At 2:46 each weekday an alarm goes off on my phone. I tell my younger daughter to put on her shoes because it’s time to pickup her sister from school. We both get our shoes on, and then head out the door.
I usually set these alarms at the beginning of the school year as a reminder for the new schedule. We’re a month into the year, and normally I would have removed this one but I like having it. It meant that I didn’t need to check my watch or phone and decide when to leave. Then I read that this idea was base in neuroscience and highly successful people use it all the time. While not highly successful I’m willing to try anything that works for them.
In The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin writes about an experience he had with Jimmy Carter:
“I met Jimmy Carter when he was campaigning for president and he spoke as though we had all the time in the world. At one point, an aide came to take him off to the next person he needed to meet. Free from having to decide when the meeting would end, or any other mundane care, really, President Carter could let go of those inner nagging voices and be there.”
I’ve read the same thing about Bill Clinton, that when he’s around you you feel like the only person in the room. Ditto for other anecdotes about other famous people. The chances are good that if you, or someone you know, has met someone famous then they focused on you. But what do my timers about picking up my daughter from school have to do with Jimmy Carter? The key element is that they both have the choices removed.
When my timers go off, I stop whatever I’m doing and move to the task that timer indicates. When Carter’s timers go off – when an assistant says it’s time to move on – he stops doing whatever it was and moves on the task the timer indicates. In his book, Levitin writes that this simple adjustment means we can dedicate more mental ability to the task at hand rather than checking the time.
One analogy for our brains is that they are like tubes, allowing only so much information through at any given moment. We talk at about 60 words per minute, a pace that lets our brains listen to the words and wander a bit. If two people are talking though, odds are your perception of everything else falls away as you concentrate to barely understand each of them. Comprehending what three people are saying is nearly impossible. What the alarms do for me, and handlers did for Carter, was to remove one of those chunks of things trying to fit through our mental tube. It gave us the freedom to not think about what time it was because that was already taken care of.
Coincidentally this concept popped up in another area of my life, what I eat. Two months ago I was eating well by following the Whole30 program. One month ago I realized I had mostly fallen off. Why had something that made me feel good, not stuck in my routines? Going back to the program meant a lot of work, cooking in a paleo style is not something I know how to do, and there is more mental planning required. While waiting for my daughter to finish gymnastics last week another parent was complaining about cooking, but not the actual cooking part. She said she would be happy to make the food if someone else just picked what it was. This choosing, weighing, categorizing, comparing of options takes a lot of mental throughput. I didn’t want to learn this, but what if rather than what I ate I switched how I ate. A new monthly experiment was born. I now limit myself to a single plate or bowl of food three times a day.
This has removed snacking and that extra-serving-I-shouldn’t-have-had and I’m feeling better. But, it also removes a choice. I don’t need to think about whether or not I’m hungry and if I am what I should eat. If it’s time to eat, I eat. If not, then I can wait.
This is one of the biggest ideas in my life right now; spend time to decide what’s best and make that your default choice. It happens with food, how to invest in our retirement plan, and what car repairs to make. Defaults are how we schedule our days, plan our vacations, and how I work. This idea has scientific underpinnings at the neuro-level of our brains but also the social level of our psychology.
System thinking is something I’m always looking to read more about. If you have a suggestion let me know in the comments or on Twitter, @MikeDariano.