Your Brain Isn’t Butter, Don’t Spread Yourself Too Thin(ly)

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When I was studying physics, we used to share a (probably apocryphal) story about Einstein that he had seven outfits, one for each day of the week. This was because he (supposedly) believed in the principal of the “conservation of mental energy.”

That is to say, he felt he only had a certain amount of mental energy each day, and he didn’t want to waste it choosing his clothes, because he had more important things on his mind.

While I don’t know whether the story is true, I absolutely believe in the concept. We all really do have a certain amount of mental energy given to us each day. There’s a reason that by early evening, most people are sitting on the couch, mindlessly consuming whatever pabulum is being served up by their preferred streaming service. Their mental energy is used up.

While that is not a description of me, I certainly feel the tug. The desire, once the kids are in bed, to just sit back and relax.

So, how to avoid this?

Well, let’s start by not spreading ourselves too thinly.

If you only have a certain amount of mental energy each day, then it’s wasteful to use it up accomplishing goals. Goals are for suckers, they need our constant attention.

Instead, define an ambition, and use your mental energy to create a system for achieving it. Once you have the system define, set it and forget it. Put yourself on autopilot.

An example.

This year I defined an ambition to get back into good shape. If I were simply to focus on the goal, I would need to be constantly thinking about exercise; what to do, when to do it, how much to do. Wasteful of mental energy.

Instead, I defined a system:

  • 3 weeks of brisk walks, every day at a specified time, on a specified route.
  • Then, add in 15 minutes, daily yoga to repair and maintain my troublesome back, done at a specified time
  • After 2 to 3 weeks, add in core strength and resistance training, alternating with the back yoga at its specified time.

Once I kicked it into motion, the only mental energy necessary was that much used to get going at the specified time. And that mental energy declined every day as the system developed into a habit.

Today, 6 months after kicking this off, I haven’t missed a day of exercise, Now, my exercise is on autopilot. and I expend no mental energy on it whatsoever.

That leaves me the mental energy to focus on other ambitions, creating systems for them, and for kicking those systems into motion.


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