Want to Save Your Mental Energy for the Stuff That Really Matters? Set a Decision Budget
Many of us track our time or money, but here’s something else you may consider measuring: Your decisions. Bulletproof founder Dave Asprey explains why.
For more than five years, tech entrepreneur Dave Asprey has interviewed the world’s leading thinkers and influencers on his Bulletproof Radio podcast. Here is some advice that he’s gathered about how to make smarter decisions.
Long before I interviewed him, Stewart Friedman was my professor at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business. He’d rocked my world by showing me that I was investing my energy in all the wrong places.
In our conversation for my podcast, Stewart said that when he examined the lives of very successful people, he found they all demonstrated one key concept: Being aware and honest about what was most important to them. Stewart says that in everyday life, most of us don’t take the time to ask ourselves what we really stand for, which makes it difficult to make decisions that are in line with our goals.
Knowing what matters to you brings clarity to your decision-making and enables you to do the important work of saying “no” to many things and focusing your attention and energy on the things that matter most to you. To illuminate your values, Stewart recommends thinking about your life 20 years from now. What will a day in your life be like in 2039? Who will you be with? What will you be doing? What impact will you be having? Write all of these answers down. Keep in mind that you’re not creating an action plan but a compelling image of the future that serves as a window for your true values.
Once you know what matters most to you, Stewart says, the second step is to determine who matters most to you. This is a challenging question, but he suggests that real leaders take the time to ask themselves: “Who matters to me? What do those people want from me? What do I want from them?”
I learned a lot from my time with Stewart, who made me aware of some uncomfortable truths about how I was spending my energy. One of my core values, I realized, is continual self-improvement, but I had set it aside to focus on my career. So I made a decision to do something every day that makes me better. This commitment helps me invest my time and energy wisely and concentrate on ways to continually grow and challenge myself.
To better focus on this value, I sought out someone who lives and breathes self-improvement: Tony Stubblebine. Tony is the CEO and founder of Coach.me, a company based on the idea that positive reinforcement and community support work in tandem to help people achieve their goals.
Tony sets a decision budget for himself every day. He allows himself only a certain number of decisions, big or small, and then he “spends” them throughout the day. For this reason, the actions that he takes early on largely determine how he spends the rest of his day. If he uses a lot of decisions in the morning, he’s left avoiding even the simplest of decisions in order to stay “on budget.”
He didn’t start out this way, though. He used to check his phone and social media accounts as soon as he woke up. From the moment his alarm went off, his head was filled with all the things that he needed to do and the people he “had” to respond to. Which email should he respond to first? Should he say yes to that opportunity? Should he “like” someone’s post? Should he check out the link a friend sent him? He found those decisions were wearing him down before he even started on the major tasks of that day.
Now Tony starts his day with a clear mind. He meditates after he wakes up and then writes his to-do list. To prioritize it, he asks which of the tasks have the potential to significantly affect his desired outcome. After practicing this habit for a while, he began to realize that many items on his to-do lists weren’t critical. Eventually, he grew so clear on what was important to him that when opportunities arose it was easy for him to say “yes” or “no” without having to negotiate an answer or spend time making a decision. If an opportunity wasn’t going to change the outcome, “no” was his habitual response.
There’s a theory — contested by some scientists, supported by others — that each of us has a limited amount of energy in the day for exercising our willpower, our power to choose. But no matter where the science comes out, it’s safe to say: Making decisions takes more energy than not making decisions.
Most of us know what it’s like to simply run out of energy for big decisions after making so many small ones. This phenomenon is called decision fatigue: the more decisions you make, the worse your judgment becomes. Corporations know this, and that’s why they put candy up front at the cash registers. As you make decision after decision while shopping, you’re depleting your energetic bank account. By the time you’re ready to check out, you’re likely to be experiencing decision fatigue, so you give in and buy a candy bar (or give in to a kid who’s demanding one).
Some people find that simply eliminating as many decisions as possible — especially about their day-to-day routines — can offer them more clarity. In fact, many successful people have developed daily routines that are so dialed in that they don’t even have to think about them.
Here’s how you can start tracking and modifying your decision budget.
• Take note — mentally or on paper or a device — every time you make a decision for the next week. As you notice yourself making a decision, ask two questions: Did this decision matter? Was there a way to avoid making this decision by ignoring it, automating it, or delegating it to someone who likes making this kind of decision?
• After a week, choose two decisions you regularly make that add little value to your life, and then stop making them or simplify them. Wardrobe decisions are ones that high performers tend to streamline. Why do you think Steve Jobs wore a black turtleneck and New Balance sneakers every day? When you reach for some version of the same outfit every day, you never have to worry about what to wear.
• If you want to try this, go through your closet and put the most compatible stuff in the front so you can make fewer decisions in the morning about getting dressed. If it works for you, your next step is to opt a capsule wardrobe. Of course, you can still save a few special pieces for social events and other occasions.
• Take a look at your breakfast. Can you automate it? What’s your new default breakfast going to be? Try eating it for a week. You can also create a capsule menu for dinners. To do this, find five or six recipes that you (or someone you live with) likes to cook and that everyone in your household likes to eat. That way, you’ll be able to shop for groceries and cook on autopilot. When you get tired of a recipe, swap it out for a new one.
These may seem like minor decisions, but they can save time and mental energy that you can then use for something more important to you.