A Simple Mental Trick That Boosts Productivity

 Want to boost productivity? You need to learn how to create mindless habits. The less we have to remember, the more mental energy our brains have.

A shockingly simple mental trick that helped me start wearing sunblock …I know I should wear sunblock every time I leave the house. Doctors recommend it.

And there’s no compelling reason not to. It’s simple. It’s cheap. It takes five seconds.

Yet I keep forgetting to do it. Each time I leave the house, my mind is occupied by other thoughts: Do I have my keys? Wallet? Phone?

Will I need a jacket? Is the oven still on? Do I have directions? Is it rush hour? Am I wearing shoes? Sunblock is the last thing on my mind.

There’s a biological basis for that: Our brains are limited. We were designed to gather and hunt, not to check Twitter on our smartphones while simultaneously grabbing an apple as we run out the door.

This notion, which I’ve mentioned many times on Afford Anything, is the basis of my approach to money, career and time: Our mental energy is limited. We have a small reserve that we can use each day, and once we’re done, we’re done. We can increase it through practice, but it’ll always be finite.

To grow wealth, spur our dreams into action and live a rockstar life, we have to ruthlessly prioritize. Screw penny-pinching and Think Big.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we need to negate the small things completely. We just need to make those small things so easy that they’re mindless.

Mindless Habits

The following story, told here in my own words, comes from The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg:

In 1993, a man from San Diego named Eugene Pauly fell victim to a disease called viral encephalitis. It damaged the section of his brain that forms new memories.

Eugene could still walk, talk, get dressed and cook bacon. But he couldn’t retain any new memories. He’d repeat the same sentence over and over in conversion, forgetting that he had just uttered those words a few moments earlier. He didn’t recall getting sick. He couldn’t recognize his grandchildren.

Eugene and his wife moved to new house to be closer to their adult daughter. Eugene couldn’t form new memories of the layout. His wife guided him everywhere.

But something strange began happening. Despite his lack of memory, Eugene started learning his way around the new house. When he felt hungry, he’d open the pantry and grab a jar of nuts. When he felt bored, he’d walk into the living room and turn on the television.

But when doctors asked Eugene for directions to the kitchen, he’d he’d draw a blank.

Why? Because habits are stored in a different part of the brain than higher cognitive functions like memory.

Remembering something requires a huge amount of effort. To save energy, the brain develops shortcuts in the form of habits. It spares us from having to squander our limited mental energy.

When we enter a dark room, we automatically flip the light switch. If an electrician re-locates the light switch, we’ll reflexively flip the phantom switch for several days or weeks, despite our awareness of the change. Our habits are more powerful than our memories.

Our brains are frugal with their energy. Habits are the expression of that natural frugality. Habits are, in the truest sense of the word, “mindless.”

And so the best way to incorporate a new tactic into your life is to make it mindless. We have to work with our brain’s natural patterns, not fight against them.

Change Your Surroundings, Change Your Life

Back to the sunblock. When I’m leaving the house, my brain is occupied with dozens of thoughts. Some of these — like “Do I have my keys?” — I can circumvent through establishing a routine. But some of these — like “Do I need a jacket today?” — are erratic and unpredictable. These will always demand my mental energy.

And as long as my mind is distracted with those other thoughts, I’m going to forget to wear sunblock — unless, of course, I can establish a cue.

That cue can be as simple as keeping a bottle of sunblock next to the door, so that I see it each time I’m leaving the house. This way, I’m not relying on my (unreliable) brain to remember the sunblock. I’m altering my environment in order to change my habits.

It’s not a neat or tidy solution. A random visitor might assume I failed to shelve the sunblock away. But it’s effective. It saves my limited brain space and forms a cue.

And after a few weeks, applying sunblock becomes as automatic and mindless as locking the door behind me when I leave the house.

Do this with any new habit you want to form: Brewing your own coffee. Working on your side business an extra hour in the mornings. Running everyday at 6 p.m. Effectiveness comes from making it mindless.

Read more articles from this series, The Habit Project:

Thanks to the Carnival of Personal Finance for featuring one of my articles as an Editor’s Pick


  1. says

    Couldn’t agree more on habits! After losing much of my vision, habits have kept me sane. Like you, I keep things where I need them (and train guests to put them back in the same place).

    I’ll give some credit to flylady.net too – she knows about habits!

    I just got Duhigg’s book today (in large type) from the library. I look forward to reading it.

  2. says

    You develop or change habits after 22 days straight of doing it or changing the habit. It takes that long to make it a habit.

    My dermatologist wanted me to do the same thing. I bought some lotion that has the SPF in it. I put it on after I shave in the morning. Shaving is already a habit and this lotion feels good after I shave. I created a new habit.

  3. says

    Agree with the habit forming.

    Not agreeing that sunblock daily is a good idea.

    Lots of talk about sunblock causing health issues.
    Mainly related to lack of vitamin D absorption.

    Too, others are blaming a whole slew of issues on sunblock.

    If I was going to be out at the beach I would use it. But,
    daily. No.

    • says

      I have to agree with you on the habit forming, and agree with Betty in that sunblock daily doesn’t sound like a good idea.

      Doctors recommend a lot of stuff, but that doesn’t make it automatically truth. At least not for everybody, I think.

      But I agree on forming good habits :)


  4. says

    We installed a ceiling fan in our room and removed the bedside lamps. For weeks and even now occasionally I enter the room and switch on the non-existing lights instead of moving to the center of the room to pull the light cord on te fan.

    Now to the habit. About 3 months ago, I set up an automatic transfer from one bank account to another. It’s not a huge amount but covers the nonroutine once a year expenses like car Registeration. I think Trent from the simple life suggested it. Through the power of automatic transfer I’m building a fund. I used to forget doing it but now I don’t even have to think about it.

    Your article is right on the money! :)

    • says

      @Sabz — That’s a fantastic example of a “mindless habit.” You don’t even realize that you’re saving — you’ve completely forgotten about it, and it doesn’t eat up any of your mental space. And then when you get a big, irregular bill, you’ve got the cash available!

      I have a small amount (about $2,500) in a checking account that I generally forget about. It’s at a bank that I almost-never use, so I never see the balance, and 99 percent of the time, I don’t remember that the money’s there. I also don’t have a debit card or checks for it, so the ONLY way I can access the money is by driving to the bank and visiting a bank teller in person — which would take about 30 minutes of my time, so under normal circumstances I’d never do it. But if an emergency strikes and I need cash quickly, I know that I’ve got that lifeline. It’s a “mindless” cushion.

  5. says

    We all develop different mechanisms: I have a tube of sunblock in the map pocket of every car, as well as a pair of (cheap) sunglasses.

    And I always had my savings done by direct deposit payroll deduction. That way I knew what was in the bank account was “spendable.” The more we automate things, the less chance they fall through the cracks…

  6. says

    True what you said about the mind having limited decision-making powers. The more we’re at it, the more willpower is depleted, the less optimal decisions get as the day wears on. Putting minor tasks on autopilot does indeed save on brain energy. Like Krantcents, the best way I’m able to do that is by building habits/tasks into my morning routine.

  7. says

    I loved this article. I live my life this way, but you stated the basics so beautifully. I must remind myself to buy the book. Okay, I’ll put it on my books:pinterest page.

  8. says

    Paula, I absolutely love your blog. It vibes with so many ideas and concepts that I embrace. I completely agree that habits help our bodies and minds to function on a semi-autopilot. One thing that has worked for me in all aspects of my life is to adopt one new habit a month. For those 30 days I spend the mental energy to change the way I do something and at the end of the month it is automatic. It helps me to not get overwhelmed by trying to fix everything in my life at one time. At the end of the year you have 12 new habits! I love going into the New Year already having made positive changes.

    • says

      @Margaret — I love the one-new-habit-per-month approach, especially since it takes about a month (21 days) to make a habit “stick.” New habits I’ve started this year include: giving up coffee, working out in the early mornings, listening to classical music while I work, forcing myself to take weekends off, and practicing yoga at least once a week (later I’d like to notch it up to twice/week). It’s not quite 12 new habits in a year, but I’m pretty happy with it nonetheless. :-)

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