So how do we manage this? Well, I’ll use a bit of an analogy. Mathematicians would bemoan the fact that we really can’t do mental math anymore. We’ve basically given that ability to calculate. But I see it in a different light. I think it’s incredibly smart that we let the calculator do all the calculating, because we’re really not that great at. Multiplication, division, that’s pretty tough stuff. But a calculator is perfect at, it will never make a mistake. So what we do is the division of labor. We tell the calculator to do the calculating and we do the actual math, because we’re the only ones who can.
And by the same token, we’re terrible at remembering what we have to do and when we have to do it. So the only logical thing then is to give that off to an external tool that can do it better than us. And we have these, and we’ve had them since we were in Grade 3 probably. They’re agenda, to do lists, calendar, notebook, simple boring things but they will never forget. Their working memory is effectively unlimited.
And when we off-board that information to them, what we can do is we can focus all of our attention, all of our energy on to just one or two projects at a time. We can remember every single thing about them and devote the energy that they deserve. So the first thing that boring people did was they wrote absolutely everything down.
Second thing is they reduced to the essential. I went to the grocery store and I took a picture, this is an aisle. And this is all toothpaste. And to be clear, toothpaste is something you put in your mouth and then you spit out. And we have dozens of brands of them.
Barry Schwartz talks about this idea of the paradox of choice and he looks at all of those brands of toothpaste and all the different things we can buy, and all the different restaurants we can go to, all the different games we could purchase. And he says that this actually doesn’t make our lives any better. And I think intuitively we know that’s true. We know that we now have too many choices that those choices start to hurt us, because we’re afraid of making the wrong choice. And sometimes we’re so afraid that we don’t make any choice at all. We just go with everything.
I don’t know how many of you recognize this outfit. It’s certainly something that I’m quite fond of. This is what Apple co-founder Steve Jobs wore almost every single day and to every single keynote for more than a decade. And obviously he was a bit of an eccentric guy but he is not the only one either. President Obama says that he only has two colors of suit, he’s got a blue suit and he’s got a gray suit.
And for a guy who wears a suit almost every single day of this life, that sounds like a pretty boring way to live. But what these guys knew about was this idea of mental energy pool. And researchers have shown that we only have a limited amount of mental energy that we can devote to decision-making. And every single time we make a decision, whether it’s big or small, it wears down on this mental energy pool.
And what’s the problem with this when we get to the big decision? The ones that really guide the entire outcome of our lives, we are so exhausted by choosing what to wear, what to eat, what to buy, what to watch on TV that we can’t make good decisions on the important thing.
So how do we manage this? Well, I command everything in my life with a two-by-two grid. In business, we love our two-by-two grid, and in this case, it’s actually pretty effective. If it’s something you don’t love and it’s something you don’t have to do, this is a pretty easy one. Just eliminate it. There’s no point in it being in your life at all.
The tougher one for most people is this next one. If it’s something you don’t love but it’s something you have to do, what are you going to do about that? Well, for me this is what I eat every day. I don’t care what I have for breakfast, lunch or dinner. So I think the only reasonable choice when you have things like that, that you’re forced to do but you don’t really care about, is we need to automate. We need to make the same choice every single time or we need to let someone else make the choice for us.
So people laugh at me when I say I eat chicken and potatoes pretty much every night for dinner. And I mean it is pretty funny, it makes it harder to eat out, that’s for sure. But what I get to do is I get to stop focusing on these bottom two and I get to focus on the top: the things that I love, whether I have to do them or not. And because I’m not worn down by all the decision-making on the mundane things I don’t care about, I’m able to give my entire self, every bit of energy I have to making the things I love amazingly. I get to do more of the things I love and I get to do them better than I could if I focused on the things I didn’t care about.