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How to lighten your mental load

(MoneyWatch) I'm filing this post a wee bit late today, because one of my sons' preschools turned out to be closed this morning. Who knew? I guess I should have, but somehow that little detail slipped through the cracks with other things going on. As the person who takes him to school on Thursdays, that meant this morning reverted to plan B (many piggyback rides around the basement -- the upside of working from home).

No harm, no foul, I suppose, but this little scheduling snafu got me thinking about the issue of mental load, and exactly how many things we can (or can't) remember. Is that cantaloupe going bad in the fridge? Did I book a hotel room for that conference next month? Did I get that contract and invoice out the door, or is the request for it still sitting in my inbox? While some people are fortunate enough to have an assistant and/or a spouse who handles professional or personal logistics, such dedicated help is rare these days. In theory, things like a concierge service could help, but as I wrote in this post, I think there are limits to the helpfulness.

After writing about productivity for several years, I'm well aware of various tools to help get organized. I dutifully make a priority list that includes both the professional and the personal, and I write down random things as they occur to me. All appointments go on one centralized calendar. Yet somehow none of this captured the fact that my children's spring breaks started at different times.

So what to do better handle that mental load?

As with many things in life, the best approach is to play offense, not just defense. Think carefully about the commitments you make. Piano lessons may sound like the sort of thing all children should have, for instance, but someone will have to remember that your kids need to go, drive them, monitor their practice, buy music, keep track of recital dates, keep the piano tuned, and many other things that go along with learning an instrument. Who will take this on? If it's likely to be you, make sure music lessons are important enough to you and your child to shovel on the mental load.

With work, too, don't mistake busyness for actually getting things done. You only have so many days to build your professional legacy. Spending six hours of a day on marginally useful conference calls creates the kind of mental load that won't let you spend much time thinking about long-term priorities.

As for playing defense, delegate what you can. Automate anything that happens frequently, like paying bills and buying diapers. But beyond that, it definitely reduces stress to build the kind of life where when things do fall through the cracks, you can adjust. Negotiate for a flexible schedule. Have back-up childcare and back-up carpool plans. Have a cash cushion so that when you get stuck paying late fees, it's OK. Keep containers of shelf-stable milk in the pantry so when you run out of the fresh stuff, your picky eater can still have his Cheerios. When a system failure isn't a disaster, that lightens the mental load right there.

How do you lighten your mental load?

Photo courtesy of Flickr user freestockimages
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