How To Save Your Brain For Work: Wear The Same Outfit Every Day

By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz
Chicago Tribune.


With a busy job and two young kids, Amy Zinck has many mornings when, as she puts it, “mirrors are not part of my life.”

Luckily, she has little need for them.

For much of her career, the Chicago resident has gone to work wearing a self-prescribed uniform that has made her morning routine a think-free 15-minute affair.

No staring at the closet. No pile of discarded outfits. No regrets as she walks into the office that she is overdressed, underdressed or mismatched to tackle whatever comes her way.

Rather, Zinck, 47, reliably dons a pantsuit, usually black, though she also has gray and brown and if she “goes crazy” she may wear a skirt, she laughs, with a classic top and her hair pulled into a low ponytail. Her signature flourish is a scarf.

Removing the daily wardrobe headache frees up not only precious time, she said, but also her attention.

“If you’re worried about what you’re wearing, you’re not very present,” said Zinck, vice president of Chicago-based Terra Foundation for American Art and director of its Paris office.

Successful people have long extolled the professional virtues of having a personal uniform, with Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck and Mark Zuckerberg’s gray T-shirt and hoodie as famous examples. But recently the spotlight has been cast on women, who are less commonly associated with sartorial sameness.

Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO of health care tech company Theranos, told Glamour in an interview published in March that consistently wearing a black turtleneck gives her one less thing to think about so she can focus on work.

In an April essay in Harper’s Bazaar, Matilda Kahl, art director at advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, revealed that dressing pressures caused such angst one morning almost three years ago that she has since worn a daily uniform of black pants, a white silk blouse and black leather bow around her neck, prompting some co-workers to wonder at first if she had joined a cult.

A Huffington Post article last month that pondered whether women get more backlash than men if they wear the same outfit every day inspired the hashtag #sameoutfitdifferentday and enthusiastic Twitter declarations from followers determined to give it a try.

A few journalists experimented but struggled. In SFGate, style reporter Maghan McDowell wrote that “the lack of self-expression left me feeling uninspired and unfulfilled” after a few days in a black pencil skirt and white blouse.

The monotony of a uniform, to say nothing of the sideways glances from co-workers quietly wondering if you haven’t been home for a few days, keeps many people from joining the club.

But research suggests people might perform better during the day if they didn’t start it by wracking their brains about what to wear.

Making decisions requires neurons to burn glucose, and when that fuel gets depleted, brains suffer decision fatigue that clouds thinking and makes it hard to concentrate, said Daniel Levitin, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.”

Trivial decisions, like whether to wear a white or blue shirt, burn glucose almost as fast as deciding what to do about the federal deficit, he said.

“If you can simplify your life and have the same thing for breakfast or wear the same thing every day, it frees you up to use your decision making for other things,” Levitin said.

Famed neurologist and author Dr. Oliver Sacks, he noted, has said he eats the same meal every day _ sardines, tabbouleh and orange Jell-O, according to a RadioLab interview, so he doesn’t burden his brain with that choice.

Researchers believe the part of the brain that gets sapped by information overload is the pre-frontal cortex, which is involved in self-control, said Moran Cerf, professor of neuroscience and business at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

How many decisions one can make before getting depleted varies from person to person and depends on how much sleep they’ve had or caffeine they’ve consumed, Levitin said.

And not everyone derives benefit from simplifying their wardrobe.

People who find joy in clothing variety, or in bonding with colleagues who happened to come to work in the exact same shade of tangerine, should find another decision to scale back, he said. Others are wired to thrive on change and newness, and may find they are most inspired when they push out of their comfort zone with new things, Levitin said.

For Zinck, though, there is comfort in the predictability.

“It is freeing,” said Zinck, who has been wearing uniforms since she was a child and was required to. “This is what I feel comfortable in, this is who I am.”

Chicago fashion designer Maria Pinto likens getting dressed to putting on armor, empowering and protective, but what that armor looks like is different for everyone.

“Everyone has the one look in their wardrobe that is their power look, that makes them feel fabulous,” Pinto said. “Who cares if you’re wearing the same thing every day as long as you look impeccable?”

Zinck’s closet is based on six of the same style of Theory pantsuit, hemmed to three lengths to accommodate different heel heights. She wears them with Petit Bateau T-shirts in the summer and Eric Bompard sweaters in cooler temperatures. She also buys a few unique pieces when they catch her eye, a deconstructed jacket or pant in different cut, but they stick to the same timeless theme.

Her abundant collection of silk scarves, which began when she was given a Hermes scarf at 16, are the differentiating focal point on the canvas of her little black suit.

The scarves are like “superhero capes,” she said, functional as well as decorative, serving as makeshift sarongs for her 7-year-old daughter or a sling when her 4-year-old son broke his collarbone, she said.

Required to travel often as part of her job bringing American art to other parts of the world, Zinck can pack for a weeklong trip to Paris with two suits and seven scarves.

She said people compliment her on the details, like an interesting earring or a shoe.

“When you have a uniform, anything you do that deviates you feel like you’ve walked off the runway because everyone makes so many comments on it,” she said.

In addition to the neurological and confidence-boosting benefits, a uniform can have a branding effect.

Eileen Jones, global leader of the branded environments practice at Chicago-based architecture and design firm Perkins+ Will, wears only black and has a distinct short hairstyle in her natural gray, a put-together look that makes her recognizable and helps establish credibility.

“When you’re delivering a creative product, there’s an expectation that you have some of that creative reference in how you present yourself,” Jones said.

Jones, 61, has had several iterations of a uniform over her career. First she wore tailored suits to mimic male styles so she would be taken seriously, then she turned to layers of linens and other flowy fabrics to reflect her creative field. But she found the color options made her anxious when trying to decide what was appropriate to wear for a presentation.

The consistent black palette takes that worry out and is an unobtrusive backdrop when she is presenting visual elements to clients.

Infrequently, a co-worker will teasingly ask whose funeral she is going to, Jones said, but more often she gets compliments about how pulled together she looks.

On occasion, Jones said, she has tried to reintroduce color to her non-work attire. But those red and periwinkle blue blouses inevitably stay in her closet, unused.

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