Conserve Your Mental Energy, Do One Thing, Do it Well, and Then Move On

Albert Einstein was a genius by any possible measuring standard. He was also a bit of a nut.

Back when my engineering career was on hiatus, because the slackwits of my home province decided to elect a socialist clown who promptly dropped the economy straight into the toilet, I went back to school to study physics.

Hey, if designing and building things was impossible because the “party of the working man” was determined to drive all business, and with it all design and manufacturing (and with that, all blue collar jobs), out of the province, then at least I could go back to school and become an academic, right?

Of course, my brain eventually ran into Quantum E&M theory and decided, “You know what? Let’s go back to designing cool shit, all this math is hard and dull,” but that’s a story for another day. Today we talk about one of Einstein’s crazier idea, relayed to me at a Physics Club parties.

Full disclosure, whether this story is true, or apocryphal, I don’t know. As it happens, I don’t really want to know, because it’s simply too much fun, and too harmless, to fact check.

The story goes that Einstein believed in the theory of conservation of mental energy. The actual theory of conservation of energy is that energy can be neither created nor destroyed, merely converted from one form to another.

Einstein’s theory of mental energy was that you have a limited amount of mental energy, and it should not be wasted on trivia. For example, the story goes, he didn’t want to waste mental energy deciding what to wear, so he had 7 outfits, rotated daily, thus wasted no mental energy on dressing himself.

I completely sympathize with the thought that deciding what to wear every morning is a waste of time and energy, however, while I sympathize, I don’t actually think that using mental energy on your clothes reduces your creativity later in the day. You’re not “using up” mental energy.

On the other hand, I do think the notion you have limited mental energy is true. We have a limited number of things we can focus on in a given day; a limited amount of concentration and focus capacity for getting things done.

One of the great dangers of this limited capacity is spreading it too thinly. We live in the era of “multitasking.” Here’s the deep dark secret of multitasking.

Multitasking Does Not Exist

In the office workplace there are managerial myths that simply refuse to die, and one of the biggest is this notion of multitasking. The boss assigns you a stack of shit to get done, and expects it all to be done correctly. Then he interrupts you with more shit, in the expectation that ALL of it will get done. He might as well ask you to sprout wings and fly.

Multitasking is a Myth.

Our brains can only focus on one thing at a time, and research shows that any interruption resets our focus. One study I read about showed that any break in concentration, no matter how small, caused a disruption that required up to 30 minutes to reverse.

That’s right, when you’re interrupted you lose 30 minutes of time on the task at hand.

Let us suppose you have serious mental health problems. Let us further suppose that those problems, untreated for 40 years, have been brought to a crisis by the Fascism and stupidity of your elected overlords. After 18 months of:

  • having your God given rights and civil liberties pissed upon
  • watching your children’s educations and futures put at risk
  • seeing those wonderful boys losing their hope and joy

you gave up. Your exercise, your diet, your sleep, your work, your marriage, your entire life is going to hell. You came within a whisker of committing the ultimate sin.

But you didn’t.

The problem is that you have dug yourself (and by “you” and “yourself” I mean “I” and “myself”)  a deep hole. Simply stopping digging isn’t enough, I now have to climb back out.

The thing is, that laundry list of problems is too big, and this is where Einstein’s theory comes in.


  • get myself back in shape,
  • regain lost muscle tone and mass,
  • get my job performance back to normal
  • fix my sleep
  • (and believe me, the list goes on)

I’m going to have to need a tremendous amount of energy, both physical and mental. Let’s be honest, I flat out don’t have that much mental energy.

During the worst of the fascist fuckery imposed by Blackface Hitler, aided and abetted by the Fat Fascist Fuckwit of Queen’s Park, I tried to address these issues. I would wake up on a Saturday and decide, “NOW I’m going to (fill in the blank),” and I’d have enough energy and focus to address my problems for a few days, maybe even a couple of weeks.

But it always ran out.

There was simply too much to do and I didn’t have enough mental energy to maintain focus on all of the problems I had to solve. Nobody has enough mental energy to maintain the focus necessary to address all my problems.

So we return to Einstein and conserving mental energy. I have enough mental energy to do the Dr. Charles Emmerson Winchester the Third. (It’s a M*A*S*H reference, I’m old)

I do one thing at a time, I do it very well, and then I move on.

C.E.M. Winchester III

Trying to address the entire laundry list of problems I suffered (and am suffering) all at once is a losing proposition, so I broke it down.

  • Eight weeks ago I began exercising, every day.
  • After three weeks of daily exercise, I began meditating and doing posture and spine yoga, every day.
  • After two weeks of daily meditation and spine yoga I began alternating spine and core strength yoga.
  • After two weeks of that, I added a weight training workout to the yoga rotation.
  • The following week I added daily writing, determining to write one long form blog post a day.

Note that I focused on each item for a significant period of time before adding anything new. I use the mental energy I have to focus on one single thing.

When the energy necessary to maintain the thing has dropped, I add one thing to my task list. I do that next thing until the energy needed drops enough to be able to add another.

In short, I focus on one thing until it starts to be routine, even habitual, so it no longer needs significant mental energy to do. That is the trigger to do something more.

Einstein may have been nuts to think that using mental resources to choose his clothes would reduce his ability to unify the fields. Hell, he was definitely nuts to think that, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lesson here.

Your mental energy is limited, so don’t spread your capacity to get stuff done so thin that you end up getting nothing done.