This post was originally written in February 2021 as a follow up to Planning Your Winter Semester and was shared in the Academic Writing Studio.
It has been edited and divided into a series of shorter posts for ease of reading. The others are available at the end of this post.
Decision making is cognitive labour.
Like any other kind of labour, cognitive labour is real work that uses real energy (which you could theoretically measure in joules or calories if you knew how to do that). Decision making is also a complex task.
- You need to figure out what information, values, and needs are relevant to the decision.
- You need to think through the possible consequences of the decision.
- You compare options.
- You need to process emotions brought up by aspects of this decision.
It is very rare for one option to be obviously best. Often, there are significant down-sides to every option.
Reducing energy spent on decisions
Reducing the number of decisions you have to make is a good way to manage your energy. You probably already do this sub-consciously.
- Default responses/settings
None of these strategies are inherently good or bad. They are all ways that we manage our energy by reducing the number of decisions we make.
Think about brushing your teeth. As an adult, you probably have a long established habit of brushing your teeth at specific times of day. You rarely consciously think about brushing your teeth. You do it on autopilot. That doesn’t mean it was an easy habit to establish. Anyone who has children will have discovered how hard it is to establish this habit. Helping your children establish the habit of brushing their teeth is real labour that parents do regularly: cognitive labour of remembering to remind their children, emotional labour of managing their frustration at having to remind their children, etc.
One way to establish and maintain a habit is to attach it to another one. When you string a few habits together, we call that a routine. You probably have a morning routine that includes brushing your teeth along with several other tasks. A well established morning routine enables us to do the basic self-care we need to do while still not fully awake. By the time we are ready to start work, the parts of our brain responsible for conscious thought are warmed up and ready to go (we hope). Similarly, a well established evening routine enables us to fully relax so that our brains can process whatever has gone on that day, and allow us to sleep.
The idea of a default response is perhaps easier to see in the digital context. You probably have your email program set to order your inbox by date in reverse chronological order so the newest messages are at the top. You might change that for specific reasons but mostly you don’t think about the order. You probably also have default settings for font and font size in your word processing programme. You don’t think about the font every time you sit down to write, though you may change it for specific purposes.
Big decisions can create habits, routines, and default responses
You can reduce the cognitive and emotional labour involved in a specific decision by deciding limiting criteria for categories of decisions in a general way. There are several benefits to taking time to make these kinds of general decisions:
- Reducing urgency gives you time to collect information and consider options calmly.
- Some of the emotional charge is specific to the person making a request. Making part of the decision in general, reduces the emotional labour.
- Dividing the complex task into its component parts enables you to recharge after difficult parts of the process, and means you need less energy for the part of the decision you need to make in the moment.
As I publish posts on each of these, I’ll link them in the list. By reducing the energy you put into making decisions about how you do your work, you have more energy for the work itself.
Opposite day as decision making strategy, on making “no” your default response
Introducing That Selfish Bastard, a note for your gremlins.