As a working mother, I often feel like I spend the bulk of my life answering questions and making decisions.
"Where’s my Spanish book?"
"Has anyone seen my song sheet?"
"Can I join ski club?"
"When can I have a play date with Amy?"
"When would you like to schedule your son’s doctor appointment?"
"Who’s picking up the kids today?"
"When can you get those pages back to me?"
It’s a reality for anyone who juggles multiple roles and responsibilities, and it can leave even the most patient person mentally exhausted at the end of the day. That fatigue can cause us to snap at our loved ones, make poor decisions in haste, and feel too wiped out to handle the commitments that mean the most to us. What’s a busy parent to do?
Take a cue from President Barack Obama and make fewer decisions.
No, that’s not a statement on his progress as president; it has more to do with his wardrobe than his politics.
A keen observer may have noticed that President Obama only wears blue or grey suits . He does this not because those colors look best on him, but because, as he told Vanity Fair contributor Michael Lewis, "I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make."
I’m not deciding on matters of war and peace, but I can understand where the president is coming from. After a morning spent helping my daughter decide what to wear, my son figure out where his text books are, and my husband what time he should come home from work to make it to an appointment, the last thing I want to do is help an editor decide on an appropriate deadline for a new project. "Just tell me what you want and when you want it," I’m tempted to respond, even though that would likely put me in a position to fail.
Research suggests that there is actually a limit to how many smart decisions we can make before our brains call it quits . Scans show that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for controlling emotions and making decisions, seems to sort of shut off when it gets overloaded with too much information and too many tasks. This not only causes poor decision making, but when the conductor has left the emotional control booth we’re also more likely to get frustrated and anxious. In other words, finding a way to limit the amount of decisions you have to make can make you a better decision maker at work and less frazzled at home.
But how do we do that, exactly? Which decisions do we eliminate? Do we just start ignoring our kids when they ask us trivial questions?
President Obama says that to be an effective president, "you need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia."
To be an effective working parent, try delegating some decision-making responsibility. Give your kids the freedom to decide what to wear and the responsibility of keeping track of their belongings, for example. Take the time to sit down with your spouse and assign areas of responsibility; then follow through with a happy, "go ask your father" when appropriate.
Of course, we have much more freedom to eliminate decisions from the parts of our lives that don’t involve our kids. For example, we can strip down our own closets to make the business of getting dressed less taxing for our brains. Maybe we can pick out our clothes and plan the day’s schedule the night before just to ease up the mental strain on our hectic mornings.
We can reduce our exposure to trivia, which our decision-making brain does process, by cutting down the time we spend on social media and news sites. We can spend our free time on activities that give our dorsolateral prefrontal cortexes a break, things like exercise or knitting .
As parents, we become masters at prioritizing where we spend our time and our money. We might also consider practicing the same discretion when it comes to how we spend our brain power.