Automation and the concept of mental energy

Have you ever noticed how, as the day progresses, decisions become harder? After a particularly busy day of decisions at the office, it feels like your brain has run a marathon. You aren’t physically fatigued, but you still feel exhausted.

This is where the concept of mental energy provides an explanation. You’ve emptied the source powering your conscious mental tasks. And so, you’re struggling to focus and make good decisions.

Here, we explore the concept of mental energy and what it means for your productivity at work.

The concept of mental energy

The concept of mental energy is the idea that different conscious mental actions draw from the same finite power source.

So, things like decision-making, self-control, and problem-solving take from a single energy source. Repeatedly making choices, no matter how minor, depletes your pool of mental energy. In turn, this diminishes your ability to do things like make the best decisions or exercise self-control.

It makes sense. If you were running all day, you’d get tired. Constant decision-making is like running for the brain. When you do it all day, your brain gets tired and you run out of mental energy.

A tired brain makes us more likely to make poor decisions — to lie, to lose self-control, and choose the easy way out instead of the best option. (For example, getting a quick takeaway instead of making a healthy dinner.)

Supporting the existence of mental energy

The concept of mental energy comes from a series of experiments conducted in the late 1990s. Roy Baumeister et al tested a range of different mental activities, and observed something they called ‘ego depletion’.

In other words, they found that a person’s capacity for ‘active volition’ (consciously deciding on and following a course of action) is limited. And different mental tasks draw from this limited energy pool.  

Beyond this study, there are other findings that support the idea of our mental activity having a limited energy source. For instance, multi-tasking has a metabolic cost. Rapidly shifting our focus between tasks and decisions uses up the oxygenated glucose that the brain needs to focus. So, there’s an observable, physical impact of multitasking, which results in tired brains. (A.k.a. lack of mental energy.)

The impact of mental energy on your workday

The concept of mental energy being true holds ramifications for your workday and your productivity. Namely, if we tire ourselves out on shallow, unproductive decisions, we won’t have enough energy to make the best choices when they most count.

For example, consider choosing what to name a file, or swapping rapidly between your emails and your core tasks. These mental activities take from the same energy source as the big decisions. Think deciding which feature to build next, or which direction to take your business in.

So, if you’re to make the best use of your mental energy each day, you need to spend it on the most useful and productive decisions.

This means finding a way to do one of two things:

  1. Reducing the low-importance tasks you need to complete each day
  2. Reducing or even removing the mental energy cost of the low-importance tasks you can’t avoid

Where automation slots in

The good news is that most of the repetitive tasks currently eating away at your mental energy are prime for routinisation. You can break them down into simple rules that remove the need for decisions — cutting their mental energy cost.

And from here, automation software can provide a helping hand to free your precious mental energy. You can feed your step-by-step rules into automation software. The software then completes the tasks for you through conditional processing.

So, you don’t have to flit between tasks, automation does it. You don’t need to read through every email, just those that are important. Automation is handling the data extraction and maintenance for you, so you don’t have to decide how best to store it every day.

Spend your energy wisely

With automation, you aren’t mentally exhausting yourself before you’ve addressed the big questions in your business.

Spend your mental energy on the tasks that matter, with a 30-day free trial of ThinkAutomation.

Useful links

Automation and the nature of effort

Deep work and automation

ThinkAutomation free trial