I love coming up with different schemes–and here’s a new one. I was thinking about the mental energy required by the different tasks of my life, and it struck me that this energy could be divided into four categories, in descending order of mental demand:

1. Contemplative energy—planning, deciding, creating, inhibiting (holding myself back from saying, doing, or thinking something), setting priorities, making transitions

2. Engagement energy—talking to other people, reading or observing with my critical faculties

3. Audience energy—watching or listening passively

4. Habit energy—mindlessly executing a habitual behavior

One conclusion: when I feel too tired to do anything except Level 3, I should probably be in bed.

To be satisfying, watching TV or checking Facebook should feel like Level 2 activities, not Level 3. Watching Homeland is a different experience from flipping through the channels. True, occasionally  Level 3 is just what I’m in the mood for, but I don’t want to make a habit of it, or let myself sink, without realizing it, from Level 2 into Level 3 (which tends to happen within about thirty minutes).

As I wrote about the other day, in Epiphany: It takes a lot of energy to decide to go to bed, weirdly, when I’m very tired, I tend to stay up too late. These four levels help show why. I’m stuck in a Level 3 activity, and don’t have the energy to boost myself into Level 1 activity.

That’s the value of Level 4. If I make bedtime into a habit–”At 10:30, I start getting ready for bed, in the same way, every night”–then I don’t have to use any precious Level 1 mental energy to get myself to turn out the light.

What do you think of these four levels–did I get it right? What activities did I overlook that should be plugged into this framework?

Also ...

  • There's a lot of terrific material on my friend Jenny Rosenstrach's blog Dinner: A Love Story--"it all begins at the family table"--whether or not you actually like to cook.

  • Are you reading Happier at Home or The Happiness Project in a book group? Email me if you'd like the one-page discussion guide. Or if you're reading it in a spirituality book club, a Bible study group, or the like, email me for the spirituality one-page discussion guide.

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