Would you like to read these in your inbox? Find out what others think and sign-up for free >


I run a twice-monthly open mic night in my local pub. Musicians turn-up to play while I fill in any gaps, encourage appreciation and roughly hold it all together.

Last night was quieter than usual – the end of January perhaps, a long slog since the early-December payday. That’s fine though, and it’s a good excuse for me to work through a few songs I don’t normally get chance to play.

At the end of any such a night I find, just for a few minutes, that I have to work a bit harder to remember simple things like someone’s name.

We have limited reserves of almost everything: it’s why we have to sleep, of course. But it’s more specific than that. As I work through a few songs, especially if they’re less-familiar, I’m delving deeper into my memory. The chord shapes and progressions, the lyrics, the beat.

Decision making is exhausting. You have a finite amount of mental energy, just as you have a finite amount of physical energy.

It’s why it’s so easy to buy a bar of chocolate at the supermarket checkout after you’ve spent thirty-minutes thinking about whether to buy 3 litres of fabric softener for £3.75 or 4 litres for £4.95, how much fruit and veg you should get given that you had to throw out three rotten apples last week and why on earth they always seem to hide the eggs.

There are two things you can do: one is to train, to practice. Much like if you want to get fitter, you exercise. The second is to help yourself. One of the reasons meal planning for the week is popular is that you can go shopping and not have to make so many decisions. Even the humble shopping list helps.

We’ll dip in and out of this over the next couple of weeks. But what techniques do you use (or try to use) to reduce the mental load? Let me know in the comments below.

Best wishes



  • Andrea says:

    I read somewhere that if you have a routine for all the non-important things, you leave more energy and space for the bigger things. That’s why Steve Jobs always wore the same clothes (see also Simon Cowell!). I do the clothes thing too as I work from home, leaving the ‘outfit’ decisions for meetings. I expect we can apply this to the whole of our lives and probably do quite a few things routinely unconsciously so we have the brain space for things that need the energy and time.

    • Tom Doggett says:

      That’s a good point, and something I’ll look into more over the next couple of weeks. There’s definitely an argument for either automating or creating processes for as much as possible, although there’s also a counter-argument for not removing all spontaneity from life! As with anything it’s a balance. I don’t wear the same clothes every day, because I don’t want to. But I also have a fairly small wardrobe and it’s barely a decision (“does that shirt look OK without needing to be ironed?” is normally as complex as it gets!).

      But we do waste a lot of mental energy making decisions that actually have a tiny effect on our overall happiness. Going out for dinner is a classic example: huge amounts of time and energy deciding which restaurant to go to, when if you can’t decide easily then arguably it doesn’t really matter because you’re proving you don’t have a strong preference. Toss a coin!

  • Andrea says:

    I generally wear black so when I’m at home, it’s scruffy black and when I’m in a meeting it’s smart black! I’m prefer spontaneity but need some of the automated parts of my life so they can happen. I have a nameless family member who questions and re-questions and questions again every tiny detail of what someone said, how they said it, why they said it. Drives me nuts!

  • James Stewart says:

    Good thoughts. I disagree with finite energy. Runners get more energetic the more they train, weight lifters get stronger etc.

    I’m always trying to work out the most efficient way of doing things and how to overlap them, so I’m using time waiting for one thing by doing another. I’ll have an educational podcast or language lesson on in the car, make the coffee while the toaster is working, read the kindle while brushing my teeth or any small things like that. I find doing stuff the moment it’s mentioned (if possible) is great because you don’t get things to remember or a backlog of stuff you haven’t got round to.

  • robert says:

    The common factor among successful people is the use of lists.
    MAKE A LIST. You do not have to think again and again and again and hope you have recalled everything.
    Just refer to the list(you might add) and delete as performed. Simple