Far be it from me to encourage people to get more done. I’m a notorious layabout, and a lot of my work as a psychologist is encouraging my therapy clients to relax more, be less hard on themselves, and appreciate the miracle that is simply being alive.
But guess what? Being lazy has made me a master of finding efficient shortcuts to get more done with less energy!
After all, we all need to do our life stuff. And since there is a cost in mental energy for everything we do, doesn’t it make sense to be as efficient as possible? Mental energy is a finite resource, and feeling drained is a difficult place to be. Let’s streamline our shit.
I got inspired to write this blog post after re-reading a 2011 article about the cognitive cost of doing things. This article discussed mental costs, with an eye towards conserving as much of your mental energy as you can. It was something I posted several years ago, and then totally forgot about. Its points are relevant, worth a read, and got me thinking, which resulted in this post.
Below, I discuss three cognitive costs: activation energy, the impact of inertia, and opportunity cost. I’ll briefly cover what they are, how they might drain you, some examples of dealing with them, and how to minimize their effects.
The goal? Get more done with less energy expended, and feel better while you’re at it.
1. Decrease your Required “Activation Energy” to get more done
Activation energy is the energy required just to get started on a new task. Sometimes it feels like it requires Herculean effort!
There are lots of reasons why starting something takes an extra bump of energy. For example, it’s harder if you’re not sure where to start, or if the whole task seems overwhelming. Likewise, it can be harder if the task seems boring. Or, let’s face it, you’re comfy and can’t be bothered.
Tip: To minimize the amount of activation energy you require, set up automated systems to turn your must-do’s into habits. A terrific book to learn more about using habits to optimize your life is Atomic Habits, by James Clear.
Once you set up a system, you no longer need to decide how or where to start, so you use less energy.
Case study: getting it done by reducing required activation energy
As a therapist, I must write a progress note for every therapy session. In the “old days”, I needed activation energy at the end of the day to sit down with a pile of paper charts and write my notes. How much easier to put it off until tomorrow. Or the next day! (We therapists are notorious for getting behind on progress notes.)
But today, it require no activation energy for me to write my notes, thanks to a system that initiates the process for me. That is, my electronic health record (EHR) software prompts me to write my progress notes after each session. The template beckons to me – “Write Your Progress Note!” – and with a few clicks and some typing, it’s done! In fact, it would require activation energy to turn away from the note-writing prompts and do something else.
Sure, I still need to write the notes, but I don’t have to mentally “gear up” and use any energy to decide whether to start it or put if off, etc. So simple, but guess what – I’m never behind on my notes anymore! Where progress notes are concerned, I get more done and I agonize way less about it due to this automated system that replaces any need for activation energy.
2. Opportunity cost: you can’t do it all
Opportunity cost is a well-known concept, and you may be aware of it. In the context of getting things done, opportunity cost simply means that when you are doing one thing, there is something else that you are not doing.
FOMO and Opportunity Cost: you can’t do it all
One price we pay with opportunity cost is that low-key buzz of being aware that you are not doing X, because you are doing Y. It may or may not feel like anxiety or FOMO. But it can sap your energy and increase stress.
It might like this: “OMG I may be returning these emails, but there is a mountain of laundry to fold upstairs and it’s taunting me.” Or, “I love this book I’m reading, but what if someone somewhere is having fun without me?”
Tip: Improving your ability to be mindful in the present moment is a powerful way to vanquish that buzz of awareness about what isn’t happening in your present experience.
Here are some affirmations to keep in mind when you are doing X, and internally stressing that you’re not doing Y. Repeat to yourself in a gentle way, because you are amazing.
- One thing at a time.
- I am exactly where I am supposed to be.
- I’m no magician!
- X is happening now, and Y will happen later.
- I focus on what I can control, and let go of the rest.
Decision Fatigue and Opportunity Cost
Another price of opportunity cost is the energy it requires you to decide what to do. Making decisions is a cognitively taxing process, so decision fatigue can result after a sustained period of decision making.
Tip: One way to minimize the effort required in evaluating opportunity cost is to be very clear in your own mind about your values. Know yourself ahead of time, and a decision often appears clear very early.
Case Study in Opportunity Cost and Values: Car Wash, Yeah!
For instance, let’s say that you plan to wash your car one afternoon. But if you do, you miss a valuable hour of weekend time with your family. There is no right or wrong thing to do here, but the process of making the choice that is right for you takes some mental effort.
You’re less likely to expend a great deal of mental effort making this choice when operating from a firm basis of your priorities. In other words, it’s easier to make a choice that is most in alignment with your values, and that clarity is energy-saving. More energy to do fun stuff!
In this car wash scenario, suppose that your highly-valued family time has been really scarce lately. You decide it’s worth it to spend time with your family, and drive around in a dirty car (or spend the money to take it to a car wash later).
Your dusty car may bother you a little (opportunity cost), but not as much as missing out on that time with your family. You don’t really agonize or feel like a flake. Instead, you feel secure that since you can’t do it all, you’re doing what’s most important to you.
In values-based decision making, things aren’t black and white. Don’t feel like you need to make the same choices across time and circumstances. On a different weekend, maybe your teenagers aren’t speaking to you and your partner is deeply engaged in their hobby. Perfect time to wash the car. Wait, why aren’t your teenagers washing your damn car? Punks. I digress.
You may want to get more done, but remember that you can’t get it all done. It’s natural to take opportunity cost into consideration for any finite resource, like time, money, or attention. When you lead with your values, you can prioritize more easily and save yourself valuable mental energy.
Case Study #2: if you buy those fabulous green shoes with birdies and flowers on them, you won’t have the shoe budget for a sensible pair of black flats. Thank goodness you know that you value whimsical footwear!
3. Inertia: keep getting the same thing done
Whereas activation energy refers to the energy needed to start something, inertia is the tendency to keep doing whatever it is you’re doing. Breaking out of inertia can take serious energy, and may generate all kinds of uncomfortable feelings.
People tend to break out of inertia when it becomes more uncomfortable to keep going than to make a change. A small example of this is when you leave for an appointment at the last minute, because the discomfort of possibly being late becomes more unpleasant than continuing your inertia-fueled couch-a-thon. (I can’t be the only one, right?)
A more consequential example of inertia comes from several previous clients, about ending unhappy marriages. “At some point it became harder to stay than it was to leave.” The inertia of sharing a life is powerful stuff. Your home, your routines, your finances, possibly your children. The marital relationship exists in an entire ecosystem, and it’s easier to remain in that ecosystem than to dismantle it. Until it isn’t.
Tip: You might feel stuck in an inertia-fueled situation that is unhealthy for you. You’re human. Often, to maintain that status quo, our denial kicks into high gear. If you want to make a change but feel stuck, know that denial thrives in darkness. Shining some light on the situation may help break through the inertia, or at least start to erode it. Talk about your situation with a therapist, journal about it, or confide in a friend. Sometimes a path emerges that appears easier to implement than continuing on with the situation unchanged.
An Upside to Inertia: Keep getting the same thing done!
Sometimes inertia can work for you. Once you start something, harness the power of our human instincts to just keep plugging along. For example, you might spend some activation energy starting your tax prep, and then discover that you’re in a groove and you just keep sorting those receipts and organizing those annual statements. Thanks to inertia, you finish your tax prep in one sitting.
Tip: recognize when inertia is working in your favor, and ride the wave.
Conclusion: get more done with less energy
This article covered three mental processes involved in getting stuff done: activation cost, opportunity cost, and inertia. If you can minimize the mental costs associated with these processes, it will free up more energy for you to do more, or to just feel less drained.
If you are having a hard time getting your stuff done, you might want to try therapy to help get you back on track. Please do not hesitate to contact me. I work with teens and adults who are creative, anxious, depressed, dealing with trauma, or just trying to find their way. If I’m not the right fit for you as your therapist, I will help you find someone who is.