For decades, I was a classic time management person: long term goals subdivided into milestones and action steps, all adding up to accomplishment and success.
In recent years, I’ve learned about the power of habit. I still set goals, but instead of subdividing into sub-goals, the next step is to identify the habits that will lead to the accomplishment of those goals. I expect to reach my final weight-loss goal this year, because of my no-decision breakfast, my habit of starting every day with 3,000 steps, and my habit of loading half my plate with vegetables. Not because I set goals and subgoals and determined the right action steps.
I’ve been listening to How to Have a Good Day by Caroline Webb. She talks about automating things — essentially, developing habits — for another reason. When we automate decisions, we free our smart brain from putting its attention onto less important things.
If we had to make decisions about every single thing we do all day, our brains would overheat and cook themselves. Not good. Plus, Caroline wants us to use our smart brains for things like listening with an open mind, overcoming confirmation bias, setting intentions for meetings, and identifying the best ways to work with other people effectively. That’s a lot of stuff most of us don’t do. The automatic part of our brain is always watching for an opportunity to grab stuff away from our smart brain and shunt it into an already-developed habit loop.
Because that automatic part, which also keeps our hearts beating, doesn’t want us to cook our brains.
So the automatic part of the brain recognizes a familiar thought pattern — say, “Trump is a buffoon” or “This is why we need a sales team” — and slips us into that pattern instead of putting serious thought into something we’ve already decided. This is good in some ways, but negative in others.
Webb proposes that we automate as much as we can, so that our decisive smart brain is free for important things. We should settle what we eat, what we wear, which phone calls to answer, when we exercise, whether we study the thing we’re supposed to be learning and at what time, and indeed everything else that could take up time and energy that our smart brain needs for more essential things.
She uses the example (well, I listed a bunch of her examples above, but this is one she focuses on) of answering phone calls from unfamiliar numbers with no caller ID. Each time you decide whether or not to do that, you spend some seconds and a lot of mental energy considering things like your current schedule, who the caller might be, people you think might be calling, the possible consequences of skipping the call… and much more, because your brain is fast. That just takes seconds. But it can take a while for your brain to get back in focus and to full productivity on the thing you were working on before the phone rang.
Instead, just decide once not to answer those calls. Put serious thought into it once and then automate it and never give it any brain power again.
Indeed, multitasking is a myth — except if we can be doing one task requiring our smart brain’s attention and one or many that we have on autopilot. This is obviously true when you think about breathing. It is rare for us to be so engaged with higher brain functions that we forget to breathe. So, if we have successfully automated laundry folding or knitting stockinette stitch or something, we can multitask that particular action and another action that requires attention and thought. Plus breathing, keeping our hearts beating, and whatnot.
My experience with developing habits is that it can take a lot of discipline to establish a habit. Some things can be a no-decision decision, but most things require brain power until they’re established habits… and sometimes even then, because former bad habits are still carved into the synapses, so to speak, waiting for the chance to grab us and slide us down that particular chute. Or snake, if you played Snakes and Ladders rather than Chutes and Ladders.
So, supposing that I take on Discipline for my 2018 Word of the Year, I can simply be using discipline to solidify those habits that still need solidification. I can put some discipline into automating more and freeing up my brain in the future by using a disciplined and intensive approach to undisciplined areas — and automating those areas of my life.