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.
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