If you're the type of person who spends a large part of your day without much physical activity - such as working at a desk for 8+ hours, or a student with a full-time schedule - you might have noticed some days you feel like you just ran a marathon non-stop.
It's an odd feeling when you arrive home physically exhausted even though the most activity you had in your day was walking to lunch. You might even feel a bit of guilt if you know someone who had a grueling day full of physical labor - after all, you shouldn't feel as tired as they were when you were sitting most of your day in a climate-controlled room.
Why does this tiredness happen? In most cases, it's a straightforward reason: your brain is consuming too much of your physical energy the more you use it.
Every decision you make adds up
Nowadays, many jobs require lots of complex thinking. Even if you believe that your work is simple and requires little thought, the fact is that you're juggling a lot of thinking in your head. Even the simplest of tasks needs you to do some analysis before doing the work, especially if it's something you don't want to be doing. Another factor that plays a role in extensive thinking is the decisions you have to make all the time.
Every day, we're faced with a barrage of decisions. What are you going to wear to work today? Will you take the time to prepare breakfast or grab something on your way to the office? What tasks will you tackle? Do you finish the job in front of you now, or rush to your colleague's aid when they asked for help? What brand of cereal will you buy at the supermarket out of the hundreds that are on the aisle? It seems to start from the moment you wake up all the way until you shut your eyes to fall asleep.
This is commonly known as decision fatigue. This term is taken from psychology circles, referring to the noticeable dip in control when it comes to making too many decisions in any given period. Simply put, the more choices you have to make, the less control you have over the decisions and the more it will wear you down.
However, the word "fatigue" in the term refers to mental tiredness, not the physical exhaustion you experience at the end of a long day full of hundred of decision-making moments. Even when you start to hit the starting point of decision fatigue, you won't experience physical fatigue - at least not in the beginning.
Our cognitive abilities for complex thinking and decision making are a finite resource. Every moment you spend thinking or making a decision, your resource pool drains a little. When the pool is empty, your brain kicks in and needs to find reserves from elsewhere. Your brain has to work extra hard to help you get through the choices you have to make.
Your brain will create a dip in how you feel
Most people don't associate the brain with how they feel physically, but your brain does cause a lot of physical exertion or at least makes you feel entirely spent. It's all based on how the brain works.
One of the brain's primary functions is merely to keep you alive. One of the ways the brain does that is by regulating how much energy you expend in the form of calories burned. The brain consumes calories even when you're resting, but when you spend time thinking, that burn rate goes up a bit.
It's just a little increase in the number of calories spent - no, you won't lose weight only by thinking a lot. But sometimes it's just enough for the brain to try to stop the excess consumption. That's why you often tune out after a lengthy meeting or begin to think about what's for dinner when you're in the middle of a conversation with someone.
When you spent most of your day forcing your brain to think and make decisions, your brain will continue burning calories and essentially dip into your energy reserves. After a while, you'll find yourself with little to no energy left, even though you feel like you didn't do anything to consume that extra energy throughout your day.
I've personally noticed this on many days. I'm a computer programmer, so the nature of my job is to sit in front of a computer all day and think about how to solve all types of problems to build something. All the small decisions and all the thinking that I have to make during a given day drain me more than the days when I go to the gym for a vigorous workout.
Less thinking for long-term productivity
All of this fatigue caused by decision-making and critical thinking can negatively affect your personal growth in a big way. By having fewer reserves in the tank to do the things that will push you forward, you'll find yourself doing those things less and less. Admit it: we've all had days where all you want to do is order take-out and sit in front of the couch and binge-watch Netflix the rest of the evening.
There's one simple solution to fix this for good: spend less time on making minor decisions and thinking about unimportant matters. Focus on using the limited amount of energy allocated to decision-making and critical thinking on things that will help take you to the next level you want to be in. As the saying goes, don't sweat the small stuff.
Many prominent figures have proved that by taking less time to deal with little things in their lives, it frees them up to make the critical choices. Former U.S. President Barack Obama wore only gray or blue suits to avoid deciding on what to wear. The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs famously wore a black turtleneck and jeans for the same reasons. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has taken to doing the same recently, saying that he wants to spend his decision time on Facebook, not on what to wear.
While the majority of us aren't leading an entire country or running billion-dollar companies, we can learn a lesson in paring down on the number of decisions we make on a daily basis. And it doesn't mean that you should go out and buy 20 pieces of the same type of outfit, so you don't have to think about what to wear anymore. It really means that you should use your decision-making time more wisely. For example, do you really need to spend five minutes in the breakfast aisle deciding on which cereal you want to buy? Just choose the one you like or want to try and get on with your day.
You can also defer your decisions and thinking to a less-critical time of day. Often, that would be in the evenings. After a long day, your brain won't be as alert as it was earlier in the day so this would be a great time to do some of the minor things in your life, like deciding on what to wear tomorrow for work or what you'll have for breakfast in the morning. Be careful of what type of decision-making or thinking you're doing at this time, though. As mentioned before, when the brain's reserves are gone, you won't be in the best place to make the best choices you can.
Determine what's essential and control the flow of what comes your way
Every moment you spend thinking adds up to the depletion of your brain power, whether it's something small and almost insignificant or a potentially life-altering choice. You need to determine what's truly important to you in your life and spend all of your energy on those things instead of wasting it away on areas that won't lead to anywhere you want to be.
Don't let the little things drag you down. When you control the decisions you make, and when you make them, you'll be freeing your mind to explore the possibilities of what you can accomplish in your life. You'll find yourself with more desire and enthusiasm to tackle your goals.
Small steps for your Practical Good
Let's reclaim your stamina to make more critical decisions in your life and push yourself forward by starting to take these small steps:
- Prepare your days starting the night before. Instead of waking up and immediately needing to go into decision-making mode, you can begin preparing your day before going to bed the previous night. Taking time to do things like having your clothes laid out, some or all of your meals made, and a list of the things you want to accomplish for the next day will significantly lessen the amount of energy you need to spend when your brain is at its peak.
- Establish routines and build habits. When you begin to establish a routine to turn it into a habit, it sets you up to not have to use any brain power to get it done in the future. Going to the gym at the same days of the week, having lunch at the same places, or scheduling time to study at the same times every day will allow you to keep your reserves from being depleted.
- Determine what's draining you so you can eliminate them from your life. Often, you won't see the little things that make you feel exhausted. You'll only notice when the time has passed by, making it difficult to nail down. One tactic to use to get to the bottom of these strength-sapping moments is when you are feeling low on energy, write down the things you were doing before, about an hour or two back. Soon enough you'll spot common activities - these are the ones you should focus on and do your best to remove them from your life if possible.