College can burn us out. Exams, classes, and papers all stacking up at the same time can be exhausting. It can be physically wearing, of course, but it is mainly mentally draining. And if you have ever stared at a computer screen, trying hard to do the homework you have due, but have found yourself dragged to Facebook or Youtube, you know what I am talking about.
When that sort of mental exhaustion happens, we cannot think creatively anymore. It feels like our capacity to decide is diminished, and that we are kind of powerless. But what has really happened? Has our will power left us?
As weird as it sounds, turns out it is pretty much that. Scientist Roy Baumeister from Florida State University has shown that our mental power can quite literally abandon us. He calls it “ego depletion,” and the way it works is actually fairly simple. We all have a certain level of mental energy to make our decisions throughout the day, and we use this mental energy for every conscious decision in our lives, from the most sophisticated and important to the most mundane. So, every time we decide on what to wear, what to eat, or whether we should or shouldn’t check what is going on Facebook, our mental energy is being used. And the very same energy is the one you will use to make the more important decisions of your life.
So how do we deal with it? There is a solution. Have you ever wondered how some people — from politicians, to artists, to executives — can accomplish so much more with the same 24 hours a day we all have? Putting their lives on autopilot is one of their secrets. They automate mundane activities, and save their mental energy for the really important ones.
According to Vanity Fair, President Obama himself said, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” In a similar fashion, Robert Pozen from the Harvard Business School defends the same principle: put things that are unimportant on autopilot, and save your mental energy for situations and people that really matter.
Of course, putting things on autopilot can be pretty easy for the president or for a Harvard executive. They can have a personal assistant to do all the unimportant stuff for them. But how do we broke college students do it?
One of the ways of auto-piloting your daily activities is deciding the night before what will you eat for breakfast and what clothes you will wear for classes. Another way of saving your mental energy for important things is getting done most of the priority tasks on your to do list first before moving into less demanding or less important activities. Getting rid of energy draining distractions also help. For instance, I changed my Facebook password to a really complicated one that I do not know by heart, and I have to copy it from a text document in my flash drive when I want to login. Since then, I have been using it much less (once every two days, typically).
When I talk about putting life on autopilot I get some weird looks. It might sound like I am suggesting we all turn into robots that do not live life consciously. But, in fact, it is the exact opposite. Automating the mundane, unimportant aspects of our lives is a liberating exercise, and frees our minds and conscience to experience and live the important aspects of life fully.
*This story was first published at the UDK