I was in Costco the other day, taking up way more space in the aisle than I should, trying to decide on which type of meat I should buy. Chicken? Breast, thigh or drumstick? Beef? Steak, roast or ground? Fish? Salmon, tilapia or whatever is being marinated in that bag? I could feel the panic beginning to rise and I could not decide. I couldn’t do it. My brain could not take in the prices, the types of meat, the meals they would make, and what I’d have to buy with them. My brain just shut down.
This is a simple example of decision fatigue and according to new research, we deplete the resources of our brain with every new decision we make. Even acts of self-control, what we choose not to do, exert energy on the brain that exhausts it. Just think about it. How many decisions do you make in a day? Especially in countries where we are speaking a second or third language. Should I use this word, or that one? Is this the right way to shake a hand? Should I take my shoes off or keep them on? Is this actually laundry detergent? Did they say what I think they said? Wait, what side of the road do I drive on?
Each decision during the day draws from a limited mind and weakens willpower making it difficult to make good choices as the day draws to a close. It now makes sense why I stood in Costco, unable to decide between meats and walked out with a pizza instead. As we become tired from making decisions we revert to choosing the easiest way out. I can see this especially with my eating habits. I can go all day, eating healthy and making good food choices, but once that day draws to a close…yeah, I’m eating that chocolate bar.
Within ministry and family, our decisions have far reaching implications and when we are running on a depleted brain, those decisions we make will be subpar. One of the ways to combat decision fatigue is to limit the amount of non-critical decisions throughout the day. This is where routine becomes a tool for expat use.
Cross-cultural life is all about interruptions and the unexpected. It’s about the stranger at the gate, the wedding down the street, the crisis across town, an unknown illness, or the surprise appearance of Special K and the disappearance of pickles. Life can change in a moment. Routine provides the mind and soul with the necessary structure to alleviate stress and frees us up to process information and make profitable choices.
I am currently 3 months into my first home assignment and my normal routines have all been uprooted. We have spent months visiting with family and friends, reengaging with churches and traveling up and down the pacific northwest. My body and soul are craving routine and I can see the effects of fatigue. Not only that, but we have some life changing decisions to make in the near future and if I can’t choose between chicken or beef, I’m not going to rush into a decision that has not been processed fully.
Implementing routine is more about personal health then it is about control and its value reaches far beyond getting a to-do list accomplished. I’ve seen the power of routine in my life and I have seen the mental and emotional chaos that living outside of structure can produce. For the remaining months of my home assignment I am committed to creating a routine that will both bring healing and provide me mental space to process the past and plan for the future.
First, I want to have a morning routine. No more hitting the snooze button or wondering if I should get up now or later. A set wake-up time followed by a patterned routine eliminates the decision struggle, minimizes anxiety and helps productivity. For me, this looks like a 6am wake-up time, followed by a fresh cup (or three) of coffee, sitting outside on my porch with my bible and current writing project or book. Then it’s breakfast and getting dressed for the day before we hunker down for schooling.
Secondly, I want to make a menu. Cooking and shopping takes up a lot of my time. A menu is easy to make and just having a written down plan eliminates all the deliberation before breakfast, lunch and dinner. It even focuses my shopping energy so that I don’t stand in the grocery store aisle aimless and confused.
Thirdly, I want a simplified wardrobe. I know that cross-cultural workers are not known for their high fashion but even the deliberation over what to wear each day erodes the willpower of my brain. Keeping my wardrobe simple helps alleviate the struggle to choose, particularly for church gatherings or events. I keep one or two sets of church clothes and the rest are casual day wear.
Lastly, a regular nighttime routine. Sleep is always important but during this time of recovery I feel it is especially important. I haven’t quite figured this one out yet, but I’m working on it. Hot tea, a good book, a thoughtful prayer, it doesn’t need to be a long or profound routine, just a consistent one, that allows the mind to relax, rest and sleep.
It’s easy for the tyranny of the urgent to take over, to believe that routine is a luxury that we can’t have. Yet cross-cultural workers are people too, the same as everyone else. God does not equip us to live outside of our humanity, without need for structure. Daily routine gives us the ability to engage in the unexpected with more clarity and focus. It sharpens our problem-solving skills and frees us to engage with people more deeply and effectively. I’m excited for this next season of mine, one filled with intentionality and structure in which God speaks and I am free to hear.
Do you follow a routine? What benefits have you seen come out of structure? How have you seen God move through routine?
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