I’ve heard about variations to this particular research study a few times from different sources and I find it intriguing.
The scenario: Two groups of participants – one is given an easy mental task (remember 2 numbers) and one is given a more challenging mental task (remember 7 numbers), and walk down a hallway. At the end of the hallway you are given one of two options of snacks – a fruit cup and a slice of chocolate cake.
Outcome: The group with the more challenging mental task is significantly more likely to select the chocolate cake.
What it means: When your mental energy is reduced, you lack willpower.
I’ve oversimplified the study, but the outcome is solid – and has been repeated in several different ways. The bottom line holds – you have only so much mental energy in a given day and you must use it wisely.
There are interesting implications. For example – I, like millions of others, need to lose a few pounds. My pitfall is in the evenings – I love to snack as part of my evening routine, but this snacking quickly exceeds healthy proportions. One of the top 10 recommendations made by Dr. Hyman in his popular and thoughtful health and fitness programs is not to eat anything after 7 pm. He’s right – when I’ve gone a stretch of not eating after 7, I lose weight. But I can’t stick to that habit.
This ‘mental energy tank’ way of thinking suggests that maybe it’s not because I’m a failure, but that I’m just not set up for success. By the end of the day it’s very likely my mental energy tank is drained. This suggests a radically different perspective to solving personal challenges; no more ‘simple’ solutions like ‘Don’t eat after 7 pm.’
The bigger question is, how can I set up my day to maintain more mental energy for the evening, so I am empowered and more capable of making a ‘good for me’ decision?
Tips to keeping that tank full:
- Long term proactive planning, rather than short-term reactive doing
- Build good habits everywhere I can so no energy is used to get yourself to do the right thing (e.g. drinking water every time you walk into the kitchen)
- Address big decisions earlier, in smaller steps to minimize amount of energy burned (e.g. choose what you are going to wear the next day the night before so there is one less thing to do in the morning when your under time pressure)
- Offload mental to-do lists as keeping them in short term memory requires effort
- Leave your mind empty as much as possible to allow for rejuvenation and creativity
- Train your brain to not ruminate on negative thoughts – that takes practice and tricks (see Art Thinking)
Take a journey line view of your day – what is your energy level in the morning? How does it change through the day? Where are the big dips? As you look at the patterns from previous days you can see where there are opportunities to reduce mental burden and rejuvenate your brain. Take control of tomorrow’s journey line and design the day to minimize the dips and encourage an upward trend.
If you can end the day with a tank more full than empty, saying no to temptation can happen almost naturally.