Save energy, work more effectively and find time for things you love: Create routines

In my last blog I talked about the importance of prioritising where you focus your mental energy and the idea that mental energy is a finite resource. I think this is particularly true when you are making creative choices or complex decisions.

One way of preserving your mental energy is to create routines for everyday tasks.

In 2012 author and journalist Michael Lewis spent six months with Barack Obama. In one interview he asks Obama: “Assume that in 30 minutes you will stop being president. I will take your place. Prepare me. Teach me to be president.” Obama replies:

“You’ll […] need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. 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. You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia”.

Obama’s focus on creating routines for as much of his day as possible is reflected in research. Research by Baumeister et al (1998) looked at whether decision making does draw on a limited resource, akin to strength or energy and would therefore impact on the resources remaining for future decisions. They concluded:

“Acts of self-control, responsible decision making, and active choice seem to interfere with other such acts that follow soon after”(pp1263-4).

We can preserve our energy by creating routines. Begin by thinking about the things that you do everyday, eat, get dressed, walk the dog etc. where possible see if you can create a routine around these activities. Can you decide your weekly menu at the beginning of the week? Can you lay your clothes out the night before? Prepare your lunch in advance? Walk your dog on the same route at the same time as you do every working day?

Creating routines is not only a good way of preserving energy it can also help you to be more consistent and effective. In a book edited by Jocelyn K Glei the author writes “Don’t wait for inspiration; create a framework for it”. By creating routines in our working day we “set expectations about availability, align our workflow with out energy levels, and get our minds into a regular rhythm of creating”.

I know that my energy is stronger in the mornings. So my routine is to be at my desk by 8 am. The night before I would have created my to-do list for the day, in the morning I focus on creative of complex tasks. I try very hard not to answer emails first thing as this routine task takes away my focus from more important work. Later in the afternoon when I know my energy isn’t so good I focus on the more routine tasks such as, responding to emails, checking twitter, making telephone calls and clearing paperwork.

Authors often talk about the importance of routine. E.B. White (author of Charlotte’s Web) wrote: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper”. We can use a routine to create space for us to work (especially important for those of us that work from home or are in the creative industries). By sitting at our desk, or in our workshop etc. we give ourselves the time and discipline to be productive.

As well as using routines to preserve my energy, align my energy with my tasks, and create the space to be productive I also use routines to create time for the things that are important to me. If I know that ‘every Tuesday evening I go to yoga’ then I am more likely to prioritise the time. Decide on an activity you want to do and create a routine around it making it more likely that you will achieve it.

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