How better thinking can help you show up
I was hit with the most satisfying feeling the other day, and it came at one of the most mundane times: while entering the grocery store.
After grabbing an empty shopping cart, I pulled out my phone and was greeted with an exquisitely assembled shopping list. It was filled with ingredients to make a week’s worth of delicious meals, each chosen to make me a more capable runner. Even better, the shopping list was organized by aisle, allowing me to efficiently weave through the store and be out in 20 minutes flat. Grocery shopping wasn't always like this though.
For most of my adult life, grocery shopping was a frustrating, time-intensive chore. An empty refrigerator would force me to fetch provisions, and with no plan in place, I could easily spend 45 minutes aimlessly wandering the store. I’d end up filling my cart with junk that was on sale, and inevitably settling on ingredients for the same boring and unhealthy meals that I swore I wouldn’t repeat the last time I went shopping.
By contrast, what I experienced the other day is an example of an ideal scenario. One where all I have to do is show up, be presented with a well considered set of tasks, and then just get it done.
Compared to how I used to grocery shop, there are very few decisions I need to make once I’m at the store. All of the thinking that went into the shopping list was informed by my goals and priorities, and perhaps most importantly, the thinking was done in advance.
This example demonstrates a principle that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. That isolating and batching “executive” tasks, like planning and decision making, makes “executional” tasks, like filing a grocery cart, easy.
Consider someone who has to take 10 to 12 different kinds of medicine throughout the week, where each medication has to be taken on specific days, either in the morning or at night.
Anyone in this position will tell you that it's easier to spend an hour up front filling a pillbox for the week, than to figure out which pills to take at the start of each day.
The hour spent doing the "executive" work of filling the pillbox greatly simplifies the “executional” work of taking the pills, since no further thinking is required to consume the right medicine at the right time.
I've found that many of my projects and habits have this same executive/executional structure. The 9-month running plan I spent an evening creating allows me to determine exactly which run to do on any given day. I don't have to think about which route or distance to cover to ensure my week’s mileage is on track.
Similarly, the 30 minutes I spend figuring out my week’s meal plan automatically produces a grocery list and cooking schedule. When it's time to cook, I just open that day's recipe, gather the ingredients that I shopped for earlier, and get to work cooking.
I'm finding that most of the deposits that matter for my life accounts boil down to "just showing up" and putting in the work. Logging runs are what makes me a runner, and eating whole-food plant-based meals are what makes me a plant-based person.
Identifying and scheduling the executive work for each of these life accounts ties in perfectly with the bird’s eye planning approach I described in an earlier post.
Deliberately getting the upstream thinking out of the way allows me to set the downstream executional tasks on auto-pilot, resulting in consistent progress in the areas of life I care most about. The relatively small effort involved in planning is more than made up for by the reduction in mental overhead, stress, and anxiety.