In overloading our brain we limit our ability to perform.
This is why finding ways to manage how we use our brain and reduce the amount of stress we place on it, is important to our wellbeing and effectiveness.
Each day we’re faced with making thousands of decisions.
Some are mundane, like what cereal to have, whilst others are more serious, like whether to sell our home or undergo surgery.
Decision making is also taxing on our working memory - our ability to hold, process and use new information to guide our behaviour (Hall & Jarrold, 2015).
Similarly, as we use our decision making muscles, our ability to self-regulate and make sound choices reduces.
This results in an increased risk of making poor, unethical, and possibly costly decisions (Kouchaki & Smith, 2014). So what can we do?
It's not uncommon to feel overwhelmed by the number of decisions you need to make on a daily basis, or to even find it difficult or unpleasant (Luce et al, 1999).
It was for this reason that when we decided we were going to put our house on the market, we agreed my wife would manage the process, whilst I was finishing my degree.
From previous experience, to think of anything in addition to peer reviewed journals and word counts, would've been too much for my mind to manage.
I knew this because during another pressured time several years ago, when I was taking on too much, I suffered with tension headaches as a result of brain overload.
When it first started happening I began to notice, that just like the muscles I train in the gym, my mind could only take so much before it began to fatigue and fail.
After visiting my GP, and being advised to "Let go" of whatever was bothering me, I started to consider what that could look like practically.
At the time, some of the things I was being advised to let go of, weren't removable. As a result, I felt trapped and deflated at the idea of not being able to change anything.
However, after more reflection I started taking note of things within my control. This resulted in me feeling more powerful and experiencing tension headaches less often.
Though unable to change some things, I realised that a quick solution was to reduce the number of daily decisions I needed to make, as decision making had become unpleasant.
So, to make fewer decisions and in the process use up less mental capacity, similar to when I've tried to update my iphone and there's been insufficient storage, I cleared space.
These simple adjustment resulted in having more control over my mental health and greater capacity to function and perform at my best.
Just making a few changes to my daily practice was life changing.
And though it didn't rid me of all of my stressors, it definitely helped me to feel more able to cope and function better on a daily basis.
So, here are four things I've practiced to help manage decision fatigue, avoid overloading my brain, look after my mental health, and be more effective.
The first is to remove a need to make decisions. For example, I have a simplified wardrobe, consisting of a set number of shirts and trousers I can alternate and wear on rotation.
Of course, there are other items of clothing which I wear at the weekend and special occasions, but during my working week, my wardrobe is pretty much the same.
The simplicity of my wardrobe frees up mental space in the morning to focus on more valuable things like reading, praying, exercising and considering my most important tasks.
There are lots of distractions throughout the day.
Text messages, phone-calls, and countless notifications, pull our minds away from giving attention to important work.
So, though some may not like or understand it, I remove these distractions by turning off notifications and regulating calls and emails.
For example, by limiting when I check emails, I reduce the number of potential decisions needed in response to those received throughout the day.
Some things are stored on what I describe as my internal mental hard drive. For example, significant memories, dates, goals and so on.
But things I can refer to as and when needed, or that I may not want to access until a later date, I keep on my external mental hard drive.
"Your brain is for having ideas, not storing them." David Allen
To do this, my go-to tool is Evernote, which I've been a fan of since being introduced to it by a colleague several years back when I was a youth pastor.
Evernote is a brilliant app that allows me to organise my thoughts and ideas into a single digital workspace that I can access at anytime.
Though it'll require getting used to, and a system of organising that works for you, its powerful functionality could allow you to free up mental space and avoid overload.
As a therapist, you'd have guessed I'd suggest this one. Of course I would, I place high value on the benefits of talking therapy.
However, even as a therapist, I can still find it a challenge to open up and express feelings. Not only am I a naturally private person, I'm also by nature a (not so) secret introvert.
So, in sharing, either by writing or speaking to someone, you're able to free up the space in your mind that those thoughts and feelings would otherwise keep occupied.
Being open about how you're feeling and speaking about your concerns, can also give you clarity about some of the decisions you're feeling you need to make.
Exploring your thoughts and speaking about how you feel can also prevent you from spiralling into patterns of unhelpful over-thinking which could lead to depression and anxiety.
As you can only manage a finite amount of information and processing which influences your behaviour, your capacity to make good decisions depletes throughout the day.
So, in wanting to make good choices, it's key to your mental health and effectiveness, that you limit as many non-critical decisions as possible.
Reducing the number of non-critical decisions you need to make, will reduce the likelihood of decision fatigue and result in you making better choices about what's most important.
Keeping space free in your brain for high level decisions, reflection, and idea creation, is key to performing at your best and maintaining your emotional and mental well-being.
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Hall, D, and Jarrod, C. (2015) What Is Working Memory? [online] Bristol.ac.uk. Available from: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/media-library/sites/expsych/documents/factsheet-1.pdf [Accessed 20 December 2019].
Kouchaki, M., & Smith, I. H. (2014). The morning morality effect: The influence of time of day on unethical behavior. Psychological Science, 25, 95–102.
Luce, M. F., Payne, J. W., & Bettman, J. R. (1999). Emotional trade off difficulty and choice. Journal of Marketing Research, 36, 143–159.
Morin, A. (2019) 10 signs you're an overthinker. [online] Inc.com. Available from: https://www.inc.com/amy-morin/10-signs-you-think-too-much-and-what-you-can-do-about-it.html [Accessed 20 December 2019].
Polman. E., Vohs, K. (2016) Decision Fatigue, Choosing for Others, and Self-Construal. Social Psychological and Personality Science, Vol. 7(5), 471-478
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