Less Decisions for Your Brain

Last night my wife and I were folding laundry. We had two loads to process, so I started on one while she took care of a few other chores around the house.

We’ve been married a few years, but don’t often do laundry together—we both do the laundry, it’s just that most often it’s a solo activity no matter who is doing it (my wife is wedding florist and works weekends, which is why our schedule is a little out of the ordinary).

When my wife came in to help fold the clothes she asked, “do you always separate all of the clothes into piles before folding them?” I didn’t think much about it, but that’s exactly what I’d done: I sorted all of the clean clothes into piles by category (socks, shirts, etc.) and then set about folding them. Of course, I was asked to explain my methodology.

As is often the case with things we do but don’t analyze, the process of dissecting our rationale can be fascinating. I mulled over my reasoning and came to the conclusion that most likely the way I think about work has seeped into the way I think about other tasks as well, namely the idea that giving your brain more decisions to make than necessary slows you down.

I admit that this entire concept is rather trivial in the context of folding laundry, but the implications are interesting enough to explore the thought.

Earlier this year I wrote about why I use footnotes1. In that post I mentioned a quote from Rolf Dobelli about our brains making decisions (the quote discusses how our modern news system is distracting):

In a 2001 study two scholars in Canada showed that comprehension declines as the number of hyperlinks in a document increases. Why? Because whenever a link appears, your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which in itself is distracting. News is an intentional interruption system.

Although I didn’t specifically plan the process, I sub-consciously created a workflow where similar decisions and activities would be grouped together so that decision-making was streamlined. Said another way, you’re only asking your brain to make one type of decision at a time. First: which pile does this go into? Next, it’s almost mindless process for each pile because you’re performing the same action (like folding a shirt) repeatedly.

As I said above, folding laundry is a funny example (and I have no idea if my method is actually more efficient), but I think the concept is important for anything I’m working on: am I creating an unnecessary bloat of decisions for my brain by grouping many different or unrelated decisions and tasks together at the same time?

I’m a huge fan of focusing on one task at a time (as I wrote about in my post about time, attention and technology2). In fact, I think wrangling focus is the difference between people who throw time at their work to accomplish huge amounts of work and those who are able to accomplish just as much in a lesser number of hours.

1. You can read my post about footnotes here.2. You can read my article about time, attention and technology here.

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Practicing the art of bringing guns to a knife fight.

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