I noticed something very unusual when I went for my 7 km walk.
I noticed that as I passed the liquor store, my brain would start to wander.
And it wasn’t the liquor. It was just the point in my walk.
You see I’d pass the liquor store at about 40 minutes into my walk. And no matter what I was listening to on my iPhone, I’d find it hard to concentrate on. Even on days when I was really trying hard to pay attention, my mind would wander.
So I tried to listen to music instead
Same thing. Around the 40 minute mark, my brain was off for a walk of its own. And there’s a reason why this happens. It happens because of the blood flow to your brain. When the brain has to concentrate on an activity, it fires up its pumps and hey the blood comes rushing in.
To find out just how much you’re paying attention, University of Cincinnati researchers tracked mental activity using transcranial Doppler sonography (TDS). The device measures blood flow velocity in the brain. Joel Warm, Professor of Psychology at University of Cincinnati, believes the reading could be an indicator of sustained, or non-stop, attention, also known as vigilance.
“The velocity goes up, it means that blood is being rushed to an area to carry away the waste product.
The more mental activity, the more the waste product,” he says. During various 40-minute tests, researchers saw a decrease in blood-flow velocity over time, and, therefore, a decrease in attention.
“Sometimes in the first 10 minutes,” Warm says. “That early.” And he says many times the participants didn’t realise it was happening.
What this means is simply that our brains can’t sustain the intense pressure
But it depends. If the brain has to tackle stuff that is well within our comfort zone and mildly challenging, it will hold out for a lot longer. But if we’re learning something new, or doing something that is challenging, the brain feels the intensity. And after a while it just needs a break. In everyday terms this break is often termed as exhaustion.
We don’t know why we’re feeling so drained, but drained we are.
And of course, we don’t want to appear lazy, so instead of taking a break, we soldier on. And the brain doesn’t co-operate. Which is when you find yourself checking email, hovering endlessly on Facebook and doing activity that tires you even further.
You’re not dealing with good ol’ resistance here. You’re dealing with a brain that just can’t function at that level. And of course, the more you push it the more resistance you feel.
But it gets worse
Just focusing on a task is hard enough. But when this focus has to be run over the term of a project, we have to put in tremendous self-control. And as you accurately guessed, self-control is extremely draining. And the reason it’s so draining is because self-control seems to be in limited supply.
So if you’re on a weight-loss diet AND completing an article that needs to meet a deadline, you need twice the self-control. If you add another factor to that list, you would need thrice as much self-control—and so on. So if you use up self-control completing the presentation, you’re more than likely to chew on the chocolate cookies—despite the diet.
What seems like resistance is really a factor of exhaustion
What seems to be a factor of giving into resistance is actually just an inability for the brain to sustain continuous control over the situation. Not only is it battling with tiredness, but the self-control is adding another level of intensity.
Something has to give. And that’s when you officially lose the plot. That’s when you think you’ve lost the battle to resistance.
Which is why rest matters
Every 40 minutes or so, you need to take a break from what you’re doing. On a day to day level that helps you prevent this endless back and forth bounce between Facebook and back. But remember what’s also happening when you’re resisting Facebook.
You’re using up your self-control.
You actually like ambling around checking what’s happening around the Internet. So don’t resist the Facebook temptation. Give in to it. Allocate a fixed amount of time, e.g. 5-10 minutes doing something that makes you happy. Then when your ten minutes are up, and you’ve had a bit of a rest, go back to what you’re doing.
But surely no one has time to take these crazy breaks all the time
No one does. And that’s the point. Your brain is going to stop being attentive. And though you may be sitting at your computer pounding away at the keyboard, it’s not going to do an hour’s worth of work in an hour. It’s going to do just 20-30 minutes.
And then it’s going to have drop outs in your attention. As it gets more tired, you get more inattentive. By the second hour, you’re pretty much drooping.
But if you took the break, and don’t constantly strain the leash on your self-control, you give your brain it so richly deserves. That blood-flow velocity reduces naturally. And you’re more refreshed to take on the next hour, and the next and the next.
When I’d go for my walks past the liquor store, I’d fight my brain.
I’d want to keep concentrating. But now I don’t. I realise that I’m fighting two pitched battles: tiredness and self-control. And if I just play along with my brain’s natural rhythms, I stand to learn more and achieve more—while still resting more. And what’s more, I don’t feel bad that I’m just giving in to resistance.
Research source: Science Daily + ‘Switch’ by Dan and Chip Heath
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