How to set up routines to avoid anxiety and decision-making fatigue?
October 5, 2011 11:24 AM   Subscribe

How to set up routines to avoid anxiety and decision-making fatigue?

In light of the research about the mental costs of decision-making and the ameliorative help of routines, I want to work harder at getting the boring details of my life on auto-pilot. I'm basically productive, but little things like paying bills on time, answering mundane emails at work and at home, and keeping my apartment clean consume way to much mental energy and get put off until they cause unnecessary cost, inconvenience, and anxiety.

After a summer of intense overload at work, I'm getting to the point where I have enough breathing space to make some positive changes. What systems and incentive systems have made positive changes for you? What has allowed you to condense your low-level responsibilities and tasks to discrete routines, and not as vague and anxiety causing fog?

(I saw this previous question, but many of the answers there tended more towards the rules/categorical side, not the routine/keeping track side of decisionmaking issues.)
posted by mercredi to Society & Culture (5 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
I went through all my bills and found that I could pay them all on time if I sat down and did it on the 1st and 13th of the month. I put those dates as recurring to-do items in my calendar. Now, when bills arrive, I just stick them in a folder and don't think about them till the calendar reminder tells me to pay my bills because it's the 1st/13th.
posted by xo at 11:54 AM on October 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

I only keep emails in my inbox that are for action items (need response, etc). Otherwise, it gets moved. Some of my co-workers have thousands of messages in their inbox... I have no idea how they ever get anything done.
posted by getawaysticks at 12:05 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I assign lots of routine tasks to recurring items in my to-do list. For instance, I do money--entering receipts, making sure my balance is correct, paying bills--on Monday and Thursday. I also clean out my physical and e-mail inboxes at this time. I clean all the trash and toys out of the minivan on Fridays. I clean the dogs' ears every 8 days or so. I file on Tuesdays. And so on. These things show up in my to-do app on those days, and on other days I just don't think about them.

Some of these are vestiges of a modified FlyLady routine I set up a few years ago. I find setting up a schedule for things like housework, with daily tasks and weekly tasks and so on (even some annual tasks, which are easy to set up in an electronic calendar or to-do list) keeps things moving along pretty well, with no one day being overwhelming. If I miss something on the day it's due, I just send it to its next scheduled date at the end of the day--I don't have to worry about "OMG I didn't get the filing done" because I know if I miss it this week, it will show up again next week.

Whenever a routine breaks down, I am reminded of how useful they are. For instance, I've developed a habit of running out of food in the house. I'm realizing it's because I no longer have a set day of the week when I do my grocery shopping. When I did, we never ran out of stuff.

Using this kind of system also provides other useful feedback. It quickly becomes obvious if something is on there too often, or not often enough. And if I find myself not doing something over and over and over again, that's useful, too--it tells me I either need a new system for that thing, or that it doesn't need doing at all, or that I really don't want to do it and maybe need to see if I can delegate it to my partner or hire someone to do it for me. I recently realized I needed to move a certain job to a different day of the week because the day I had it scheduled for is just too full, and I wasn't being able to finish it most times it came up.

The key to all this stuff is, like xo said, to get it into a system where you don't have to think about it because it's built into the system, and the system will somehow automatically remind you when it's time to pay attention to it again. If it's not on my calendar or to-do list today, I know it doesn't have to be on my mind, either. I can even ignore things--like if the kids and I do an all-day outing and at the end of it I'm tired, I don't have to worry about the fast-food wrappers in the van because I know they'll only be there until Friday morning.

The other piece is what David Allen of Getting Things Done fame calls a capture system--some way to add things into the system on the fly so you can get them out of your head as soon as they pop into your head. I carry a cheap notebook for this, and, as soon as it occurs to me jot down any task, decision, wish list item, book I want to read, TV show I want to watch on DVD, and so on. Or, if I'm at home, i scrawl it on a bit of scrap paper and toss it into my in-box (I just put "get furnace tune-up" in there 10 minutes ago).
posted by not that girl at 12:14 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

You can use a service like Alice to automate delivery of a range of products. This keeps some folks from standing in front of the soap aisle at the last minute trying to choose between two scents. It also (hopefully) keeps you from running out of toilet paper and other necessities. If your friends are having kids, buy baby gifts on clearance/in bulk now and stash them away so that when you get shower invitations you can just wrap a couple of cute onesies pro-tip: get the 9 or 12 months size. They will be drowning in newborn sizes. Speaking of wrapping, you can automate that too, a few rolls of wrapping paper, scissors, tape and bows all in one place. Chuck your generic gifts into that same area. Generic gifts work great for adults. Is there a book you're always suggesting? A kitchen gadget you think would revolutionize everyone's life? A really fun board game? Get a few of each. Wrap as needed. Trust me, nobody will remember that you gave the same thing to Bill unless they were jealous when Bill unwrapped it.

If something like "should I do the dishes now?" is a kind of decision you're dealing with, adopt the practice of cleaning as you go. Put things away as soon as you're done with them, etc.

Adopt satisficing, which is a delicious portmanteau of satisfy and suffice. Stop trying to have the best of everything, if that's in your nature. This also pertains to being a perfectionist.

For choosing restaurants, alone or with others: use 5-3-1, or just 3-1. Instead of trying to choose among 100 restaurants, start with three. "That great but loud chinese place around the corner, the brand new hot dog bar we've been meaning to try, or that cozy romantic Italian place." You can do this with dinner too. "beans and rice, leftovers, or chicken?" It also works for date ideas, and other stuff.

Dressing? Keep your clothes clean and well repaired at all times. Have a relationship with a tailor and a shoe person. This keeps you from having to walk around/stare at/fret about an ever growing pile of things that need to be rehemmed, let out, taken in, resoled, etc. Keep your clothes easily accessible. Third, enlist a friend to come over and (I checked your profile, you're female) help you assemble "outfits" (including shoes and accessories!) that you may not have considered before. Take pictures. Print them out. Refer to them when you are stressed out about what to wear. Maybe 10 "work" outfits for each season, 3 or 4 for dates, 4 or 5 for casual hang out stuff.

Store your seasonal clothes. Staring at a stack of sweaters in july makes it much (much!) harder for me to get dressed. Granted, I have ADD, so I'm likely to grab the stack of sweaters and snuggle them, reminisce about the last time I wore one or all of them, etc. But just having them in your space means they're taking up space that could be better showcasing your summer clothes. When it's summer. This storage also gives you an opportunity to check out each garment twice a year. Think about whether you wore it? Does it still fit? Is it flattering? Does it need cleaning or mending? Do that before storing and you're less likely to be faced with that decision of keep or toss mid season (worse, mid getting dressed 10 minutes before your date arrives or you're due to leave for work!)

Automated bill pay sounds like it might be a good fit for you. Contact your water company, student loan people, electric, everything. For things that are not automated, keep your stamps, return address labels, and checkbook close(r) to wherever the mail enters your house. Write the check, slap a label and a stamp on the envelope and walk yourself right back out to the mailbox. It's done, you don't have to worry about forgetting, you don't have to worry about late fees, etc. You can use a separate checking account that is only used for your bills, if you're worried about identity theft screwing up your bill pay. Just have a set amount (more than necessary) auto-deposited from each paycheck. (Sadly, this does not work for people who live paycheck to paycheck, because the money to pay a bill is not always available when the bill shows up.) Figure out what you were paying in late fees, put that same amount, plus the overage from deposits into savings. Or:

Use that savings to hire a cleaner once a quarter to come through and do the more major stuff. Dust everything, wash the windows, clean all the appliances, clean fan blades, etc. When you call a company to do this, the magic words are "deep clean" because it is different than just regular mopping and swiping. Have it set up so that you don't have to think about calling to schedule again. Find a company that will call to remind you "we'll be in next week for your quarterly deep clean," so that if something has come up you can reschedule, but it'll be on your calendar, right?

Speaking of your calendar, make looking at it a routine. Every morning and every night. Look at the week, the day and the next day or two. This means you're more likely to remember to add stuff to your calendar, and more likely to consult your calendar when someone asks you to commit to something that's two or three months down the road. You can tell them yes or no now instead of putting it off. For the super decision part of this, if you don't want to do something, say no earlier rather than later. Again, it frees up your brain from worrying about whether you will go or not.

As for emails, set a few times every day that you devote specifically to email. This might be first thing, with your morning coffee, then again right before or after lunch and finally an hour or two before you leave. Do NOT put this off until ten minutes before closing time. That will be the day that someone needs you to rush that report 8am meeting tomorrow. Same thing with washing dishes, emails need to be attended to immediately. Put it on your calendar, forward it to the person who really needs it, make a phone call to gather information, or reply. Expecting to get back to an email is a recipe for disaster, especially if it's more mundane.

Find ways to work real and meaningful exercise into your daily routine. This might be the going to the gym trick from the previous thread, it might be taking the stairs, it might be parking your car in the farthest space away from your office. It might be getting up early to jog, it might be taking up bicycling/hiking/geocaching as a hobby. Filling some of your time with that healthy activity will, surprisingly, clear your head and make some decisions easier to make. I find that I do some of my best thinking/connecting of dots while running.
posted by bilabial at 12:14 PM on October 5, 2011 [15 favorites]

What has allowed you to condense your low-level responsibilities and tasks to discrete routines, and not as vague and anxiety causing fog?

Make checklists and use them. You could do them electronically in your PC or phone, or you could be old fashioned and use paper checklists with pencils and actual clipboards.

If paying the bills means paying bill X, Y, and Z, then itemize them on the list and check them off as you pay them. Then you will be able to look at the list, see that you've paid everything for this month, and relax.
posted by pracowity at 1:07 AM on October 6, 2011

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