It seems like weeks ago that we were all making New Year’s resolutions connected to the people we wish we were. Now comes the crunch point. Where you realise that you are not going to do any of those things. And you face a choice. So (a), accept that you are a failure. Which is not an option at The Pool. Much as I’ve tried to win everyone over to sloth, apathy and self-loathing. Or (b), downgrade to a resolution achievable for the hopeless person that you actually are. Hurrah! I’m just speaking for myself here of course.
Step forward economist Caroline Webb and the small-but-actionable pieces of advice she dispenses in her new book How to Have a Good Day: Think Bigger, Feel Better and Transform Your Working Life (Macmillan). The killer change that anyone could implement? “Automate the small stuff.”
This sounds at first like bringing in a robot to do your cleaning. Something I would totally be on board with if it weren’t such a hassle to buy the robot and programme them or whatever. But, no, it’s simpler than that. “Decision-making is tiring for your brain’s deliberate system,” writes Webb, “Without realising it, you can fritter away a fair portion of your mental energy on the day’s minor choices.” This explains why everyone is so tired in January: they are completely exhausted from using up all their willpower to enact new choices that aren’t sticking.
Decision-making is tiring for your brain’s deliberate system. Without realising it, you can fritter away a fair portion of your mental energy on the day’s minor choices
All this is a fool’s errand, she says. Instead, stop making decisions and set automatic one-time-only choices. Choose what your default is and stick to it. Be like Barack Obama or Angela Merkel in your wardrobe choices. Obama only wears blue or grey suits. Merkel wears a single jacket design, made up in multiple colours and fabrics. It’s not a great pitch for an Instagram feed (or maybe it is...) but it works if you’re the Chancellor of Germany.
The point of all this is to take away the time-wasting procrastinating that comes from laboured decision-making. You don’t have to spend time thinking, “Am I going to do this today or not?” You just do it, whether it’s exercise, getting up at a certain time, always wearing a variation on the same outfit on work days or sending every phone call you get to voicemail and having set times when you listen to your messages.
One of Webb’s case studies explains, who tried the tip with learning French and exercising: “I’ve tried to turn as many things as I can into daily habits. I do a few minutes on each every day, rather than agonising whether it’s happening today or not. I just do it. I find committing to a small daily task takes less mental space than planning to study a few times a week and then wondering when or whether to make time.” Here’s the rule: little and often (maybe even daily) and totally, completely non-negotiable. If it’s automated, it’s the rule.
Webb advises that this – alongside saying “no” more often and setting boundaries (which is, er, another way of saying “no" in my book) – is the key to overcoming overload and burn-out. “Consider whether you can do something at the same time or in the same way each day, to spend more of your mental energy on the things that matter.” I’m doing it. Do not interrupt me at 9.37am (checking email), 11.35am (checking voicemail) or between 2pm and 4pm (restorative boundary-setting executive power nap). Thank you very much.