Finding dinner has been a part of natural selection as important as not being dinner.
All animals conserve energy as much as possible.
Survival has been an issue of more energy than consumed. We might not realize this now when we have extraordinarily high levels of energy. But finding dinner has been a part of natural selection as important as not being dinner.
All animals, including humans, are stingy with energy. Only in the past hundred years have humans attained abundance of energy.
Our biology and psychology are far from catching up with this abundance. We live in perpetual scarcity.
Conserving energy comes from visible behaviours, like preferring to sit down instead of standing up, avoiding unnecessary physical effort.
It also comes form inner activity. Our body and brain have numerous energy-saving algorithms at play.
It is why if you lose muscle mass if you don’t exercise it. Maintaining that muscle consumes energy, your body wants to save this energy if the muscle is not useful (not used). So you lose it.
The Pre-Frontal Cortex makes rational decisions
How does the brain save energy? By minimizing the activity of its most energy hungry region: the PreFrontal Cortex.
The PreFrontal Cortex is the rough correspondent of rational conscious thinking in the brain. This is what Nobel-laureate Daniel Kahneman calls System 2, the one responsible for long-term, rational, considerate thinking.
It is the most human part of the brain. It is where humans differ most from our primate cousins.
As Robert Sapolsky puts it: “the frontal cortex’s list of expertise includes working memory, executive function (organising knowledge strategically, and then initiating an action based on an executive decision), gratification postponement, long-term planning, regulation of emotions, and reigning in impulsivity.”
It’s the part of the brain that enables you to “do the harder thing when it’s the right thing to do.”
We have a decision quota
We have a biological limit on how many rational decisions we can make daily
The PreFrontal Cortex, the neurological seat of System 2, is also the most energy hungry part of the brain.
It drains energy like a monster-truck guzzles gas. By comparison the rest of the brain is a sedate economical hybrid city-car.
As a result, its activity is tightly regulated. You can think of its as having a quota of PFC usage in any given day. This means we have a biological limit on how many rational decisions we can do daily. It’s a physical boundary for how much conscious rational thinking we can do.
The limit on decisions is inevitable
If we squander it on trivial things, then we have none left for important matters.
This limit is not a conscious decision. It is not something you can decide to extend or bypass. It’s an automatic process, like heart beating.
Similar to heart-beating, you can influence the limit indirectly. Stress raises your heart rate. It can also mobilize more energy for the PreFrontal Cortex. This happens as long as there is no immediate danger, so more situations where a decision is important but you don’t feel an urgent danger associated with it.
Your general wellbeing also impacts how much energy your brain allows for the PreFrontal cortex. If you are good, you get more. If you are in trouble, you get less. This makes it hard to escape bad habits. They create harm to the body, which in turn reduces your capability for System 2 thinking and breaking away from them.
Because the PreFrontal Cortex, and thus System 2, has a quota, we should be careful how we use it. If we squander it on trivial things, then we have none left for important matters.
This is behind the advice to restrict decisions.
Each conscious decision consumes precious energy by activating the PFC. If you waste it on clothes selection and unnecessary shopping, you have little left for the important choices, like how to respond to your partner’s distress. And it’s the same pool that you use to do the hard things that are beneficial for you, like sports, learning, abstaining from bad habits, personal development.
How to make it ideal
Make fewer decisions
Save your PreFrontal Cortex for important decisions. The more you use it, the less you have available. If you waste it on inconsequential decisions and thinking, then you have nothing left for when you have to make an important decision. Or when you have to resist an unhealthy impulse.
This is why people are more likely to eat junk food late in the day, as they have less available PreFrontal Cortex. They are also less able to make important life decisions. Unfortunately that is when most of us make life decisions, after work and the day’s events have depleted our ability to be rational.
It’s easy to say you should make fewer unimportant decisions. It’s hard to actually do it. It’s not like we can hire an assistant to solve our mundane tasks and decisions. Or make them magically disappear.
There are a few tactics that can reduce these superficial decisions, to make room for important ones:
1. Make decisions in advance
One simple way to reduce PreFrontal Cortex fatigue is to pre-decide for recurring situations.
If you create simple mental rules for circumstances that repeat, then you don’t have to expend the PreFrontal Cortex cognitive energy when these situations occur.
Some common examples of decisions I have made in advance and simplify my life:
Don’t eat after 7 pm
Don’t eat sugar
Never complain. If I catch myself complaining, stop or fix the problem
Go to bed at 10 pm
Take a walk every day
Write in the morning before work
Identify decisions with which you struggle, and make a commitment to behave in a specific way. Pre-decide so you don’t have to struggle with these situations every time.
2. Pick good-enough for most things
Most decisions in life are not very important.
In shopping especially we make way too much effort to always pick the best value for money.
How much time and effort did you spend to choose your last smartphone? Did it really matter?
For most things we buy, second-best and third-best choices are very close to the very best choice. The time and PreFrontal Cortex usage is not worth finding the very best choice.
How much time and effort did you spend choosing the restaurant last time?
Again, the second-best choices are very close to the very best choice. Many times, it’s unclear whether there is an objective best choice.
The modern world is highly competitive. In most cases there are many good choices. Our decision-making quota is better spent for more important matters, rather than these mundane decisions.
Make fewer decisions to make better decisions.
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Previous Ideal Life entries:
Behave - Robert Sapolsky
Thinking Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman