The brain is an amazing machine, possibly the most complex machine there is. It’s made up of several parts that control what we think, how we feel, where we move, what we see, hear and taste to name a few.
At a high level we have a conscious and a non-conscious mind. The unconscious part of our brain essentially runs our body, handling our basic physical functions and holds all our hardwired information and habits. The unconscious mind has a massive capacity. On the other hand, the much smaller conscious mind, is our working memory.
Hello, are you still reading?
Do I have your attention? Your full attention?
No? Did you just check that email that dinged into your inbox? Are you watching a funny video someone just sent you on your phone whilst reading this on your laptop? Oh no, now you’re thinking about how quickly you can read this article so you can go and get a coffee. And now your tummy is grumbling, wonder if there are any leftover muffins in the kitchen ….
Oh, hi, are you back again? Perhaps you took a phone call that propelled you onto another task? Or an email that you thought you’d quickly read and then you completely forgot you were reading this article until you noticed it open in your browser later in the day (along with the 10 other open tabs)?
You’re not alone (in fact some of this happened to me whilst writing this article), it’s just that your pre-frontal cortex, that part of the brain that sits just behind the forehead and was the last part of our brains to develop, the part of the brain used for conscious thinking, is so easily distracted.
The pre-frontal cortex, or PFC is the part of the brain that is responsible for amongst other things, planning, personal expression, decision making and moderating social behaviour. It’s our working memory where we hold information in the mind in the short term before processing it.
However, Neuroscientist Amy Arnsten from Yale University labels the PFC the Goldilocks of the brain. Like Goldilocks in the children’s tale, your PFC needs to have everything just right in its environment to function optimally.
And why do we want an optimally functioning PFC? Well, when you’re trying to solve a complex problem, come up with a solution, creative concept, or learn something new, it’s your PFC that’s responsible for this high level thinking and executive function. However there are a number of factors that limit your PFC’s capacity.
- It’s small,
- It uses a lot of energy,
- It can only do one thing at a time,
- It’s fussy about neurochemicals, and
- It’s easily distracted.
The PFC is small
The PFC accounts for about 4-5% of the brain’s volume and neuroscience indicates that the PFC can only hold 4 pieces of information at time.
The PFC uses a lot of energy
Whilst the PFC is relatively small compared to the rest of the brain, it uses up a lot of your brain’s glucose and oxygen resources when it’s functioning.
The PFC can only do one thing at a time
The PFC is a serial processor, while it can hold up to 4 pieces of information at once, it can only perform one conscious process at a time without impacting on its ability to perform.
The PFC is fussy
Remember Dr Amy Arnsten’s description of the PFC being like Goldilocks? It needs just the right amount of neurochemicals to function effectively – not too much, not too little. The PFC needs dopamine and adrenaline to function, however too little and you’ll feel bored and/or fatigued, too much can result in feelings of stress or being out of control.
The PFC is easily distracted
Still with me? Our everyday lives are full of distractions, and every time we manage a distraction it uses glucose and energy, leaving less of these resources for our PFC to manage high thinking functions such as making decisions, understanding new concepts, memorising, inhibiting behaviours, practicing will-power or recalling ideas, thoughts or learnings.
Keeping your PFC happy and productive
So to make the most of our PFC ‘s capacity, and improve mental performance, we need to work around its limitations and give it some TLC.
- Given it’s small, don’t try and store too much in it. Don’t rely on your working memory to keep track of tasks, create an external system for this.
- Chunk projects down into smaller, more manageable tasks.
- List your top priorities each day as a visual reminder of what you want to focus on.
- Because your PFC uses a lot of energy, not only does it help to chunk down projects, but it also makes sense to schedule tasks according to your energy levels, and their degree of difficulty. If it’s a task that requires a high level of concentration, determine when you have the highest mental energy and schedule it then.
- What you eat and drink has a direct impact on your brain, choose foods that will give you long lasting energy and make sure you stay well hydrated.
- Do one thing at a time. Since the PFC is a serial processor, it cannot do two things at once, “multi-tasking” is an illusion of productivity, what you’re really doing is task-switching which is much less effective than focusing on one task at a time.
- Put distracting thoughts onto paper, the notes app on your phone, or whatever works for you. Then schedule regular blocks of time to think about these and work out any follow on actions.
- For your fussy PFC make sure you maintain your levels of dopamine and adrenaline. For dopamine create interest through injecting newness, humour and variation into your day. For adrenaline, you need to generate alertness, by introducing some sense of urgency (not too much) perhaps a deadline for the task, beating your personal best on an activity, achieving a personal goal or stretching for a bonus.
- Remove distractions for that easily side-tracked PFC. Close your email (I know, this is tricky!), and only check it at certain times of the day.
- Put your phone on silent whilst you’re focused on a task.
- Make sure your work area is clear of items that will distract you from your current task. And make sure your working environment is comfortable, having an uncomfortable chair, an area that is too hot or too cold, or too noisy will all be added distractions for your PFC. *
To improve mental performance, increase productivity and achieve greater balance in your day to day, make the most of your PFC by treating it just right.
If you’d like help with personal productivity and goals, contact me for a confidential discussion about how coaching can facilitate positive change through improved thinking.
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* For more on how to overcome distraction and work smarter, read David Rock’s book, Your Brain at Work.