Mental Bandwidth

I haven’t written for a while largely because I fell off the wagon. Well, I mean I stopped cooking a lot, but I did start exercising more. And before that I was working really late (and achieving a major project at work). Instead of just falling over and giving up I’ve decided to really think about what’s happened and how to fix it (while crying over my restaurant spending this month).

I think I already know the answer to this problem, and it’s that I have way less mental bandwidth to do hard things than I realise. I only have to stay at work for an extra hour to torpedo all my virtuous plans for that evening. I think that’s because that hour occurs at dinner time – it occurs when I’m already hungry, or hangry (usually hangry, let’s be honnest) and it suddenly seems super reasonable to just stop in a restaurant and then go home and flop on the couch.

Part of this is opportunity – I used to live in the suburbs, so while I had a handful of places I could order takeout from, eating in on the way home just didn’t really happen. Now I live and work in a thriving inner city suburb every main street of which is lined with restaurants and cafes. I walk past them every day on the way home. They’re right there. Right when I’m hungry and tired and prone to thinking “just this once” and “I’ve had a hard day I should treat myself”.

Part of it is that I stopped pre-planning my dinners, so when hungry and tired I was faced with the mental effort of being creative, and that was just too hard. I think I need to push the pre-planning. I think I also need to try to cook large meals on the weekend to freeze for later use, because after work the preparation time I will tolerate is really short. Like shorter than I realise.

But more than these things, I stay at work too late. It’s not like I’m getting paid for it either – I’m just struggling with a large workload and wanting quite badly to succeed. There’s a lot of research to say that working longer hours doesn’t make you more productive though  – see this piece – and actually leads to increased distraction and procrastination throughout the day. I struggle badly with procrastination, and I don’t think sitting in the office for longer was actually getting more done. Also I have non-work related goals such as eating healthily and exercising and enjoying my hobbies. So in the last few weeks I’ve resolved to leave on time. I think it helps.

Finally, my healthy eating goal got trumped by an exercise goal. I’d really dropped off my level of fitness, thanks to moving house and all the work that entailed, and then working late and letting bad habits form. Before I moved I used to regularly ride a bike to work, over an hour each way – that will keep you fit! Now I walk to work and it has nothing like the exercise value. But recently I booked leave for a serious hiking trip, and now I’m experiencing fear based training.

I would like to think I can exercise for an hour or an hour and half after work and still be able to cook dinner, but it turns out that’s not the case. I just can’t seem to make myself do it. Perhaps when I’m fitter again, or when the exercise has become routine, but right now it’s not happening.

And that’s the point of this piece really. I just don’t have the energy or willpower to do everything I want to do. We have a finite amount of willpower each day, and once we’ve burnt it out it’s gone until we’ve had a good night’s sleep. And I have a lot less than I think. It seems easy, right now, sitting here to resolve to tonight go home, cook a nutritious and cheap dinner and then go and swim 2km, before coming home to work on some hobby tasks I have and then going to bed early. But there’s a really good chance I can only do one of those things, or maybe even none of them. The odds are good that when I walk out of the office door I’ll want to eat snacks or at best a frozen dinner or tin of soup and watch TV shows. I will just barely force myself to feed my cat and clean her litter tray. If I’m really good I’ll do the swim. I need to do the swim, or my hike will suck.

I think when I plan my self improvement goals I need to be really, really realistic about my bandwidth. I need to move as many tasks as possible to times when I’m not low on energy. I need to make everything as easy for myself as possible. Perhaps it will grow easier to add new items to my evening schedule as I form habits on the current ones.


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