Our Busy, Busy, Busy Brains!

By: Jim Bruce

My two grandfathers lived in a very small East Texas town, perhaps several hundred houses in town and the neighboring countryside.  One grandfather was a railroad section foreman, the other a subsistence farmer.  Both worked hard with their hands.  While they certainly used their brains in their work, the demand they placed on their brains was certainly different from what we do today in our “always-on” lifestyle.  While they had the daily newspaper and radio, we have at our fingertips essentially instant access to each other as well as to the world’s knowledge and activities through our handheld devices. 

John Rampton, entrepreneur and investor, puts the difference between then (which was much more like what our distant fore-bearers experienced) and now this way: “Here’s the thing.  The human brain wasn’t meant to run a marathon.  It’s not designed to be alert and stimulated for a majority of the day.”  Some have compared the life many of us live to riding a lion: “People think, ‘This guy’s really brave.’  The guy thinks, ‘How did I get on the lion, and how do I keep from getting eaten?’”  I think that’s the situation many of us find ourselves in today.

Scholars suggest that today we receive, each day, five times the information that we received each day three decades ago.  Daniel Levitin would argue that it is significantly more than that.  He writes: “Our brains are busier than ever before.  We’re assaulted with facts, pseudo facts, jibber-jabber, and rumor, all posing as information.  Trying to figure out what you need to know and what you can ignore is exhausting.  At the same time we are all doing more.”  As a result of technology, we are doing the jobs that used to be done by our staff while trying to keep up with our own lives.  Our smart phones have become the new “Swiss army knife” to deal with our support across the many domains of our work and life. 

So, what might we do to reduce our busyness and become more productive?  Here are three things that will enable you to make a major step forward:

1. Limit (really stop) multitasking.  I’ve written on multitasking before.  (See here and here, for example.)  Except in a very few limited situations (e.g., walking and talking at the same time), we don’t multitask.  Instead, we switch from one task to another.  Research has shown that this task-switching reduces your productivity by as much as 40% and lowers your IQ by 10%. 

So, what this means is that if you want to be most effective, you need to carefully mind how, whether, and when you can be interrupted rather than choosing to be interrupted by every phone call, txt message, tweet, email, facebook post, etc. that arrives on your smartphone no matter what you are doing.  Levitin points out that this task switching also depletes a person’s brain glucose supply which is the fuel that the brain’s neurons need to communicate with each other.  This leads to fatigue earlier than if you concentrate on one task at a time.

2.  Become more planful.  We’ve argued before for more planning, suggesting that on Friday afternoons you review the week just ending paying particular attention to tasks that you were not able to complete and looking forward to the tasks scheduled for the coming week.  In doing this, you develop a sense of how the coming week will play out given events and tasks already scheduled; work not completed in the week just ending that now must fit into your coming week;  to-do’s that will need to be addressed;  plus unscheduled time for priority work you don’t now know about which will have to be completed.

We’ve also argued that you take this weekly plan as a starting point that you refine at the beginning of each day.  I’ve argued that everything that you plan to do during the day – anything that takes more than two to five minutes – needs to find a place on the calendar for the day.  If you don't write them down, you will lose track of these issues and they will be undone at the end of the day.  (One approach for dealing with these small tasks is to list all of them together in the same time block and do them at that time.  If this occurs regularly, you might create a regular, recurring time on the calendar for this purpose.)

Also, as you plan meaningfully, do think about meetings.  Everyone I talk with says that they have too many meetings.  I’m a believer that every meeting has to have one or more clear deliverables.  And, I’d argue that check-ins and status updates, don’t make for meaningful deliverables.  So, no deliverable, no meeting!

3.  When you are doing work on a major task, get in the “flow.”  In planning your week, there will most likely be one or more major tasks that you will need to address.  Yet, getting the uninterrupted time necessary for you to be successful in completing this work will be hard.  Another obstacle is how you go about doing the work.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a noted Hungarian psychologist, talks about it being necessary to be in the flow to be so completely focused on what you are doing that you are totally disengaged from everything else.  This is a time when you know what you need to do and how you are doing it; you know your skills are adequate; you have no worries; time flies;  and you make great progress.  Newport, and others build on Csikszentmihalyi’s work, systematizing it and, perhaps most important, encouraging us to create a habit to use in executing the process.  Key elements in the process include:

  a.  Clearly defining the problem.  If you have not carefully defined the task, you run a real risk of not being successful.

  b.  Scheduling adequate time (or times) to work on the problem.  This work is hard and drains your brain’s resources.  Newport suggests no more than an hour a day when you first use the process, increasing that to as much four hours a day when this becomes your working style and a habit.

  c.  Identifying a place to work without interruption – either people interrupting you by coming into your office or via on-line interactions.  If you don’t have a door, “figure out a place where you can go where people won’t find you.”  Also, turn off all alarms for email messages, phone calls, etc., and close all windows on your computer for email, txt, twitter, etc.  The idea is to remove potential distractions so that you can focus completely on your work.

  d.  Taking breaks, preferably getting outdoors, if you are working longer than 45-90 minutes.  The breaks renew your brain’s energy levels. 

Our minds are busier than humans have ever experienced.  To get your best work done, you have to both turn off some of the noise and develop a way, a habit, of working more productively on that which is really important. 

Won’t you work to create an opportunity to begin this week.   

.  .  .     jim


Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.



Daniel J. Levitin, Why the Modern World Is Bad for Your Brain, The Guardian, January 2015.

Laura Shin, 10 Steps To Conquering Overload, Forbes, November 2014.

John Ramton, The Faster Your Brain Moves The More Time Off You Need, Inc.com, June 2017.

Srini Pillay, The Ways Your Brain Manages Overload, and How to Improve Them, Harvard Budiness Review, Jun 2017.

Susan Weinschenk, The True Cost of Multi-Tasking, Psychology Today, September 2012.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow:  The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper Perennial Mocern Classics, July 2008.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, the secret to happiness, TED2004, filmed February 2004.

Cal Newport, Deep Work, Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Hachette Book Group, January 2016.  (See animated book summary here and text summary here.)

Drake Baer, You Need to Unplug Every 90 minutes, FastCompany.com, June 2013.

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