too hard. So you jump on YouTube instead.

As John Tierney states in his article Do you suffer from decision fatigue?:

The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing.

So what can you do to combat decision fatigue?

Enter routines, rituals and habits.

These reduce the number of decisions you need to make in the day. They also help to streamline your life and keep you on track.

Routines, rituals and habits save your precious brainpower for the things that are most important to you.

Here are some examples of simple routines you can implement into your life …

1. Design a distraction free morning

distraction free morning

This involves working away from screens and cultivating a calm state of mind. Instead of checking Facebook or email first thing, you could do one or more of the following:

• Exercise
• Make a healthy brain boosting smoothie
• Engage in 10 minutes of meditation
• Do a 5-minute gratitude exercise

2. Prepare a simple breakfast the night before

This stops you from wasting cognitive resources because you’re not asking yourself first thing, What should I have for breakfast today? A smoothie? Toast? Muesli? Or all three?

If you’ve made the decision the night before and done the prep work, you can go into autopilot. Grab and go!

For healthy breakfast ideas, click here.

3. Set up your workspace for the next day

Before you go to bed, set up your workspace for the next day so you’re ready to go. The aim of the game is to minimise and/or eliminate any barriers to getting started.

This is what good Chefs do. They put a lot of energy into assembling all the ingredients and equipment they need before they fire up the stove. This allows them to get into a state of flow and work quickly at a high level.

When it comes to doing solid study or finishing off an essay, consider doing the following:

• Clear away any visual clutter
• Take out any reference books, notes and/or stationery you need
• Open up the document you need to work on
• Write a post-it note with the next action you need to perform
• Close your email and any social media apps

4. Focus on doing one thing at a time

Focus study

If you find yourself multitasking (i.e. switching from your phone to your essay and then back to your phone), this is going to tire your brain out more quickly. The simple act of focusing on one task at a time allows you to harness more of your brainpower.

5. Choose your outfit for the next day before you go to bed

At the end of your life, how do you want to be remembered? As someone who wore great shoes? Or as someone who had great ideas and did awesome things in the world?

When you wake up, you don’t want to waste your brainpower thinking about what you’re going to wear. Choose your clothes the night before and lay them out. This means when you wake up, you can get dressed without even thinking and get stuck into doing your most important work with a fully charged brain.

6. Cull your wardrobe or create a uniform

Obama grey suit

Alternatively, you can limit the number of outfits you have in your wardrobe. Barack Obama used this strategy when he was President of the United States. He only wore grey and blue suits as President. He 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.

This is the beauty of having a uniform. You don’t have to think about what to wear each day, which helps you to stay focused on what really matters.

7. Don’t keep things in your head: Make a list

Before you hit the sack, ask yourself What do I need to do tomorrow? Create a list. There’s no point trying to hold it all in your head. That takes energy! Do yourself (and brain) a favour and write it down.

I use a great online tool called Complice to set my goals and intentions for each day and to review them at the end of the day. But sometimes I need a break from screens so I’ll create a list with a yellow legal pad and pen.

It doesn’t matter what tools you use to make your list. It just matters that you make a list and refer back to it regularly.

8. Create a study group

Study group

Choose a time, place and subject. Get a friend or group of friends together and commit to studying this subject at this time and place. For example, you could say:

On Mondays at 4pm, we will study Ancient history in the library for 2 hours with a 10 minute break in the middle.

Making a commitment to your friend(s) means you’re accountable and you’re less likely to weasel out of it.

When I was working on my PhD, I was part of a regular writer’s group. We’d meet on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. When I woke up on those days I wasn’t thinking:

What do I need to do today? Do I read a journal article? Analyse some data? Contact research participants?

I had already made a commitment to myself and my PhD friends so I knew exactly what I had to do: show up and write.

To sum up

The key to making these behaviours daily habits is to do them over and over again. Every time you perform the behaviour, it gets etched into your mind and new neural pathways form. If you perform the behaviour regularly enough (ideally 40+ times), before you know it you’ll be doing the things that matter most to you without exerting much mental effort at all.

So how will you conserve your mental resources today? What simple behaviour will you implement to streamline your day?

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