There is more to minimalism than hipsters in tiny houses. While it can be cathartic to rid your life of superfluous worldly possessions, there is a real beauty and practical value in simplicity that extends well beyond the scope of not owning more “stuff” than you truly need. Cognitive minimalism has its benefits too. In examining the phenomenon of “decision fatigue,” scientists are beginning to discover that cerebral simplicity may be essential in getting the most out of those decision-making engines bouncing around within our skulls.
We’ve all experienced it: feeling intellectually spent. I spend my work days mulling over mountains of complex science, trying my best to make sense of the latest health, exercise, and nutrition research. After eight hours, I am mentally drained, to the point where choosing what to wear the following day seems like a herculean task. If my wife walks through the door and nonchalantly asks if I could prepare dinner for the kids, it’s almost as if she just asked me to solve the Hodge conjecture. That’s because intense focusing and repeated decision-making stresses our “executive function” capabilities. Executive function is the set of skills that allows you to make decisions, focus on complex tasks, plan and organize, remember details; basically, it’s your ability to get things done. These processes are controlled by the frontal lobe, the same part of the brain that regulates voluntary movement. It’s no coincidence that after a period of intense mental focus, you often feel physically fatigued; your frontal lobe can only handle so much.
The human mind is not without limits. Like a muscle, brain function decreases when its energy has been depleted. Although your brain (and your biceps) can be trained to produce more power and to be more energy efficient, there are strict boundaries on executive function capacity. We’d all like to believe that we are only using 10% of our brain (that, by the way, is a myth), but in actuality, we only have so much cognitive horsepower and we are not working with a bottomless fuel tank. When one executive function task requires a significant amount of your brain’s computing power, that fuel tank isn’t magically topped off when the next complex decision needs to be made. And the latest research is beginning to show that it isn’t just particularly strenuous cognitive tasks that tax our mental bank accounts. Whether you just finished taking the GRE or deciding which flavor of protein powder to put in your oatmeal, every decision you make depletes your executive function aptitude stores. Other studies have shown that when people are suffering from decision fatigue, they often resort to more basic thought processes and are more apt to make decisions they would later regret. Theoretically, this is due to what is referred to as tradeoff resolution. The process of consciously examining different options, committing to one, and then implementing it is cognitively draining.
Life is all about decisions. We can’t go about our day refusing to make menial decisions in order to save that precious and limited executive functioning energy for the big ones, but there are two simple concepts we can all use to maximize cognitive efficiency and reduce decision fatigue.
We’ve probably all heard stories about successful people unfailingly eating the same thing for breakfast or even wearing the same clothing for years at a time. Along with his tenacious approach to branding and marketing wizardry, Steve Jobs became well known for the black turtleneck, blue jeans and New Balance® sneakers that he wore literally every day. Albert Einstein once said that he was probed more about his one gray suit than he was about general relativity. Automating those mundane daily tasks that aren’t that important, leaves more in the frontal lobe fuel tank for those decisions that are. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it; and by “fix it”, I mean change it. If a particular brand and cut of jeans looks good on you, there is nothing wrong with buying several pairs. Find a consistent meal plan so that going to the grocery store and deciding what’s for dinner doesn’t turn into a daily brain-drain. Don’t use that finite amount of executive function capacity deciding when to fit in your workout, schedule a set time to exercise daily and put it in your calendar. Get into consistent morning and bedtime routines so that each action becomes habit. If you think about it (but not too much), you could probably automate half of the mundane decisions you make on a daily basis. Variety is the spice of life, but spice can be (mentally) exhausting.
Multitasking is no-tasking
Your boss (and your spouse) isn’t going to like this one, but research has actually shown that multitasking is counterproductive. This isn’t some new theory, studies older than your parents have revealed that doing more than one task at a time places considerable demands on cognitive resources and results in decreased execution of each isolated task. Multitasking is actually a misnomer because how the brain handles several tasks at one time…well, it doesn’t really handle them. Your brain is actually repeatedly toggling between tasks and simultaneous processing never really occurs. Every additional task further interrupts neural processing, resulting in disrupted information encoding, storage, and making future retrieval of said information that much more difficult. If the competing tasks involve the same sensory modalities, ability to complete either one is further diluted. Attempting more than one task at a time is driving around an icy information racetrack on ragged tires, then blowing a hole in that executive function tank. The quickest way to walk that decision fatigue line is to attempt several attention-dependent tasks at one time. Focus on activities one at a time, complete one with all eight neural cylinders firing, and move onto the next.
We all make hundreds, even thousands, of decisions each day, all with varying degrees of significance and quantifiable mental capacity cost. Don’t let a surfeit of breakfast options effect your ability to make other, more important decisions. Avoid decision fatigue by automating and focusing on one task at a time.
Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.