The Hidden Link Between Breakfast And Productivity

If you don't decide on how to make decisions, you'll be exhausted by the time you finish that bowl of cereal. Or oatmeal. Or maybe eggs, instead. Pancakes?

When David Cain was 31 years old he had a life-changing breakthrough: He figured out breakfast.

As he writes on his superb Raptitude blog, fixing the same meal of oats and apples every day has lent a sense of spaciousness to his mornings that was otherwise absent, given the eenie-meenie-mynee-mo of choosing between choices. He used to think that leaving the breakfast choice to the day-of would lead to a more organic, fulfilling fast-breaking experience—though it did not.

Why? It's the most first-worldy of first-world problems: Given an embarrassment of riches, we get embarrassed. And indecisive.

Cain extends the issue beyond the breakfast nook. We're inundated with choices, he says, from the big ones like career, family, and relationships to small ones, which manifest in our breakfast choices and the suffocating inbox and the distracting smartphone.

This, Cain notes, is Not a Good Thing:

When we're faced with a number of options, we're always going to assume that one of them is better than all the rest. This means the more options there are, the more likely we are to choose one that isn't the best one. We also presume it would take more homework to choose the right one. In other words, as options increase every decision becomes bigger, and so the more likely we are to delay our decisionmaking.

Let's get meta for a moment

Since you're always on the lookout for the perfect job, schedule, or partner, you have that nagging fear of missing out on something—which has been linked to life dissatisfaction. In the same way that you get bummed from seeing all the rapid successes of your Facebook friends and LinkedIn people, you get envious because you didn't order the most awesome meal or aren't dating the most awesome person. Since we are getting more and more options in every sphere of life, Cain notes, we assume our results will correlatively get better. But they don't.

From what Cain argues, the key is to exercise some discernment about how you manage your decision-making itself. In the same way that Evernote designs a culture of design, we need to decide on the way we make decisions—pretty meta, right? Since we only have so much energy to spend on decision-making, we'd be more spacious—and effecitive—if we were mindful of what we were doing with our deciding.

"The best approach seems to be to give ample deliberation to the decisions that concern major aspects of life, such as career, family, relationships, high-level goals and creative pursuits, and don't let small ones hang you up. The big ones determine what you actually do with your life—and it is their doing that contributes most to happiness, so it's worth pruning out as many of the distracting minor decisions as possible so that you don’t cease the important doing because you’re caught up in unimportant thinking."

Only do the important thinking: sounds like the right kind of routine, one that enhances, rather than erodes, your creativity. One which, by the way, Barack Obama and the ultra-productive Bob Pozen have already figured out.

Why the minimalists do what they do

[Hat tip: Kevin Meyer]

[Image: Flickr user Sumeet Jain]

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  • Todd McIntosh

    Reminds me of Steve Jobs and his decision to wear jeans and a black mock turtleneck everyday. His logic was that it was one less thing to think about each day and waste cognitive effort on.

  • kayumochi

    One could have easily written an article about the person who does not eat breakfast, who in fact eats only one meal a day, dinner and how doing that makes him more productive because he does not have to make any decision regarding food during the day. 

  • Mike Hensgen

    Gee, paralyzed with indecision by what's for breakfast...pretty sad. Now I know where that unfathomable, but related idea of "navel gazing" came from.

  • meredithob

    Fabulous article. Horrible headline. I thought it was going to be something about how breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Instead, I was giving some space to think about upcoming big life decisions, and reminded "not to sweat the small stuff."

  • DKD

    Spending/wasting time reading an article about 'increased productivity through not being distracted', simply because you're attracted by a picture of bacon and eggs...ironic?

  • Sara Hartman

    Great article! This is such an important lesson to teach our youth--who are more destined to lives of disatisfaction due to the pure volume of choices available to them--to trust their instinct and don't sweat the small- (or even medium-) sized stuff! Life's short. Perhaps the most compelling book I've ever read (in my life, honestly, and specifically on this subject) is The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, as a suggestion for further reading.

    Thanks for your insightful write-up!

  • Dego

    Great article! I also find it helps to make smaller decisions in advance and then take measures conducive to executing that decision. As an example, I lay out my running gear the night before a run so when the alarm rings at 6:30 I've already made the decision and made it as easy as I can to just get up and go. This is particularly helpful when I need that extra nudge to get out of bed and run. 

  • Ryan Yamane

    This article reminds me of an object lesson I've seen a few different times. A jar. A pile of big rocks. Some gravel. Some sand. Some water. The object is to get all items to fit into the jar. If you start with the sand, you'll never fit it all. However, if you start with the "Big Rocks First", then the rest will flow in and around and you'll be able to fit it all in. So in our decisions, we must start with the Big Rocks First, keep our eyes on the major milestones and with that as our grid, the smaller decisions figure themselves out. Its all about prioritizing decisions.