- Brendan Stec
Making the Most of Our Brain's Limited Attention
Our brain can only consciously process so many different experiences in our lifetime. How do we overcome certain obstacles to choose experiences that mean the most?
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi estimates that the conscious mind can process no more than 126 bits of information per second. (1) To put this number in perspective, listening to a conversation with someone requires us to process 40 bits of information per second. It’s for this reason we can hardly listen to more than two people speak to us at a time, let alone multi-task between emails and writing code or talking and thinking about what to cook for dinner.
More importantly, this means there is a limit to our focus and attention. At 126 bits of information per second, and 60,000 seconds ticking away each day, our conscious mind will process a little less than 200 billion bits of information in our lifetime. From these tiny bits, accumulating second by second, we will form the memories, values, feelings, and conscious experiences that define who we are. These are bits unique to each of us, and in many cases, it is up to us to determine which bits we will prioritize to define our conscious experience while the seconds tick by...
As you may imagine, not all of the bits of information we process on a daily basis are enjoyed equally. Certain activities – training for a marathon, giving birth to a child, earning a well-deserved promotion – push our mind to the limits, demanding our full attention and strength, but reward us with a sense of meaning and a clearer understanding of our life’s purpose. These are what Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow experiences”, rewarding activities that demand the brain’s full conscious attention and momentarily suspend any other worries or distracting thoughts that normally besiege the mind. Flow experiences can be as unique as skydiving or performing a song for a crowd, or as simple as having an unusually engaging conversation with a friend or a productive brainstorming session at work. While in “flow”, hours seem to pass in an instant, and our attention is fully invested in the task at hand, seamlessly guiding and shaping the thousands of bits streaming through the mind.
Other activities – watching sitcoms, reading emails, scrolling through the news – are not as engaging as flow experiences. They just don’t fully capture our attention to the same degree, usually because they don’t provide enough challenge for our mind and body or enough opportunity for struggle and growth. When watching a movie, for example, the images, characters, and narratives enter the brain as fully structured thoughts and ideas, ready for consumption. We can leave our brain on auto-pilot to passively absorb the pictures and sounds. While it's easy and sometimes pleasurable to sit back and let the bits stream through the mind on their own, without much cognitive heavy-lifting, the experience won't be particularly fulfilling or meaningful. And if we’re not careful, it’s possible to let this passive attitude creep into all of our daily experiences, even those that are typically engaging. A job can become a chore that merely pays for food and alcohol and rent. Social interactions, constantly interrupted by mobile email, can turn repetitive and stale. If we let any activity become routine, as we “go through the motions”, we miss out on a genuine flow experience and consequently the possibility of true fulfillment.
With the seconds ticking each day, it’s important to ask ourselves: to what degree do we prioritize meaningful flow experiences? With what little attention we have, those 126 bits per second, our conscious mind: do we apply this limited resource to maximize our experience at every opportunity?
Or do we let it go to waste?
It should be a no-brainer. Everyone wants meaningful experiences each day, just like everyone wants good relationships or a comfortable living. And many of us know what we need to make it happen. We feel an urge to pick up the dusty guitar that's been sitting in our closet. We think about signing up for a painting class or a 5k race or a charity event. We talk about finally breaking out and starting a business or finally working through an important certification for work. We hope for a fulfilling future, the "bucket list", the "dream job", the "superpower", if only we could make the correct sacrifices, day by day, to get there.
The challenge we all face in prioritizing flow experiences, which truly push our mind and body, demand our highest concentration, and promise true meaning and fulfillment, is simply sitting down, facing our fears, and putting in the work to make them happen.
Think back to when you earned the big promotion, finally got the dream girl or guy, built an important skill or hobby, hiked Mt. Kilimanjaro, or completed any other meaningful experience or goal: was it easy? Getting there – was it always 100% pain-free, a direct path upwards? Probably not.
Here lies a paradox: the most important, fulfilling, experience-maximizing things we ever do are often the hardest things we ever do. They demand us to wake up early and bring 100%, mentally and physically. They promise a risk of complete failure and rejection. They're often easy to put-off and avoid. They can be scary, they can be frustrating, and they can be painful.
In order to successfully prioritize flow experiences in our lives, these are obstacles we must overcome each day to make them happen. And these obstacles are all the result of what Steven Pressfield defines in The War of Art as a single powerful force: “Resistance.” (2) As he puts it:
“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.”
Resistance is what tells us to hit snooze, so we can sleep-in instead of hitting the gym. Resistance tells us that tomorrow, next week, or next year will be the time to finally start a business, project, diet, or book we’ve been meaning to get to. When we finally get a little bit of free time, Resistance encourages us to fritter it away passively consuming social media or television, although we all know with some effort, that time could be spent better. Resistance is dust collecting on a piano we used to play or all of the great startup ideas we never tried. It's the attitude that you need a degree in X from Y to do Z. It's self-sabotage and self-doubt, and it's not unique to you or me. Resistance has crushed everyone at some point.
We can only process 200 billion bits of information in our lifetime, which will determine what we experience, achieve, and remember. And Resistance is what stands between us and making the most of those 200 billion bits.
Last year, I went 4 months without publishing a single word on this blog. I told myself I had writer's block, that I was too busy, that I didn't have any good ideas. I told myself the Big Idea would come after a few weeks. The weeks turned into months. Before I knew it, Resistance had gotten me.
The hardest part about writing is sitting down to write. The hardest part about lifting weights is getting out of bed – cold, sore, tired – to hit the gym. Same goes for skydiving, rock climbing, composing, coding, cooking, dieting, painting. It's the getting started that's tough, facing the blank canvas, searching for that inspiration or motivation, while Resistance whispers in our ear that we can put off the work we desperately want to do for another time.
To get from the unlived life to the one we deserve, where we are engaged in our work, goals, and relationships, we must overcome Resistance. Fortunately, there are three weapons that can help all of us do this.
Weapon number one is the "Do Something" Principle. It's a simple idea: take action with a small task, which proves you are capable of working toward your end goal. Achieving this small task will inspire you to push forward, motivating you to tackle bigger and bigger challenges. The small task gets the flywheel spinning, it gets the brain cooking, it builds some inspiration and motivation, and this prompts further action so the virtuous cycle can continue:
Action leads to Inspiration leads to Motivation leads to Action...
If your goal is to write a book, the Do Something Principle says to just start with 150 words a day. If you miss playing the trumpet, the Principle says to just dust it off and play a few scales for 10 minutes. Want to spend less time on your phone? Try eating dinner with it on airplane mode one night. You might just build a habit. You might just reduce a big scary goal into something more manageable, one step at a time.
Weapon number two is to think like a professional. A professional comes to work every day, even when she doesn't feel like it or she's a little sick. A professional works all day, until her task is done. She’s not in the game for fun or to impress her friends. A professional is in it to improve, overcome her challenges, and win the game.
When we think of ourselves as professionals, we hold ourselves to a higher standard. We don't feel good about sloughing off in the face of Resistance and we actually feel guilty when we're away from our craft. We're aware of how fluid and confident we feel when we're "in the zone", embracing that flow experience, and ultimately doing our most meaningful work.
Finally, weapon number three is to embrace extrinsic motivators. While flow experiences are often things we do for their own sake, beyond the money, status, or recognition we earn from them, they can still be hard to get started with. As Csikszentmihaly reminds us in Flow:
“Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.”
As helpful as the "Do Something" Principle is, sometimes we all need an extra push to get the motivational feedback loop started for a certain goal. That’s where promising yourself small rewards can be helpful. If your goal is to sit down and complete the pencil outlining for a painting, promise your brain that you will treat yourself to a coffee if you finish it. If you hope to spend an entire day fully engaged at work, really performing at your best, promise yourself the chance to unwind at the end of the day with a favorite show. It’s ok to reward yourself from time to time to keep the flywheel spinning. After all, we’re in the business of overcoming Resistance, not unnecessary self-flagellation.
Even with all of the available resources, access to the Internet, and life in the wealthiest time in human history, some individuals are still too cool to care about creating meaningful flow experiences in their lives. It can be more comfortable to prioritize a life of leisure and passivity. It can be easier to skate through most days, numbing the resulting anxiety and boredom with binge-watching, binge-eating, or binge-drinking (we've all been there!). That’s their choice, but don’t let it be yours if you don’t want it to be. Whether we care to admit it to ourselves or not, our lives are all defined by the bits of information we choose to process at any given moment, and if it were an easy choice, we’d all choose those bits that arise from genuine flow experiences.
Resistance is often the enemy that stands in the way of making this important choice. Fortunately, we now all have the weapons to slay it before it can get to us.
I’d like to conclude with a saying from Blaise Pascal:
“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Some people interpret this quote to mean that being alone for an extended period of time is difficult for human beings. I don't quite see it that way.
Here's how I see it: it’s difficult to sit in a room alone – doing nothing but filtering air – because we’re all programmed evolutionarily to survive, attain resources, build relationships, and achieve. Our lazy, air-filtering ancestors died off years ago. Consequently, our minds are waiting for structure, challenge, a goal, anything meaningful to demand its attention.
Don’t let Resistance prevent you from satisfying this urge and making the most of those 126 bits per second.
(1) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990)
(2) The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (2002)