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
The Brain's natural rhythms help us achieve and learn more. Do let me know what you have learned from this article?
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media designer says
This helps explain why I get exhausted very quickly when taking on a particular project that involves me learning a lot of new stuff. After about 15 mins I’m ready for a nap. If I go past the TV, all of a sudden I’m alert enough to watch an entire movie. But that project makes my eyes close as if they’re made of lead! Exercising has helped. Just a ten minute run in the middle of the day gets me going again.
David Rothwell says
A fascinating article.
When doing a repetitive manual task, like walking, driving (or even ironing clothes) which takes no conscious thought, I deliberately let my mind wander rather than giving it something specific to focus on.
I often find I get great ideas and inspiration – sometimes even revelations and epiphanies – this way.
Please don’t let your mind wander while driving, that is a dangerous situation! It is a task that does take conscious thought.
Great article Sean!
From now on, I will be taking a break instead of trying to plow through a situation.
What have I learned from this article? Not to feel guilt at the mental mindbreaks I take….thanks for that 🙂
I was in the midst of finalizing a draft of an eBook about popular science, information theory, and physics, and the essays I run into working on my draft are simply too deep to tackle in one sitting. There I was, an hour reading into theoretical and contemplative essays from leaders in IT and particle physics, and suddenly my chronic sinusitis kicks in. The timing sucks, but if I factor in what I just learned from this article, perhaps the sinusitis attack is just another facet of my mind telling me to give it a rest. It’s a physical reaction that is much more potent than exhaustion in making me stop. Well, that’s a stretch, but it certainly does force me to pause for a breather.
I assume the depth and breadth of whatever you’re working on is also a variable that dictates the level of exhaustion you meet 40 minutes or an hour after sitting on it – it’s only logical. Though I am quite interested and enthusiastic about IT, computer science, and physics, they are not my specialties. I’d like to see how much my blood flow velocity surges and reduces during my work hours. A reprieve though: I have very little self-control, so perhaps that helps minimize tiredness, no?
Splendid read, thankQ
I wonder if you would mind if I replicate aspects in my own article next week, due recognition to the source as always approriate ?
Sean D'Souza says
Vaughan Jones says
Hmmm… does this explain the connection between the hard-nosed types that like to keep grinding on through and the subsequent increase in smoke & coffee breaks? The body and brain are always trying to restore balance.
Thank you for this article. I’m one of those people who just soldiers on, forcing myself to be productive. Of course it doesn’t work and I don’t get much accomplished when I do that.
You have helped me to understand why that doesn’t work. I am definitely going to build break time into my workdays.
Judy Murdoch says
Wow Sean, this was fascinating. So my big takes aways were:
1. Don’t feel so guilty about spending two hours looking for a perfect pair of black suede pumps in the afternoon if I wrote an article and did a client session in the morning.
2. That I might as well take that 5-10 minute break because whether I like it or not my brain is going to. It’s just a matter of me trying to kid myself.
3. Maybe if I took the breaks I wouldn’t spend two hours looking for perfect black suede pumps.
I’m going to work the breaks into my schedule and see if it changes how productive I am.
Whew, so nice to get a break from all that guilt. 😉
And here I thought I was resistant and not tired! I’m going to put this into practice tomorrow. I’m about half way through a 3 week computer research project. I could tell today that I was making a lot of mistakes and having to go back. Tomorrow I will break for 5 minutes every 40 minutes and see how it goes. Thanks for the info.
Brijinder Singh says
Interesting how you have woven in your walk, liquor store, and brain research into a interesting article!
Only remaining variable is to figure out how much each concentrated work period ought to be for each of us. And the accomplanying break. I also think the length of work periods shrinks as the day goes on – unless one switches for a couple of hours to something easy and totally different.
Fascinating! I just found this email caught in my spam catcher, so my late comment isn’t due to exhaustion or lack of self control 🙂
But it explains a lot. I guess I’ve been recognizing this without being able to put it into words. I recently undertook a project that was quite new to me in its scope and subject matter. I’ve been intentionally giving myself big breaks because I realized I was becoming unproductive, where normally I’d work on a project for hours at a stretch. What I lose in the total immersion I feel I’m gaining in less stress and productivity.