Instead of trying to be always at our best, we can do better by setting ourselves up for success even when we’re “brain-dead.”
The Always-On Myth
Two of the perpetual holy grails of personal improvement are “more energy” and “better focus.” While these are goals worth having, it’s easy to take them to the extreme. Self-help hucksters or lack of realistic expectations can lead us to the false goal of being “always on” or “going 100%.”
The truth is that we’re rarely at 100%, and while some of that can be chalked up to the need for rest and recovery, we also spend a lot of our “active” hours in a state far removed from complete and rapt attention. I learned this lesson the hard way in my previous life as a software developer.
In my experience, writing code and especially debugging code requires more mental horsepower than any task I’ve attempted in my life. To sit in front of a misbehaving program and try to ferret out what’s going wrong and how to remedy it is roughly the equivalent of sitting for a final exam in advanced maths. If I started at nine in the morning, I found myself mentally exhausted by lunchtime. And after lunch I still wasn’t firing on all cylinders. I started to believe there was something wrong with me.
Only later did I learn that there’s a daily time limit on focus and attention. Tom DeMarco, in his book Slack , documents exactly this. While developers were reluctant to admit their human limitations, observation on my part started to reveal a range of strategies for rationing and backfilling an eight-plus hour day with activity given that most human beings can only focus intensely for about three hours a day.
Brain-Dead but Still Productive
If the bad news is we’re to some degree off our game or even “brain-dead” for much of our workday, the good news is that we don’t need to be at the top of our game to still make some forward progress. Outside of factory work, most workers have to juggle a number of tasks. Some demand more attention while others demand less. Having a full inventory of work, along with some understanding of the demands of each task, can help us match our current abilities to our work demands.
An obstacle to the “brain-dead but productive” approach is the belief that only hard work is real work. The truth is that “hard work” — including creative work that requires original thinking — is built on the back of more mundane efforts. Every good cook knows that keeping the kitchen clean and in good working order allows for the more challenging work to take place. Back in the software development world, good coding practice involves not only deep analysis and insight, but also good “housekeeping” that includes documentation, handling common error conditions, and formatting the code to be more readable. Each of these tasks is not terribly difficult, almost never directly rewarded or even remarked upon by the powers that be, and yet neglect in these areas leads to more frustration, headache and rework than what developers think of as “real work.”
Managing a Zombie
Above and beyond recognizing that different kinds of work require different amounts of mental energy, low-energy tasks need particular set-ups to make them “zombie-ready.” Work that should be easy becomes harder or impossible if materials aren’t ready. I used to dread and avoid housecleaning before I figured out what supplies I needed and I put them near where they would be used.
Zombie-ready jobs need to be habitual. If you want a task to be do-able when you’re brain dead, be sure to do it the same way every time. Routine removes any decision points that would draw on mental strengths that may not show up when you’re mentally drained. If you have to sweep a floor, sweep it the same direction every time. Pick up the dirt at the same place. Soon the act of sweeping is a habit and beginning the sequence will seem to carry you along to the end.
Our zombie selves won’t start tasks unless there’s a distinctive trigger to get them in motion. Walking Dead fans will recognize that this series’ zombies are triggered to swarm by loud noises, especially gunshots. Metaphorically, we need to leave triggers of the work to be done in plain sight. Sometimes that means checklists of zombie tasks placed in easy view, or it could be the materials themselves in sight, like a broom or a basket of dirty laundry next to the washing machine.
In truth, simplifying and streamlining works for all tasks great and small, complex and simple. Given the choice, I’d rather have most of my work be “zombie tasks” which I may or may not do in a zoned-out state of mind. Recognizing the limits of our attention and planning accordingly make it possible for us to succeed at some level no matter our state of mind.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by