When you were young, did you ever fantasize about becoming a monk or nun? I often did, but not for any lofty spiritual reasons—I just wanted to be free of the choice of what to wear to school or, with adolescent angst, what to do with the rest of my life. The drawbacks of a lot of rules, very early mornings and digging for potatoes seemed outweighed by the comfort of order, free of the chaos and distress of having too many choices.
You don’t have to be a religious though to remove a lot of unnecessary choices, also known as decisions, from your life. Take the “what to wear” question. Steve Jobs did it with his now famous jeans and black turtleneck outfit. So did Einstein with his schlumpy grey suit, no socks and 1930s leather jacket. I’m not saying you can’t create a successful business if you’re a fashionista, but it’s got to help not to have to look through an overstuffed closet each morning and decide what to wear.
Let’s continue with the wardrobe example. Even if you don’t want a Jobsian, Einsteinian or Catholic school uniform, you can greatly reduce your choices but still have some variety in your closet. Limit your color palette to a few tones that mix and match easily. Stick with either all black or all brown accessories. That said, brown is particularly problematic because there are so many shades of it to consider. Do the cocoa shoes go with the espresso bag? How’s the tan belt with the taupe boots? Black is much easier. Navy also has a lot of shades and I once spent way too much cash and energy trying to manifest the perfect pumps to match a navy suit. Getting rid of that suit and the several pairs of blue shoes was an expensive lesson but also a relief.
Routines are another way to give your decision-weary brain a break, but it takes a long time of diligent adherence to a routine to make it stick. It really has to become autopilot. I recently heard a Jungian psychologist refer to routines as a form of addiction. It is true that when my routine is changed, as by traveling, or interrupted, as by a power outage (short term) or pandemic (long term), I become quite anxious. But overall, routines tend to add to the quality of my life and don’t usually detract from it.
Areas of life to make routine are morning rituals, meal preparation, exercise, housekeeping, travel packing and preparation, grocery shopping, evening rituals before sleep, and so on. If you tend towards obsessive-compulsive disorder, have a plan—a routine—for taking time away from your routines now and then or for mixing it up a bit. If you are used to slightly changing your routine now and then, for example, a walk outdoors instead of on the treadmill, you will be less anxious when something happens and your routine is interrupted, as when all the gyms closed for a while in 2020.
In other words, a Plan B will give you lots of freedom from having to make decisions when your initial plans get derailed. The brain loves a good Plan B.
Putting organizational systems in place in your home, car and office also let the brain relax because there is “a place for everything and everything in its place.” You don’t have to make a fresh decision each time you get groceries and need to stash away the dry goods or every time you do laundry and you need to find room for the socks.
It’s also freeing to have a rule about how long you will keep something that you don’t wear or use before letting it go. If you have a rule, whether it’s six months, a year or longer, you don’t have to ask yourself whether or not you should get rid of it every time you open your closet or a cupboard (as I do with a particular evening dress, several coats and a strange bowl I bought at a gallery in Los Angeles ten years ago and haven’t figured out how to use or display).
Rules about spending money can ironically make you feel richer. When I’ve figured out my budget and don’t have to question whether or not I should buy a pricey oat milk latte (potentially a daily decision) or yet another book when I have a dozen yet to read (also potentially a daily decision) it is incredibly soothing to my inner accountant.
Good mental habit patterns are important to practice before stressful times strike. Be kind to your brain and eliminate as many decisions from its to-do list as you reasonably can. The prevailing wisdom among creativity and productivity experts, not to mention Jobs and Einstein, is that removing mundane, quotidian decisions leaves the brain free to think much more creatively and productively.