Prioritizing Around The Limitations of Your Brain

December 26, 2012 — 1 Comment

to-doOver the years, I’ve found a tremendous amount of success in prioritizing and doing the most important things first. However, as effective as this process can be, I’ve often been surprised at how minor distractions can lead to working on less important, but easier activities and tasks.

Until more recently, I would have been likely to blame lack of focus or motivation as the culprit for not prioritizing. While this may be true for some individuals, I never really considered that there may be limitations of the human brain that can easily cause us to get distracted, and therefore make it difficult to prioritize. To better understand the limitations of your brain, let’s take a look at a fictitious Monday morning scenario.

The Scenario

It’s Monday morning and on the way into the office you ride the elevator with a co-worker. You quickly discuss a project that you’ve been working on together, which reminds you of a few items you’ll need to complete by Wednesday. Once on your floor, you make your way to your desk, but first pass your manager’s office to say hello. You quickly find out he has an important meeting at 9am and could use your help, so you tell him you’ll get what he needs right away.

You continue to your desk and when you sit down you notice two sticky notes that you left yourself on Friday afternoon. They’re reminders for tasks you’ll need to complete prior to a meeting at 2pm. The day hasn’t even started and your to do list has already started to grow.

Distracted, you pop open your email and check to make sure there isn’t anything urgent that needs your attention. Everything looks okay, but you see a few emails that you can respond to quickly, so you begin typing away. After sending only 4 emails you look up and it’s 8:30am.

You stop for a minute and decide to prioritize your day, so you take 10 minutes to solidify your to do list. However, as you start to prioritize, you find yourself feeling a bit overwhelmed with the mountain of work that you have for the week. Your thoughts drift for a moment, and you find yourself wishing you had the day off, but when a new email pops into your inbox you snap back to reality.

You refocus back on your to do list, but moments later you panic when you look at the clock and notice you only have 15 minutes to pull that report that you promised your manager. Unable to focus, you throw together something that somewhat resembles a report and quickly send it off to your manager, recongizing that you have a meeting you need to attend at 9am as well.

You grab a notebook and head for your meeting, which you had prepared for on Friday afternoon. However, even though you were prepared for the meeting you quickly find yourself having to defend subpar results that you achieved last month as part of an on-going project. Even though the meeting only lasts for 30 minutes you were forced to give your undivided attention and answer a barage of questions, which leaves you feeling a bit stressed out.

Once back at your desk you stop and think about all the things you wish you had done to improve your results last month, which only adds to your frustration. You put your head down, look at the to do list you started earlier and decide to focus on the quick items that you can check off your list.

After what seems like a short while, you stomach starts to grumble and when you look up it’s already 1pm. The day is half over and while you’ve been hard at work you can’t help but feel like you haven’t really accomplished anything.

The Limitations of Your Brain

Sound familiar? While this may be a bit of a dramatization, most of us can relate to this type of scenario. What’s interesting is that there’s a very specific reason for why this familiar scenario makes it difficult to focus and therefore prioritize.

In his book, “Your Brain at Work,” David Rock talks about the very real biological limits of your brain. “When it comes to making decisions and solving problems… the brain has some surprising performance limitations. While the brain is exquisitely powerful, even the brain of a Harvard graduate can be turned into that of an eight-year-old simply by being made to do two things at once.”

He also explains that “making decisions and solving problems relies heavily on a region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex… Your prefrontal cortex is the biological seat of your conscious interactions with the world. It’s the part of your brain central to thinking things through, instead of being on “autopilot” as you go about your life.”

Your prefrontal cortex is also responsible for the following functions, “understanding, deciding, recalling, memorizing, and inhibiting, which make up the majority of conscious thought. These functions are recombined to plan, problem-solve, communicate, and other tasks. They use the prefrontal cortex intensively and require significant resources to operate.”

Each day, it turns out these resources are limited, therefore we each have a limited ability to solve problems and work through complex decisions like prioritizing. As a result, David recommends that you “prioritize prioritizing… because prioritizing is one of the brain’s most energy-hungry processes.”

Prioritize Prioritizing

In essence, the feeling of being overwhelmed and the difficultly associated with thinking about 10 things at once is caused by the very real limitations of your brain. However, armed with this knowledge and an understanding of these limitations, we can plan and act accordingly.

For example, in the morning scenario described above, prioritizing your day is one of the most important things you can do while you’re fresh. So, when you first sit down at the desk avoid opening your email or starting right into a project. Instead, begin by eliminating all distractions so you can get focused. Close your door if you have to, or if you don’t have an office throw on some headphones. Then focus in, write out a to do list and prioritize accordingly.

Once you have done so, the most important things should fall at the top of your list. These will often be the most difficult or least desirable tasks that easily get pushed in favor of simple tasks, which we tend to gravitate towards when we haven’t prioritized. Ultimately, taking a few minutes to prioritize while you’re fresh will help ensure you stay focused on the important things. If you do this regularly you’ll find that it can significantly help increase your overall productivity.

Helpful Tip

I personally find that Monday mornings frequently bring about many distractions that can lead to a lack of focus on what’s important. As a result, I find it helpful to put together a prioritized list of activities on Sunday. This allows me to think through things in a stress free environment and helps to ensure that I hit the ground running come Monday morning.

In reality, we’re all susceptible to distractions, which can make it difficult to prioritize and easy to get off track. So if you’re looking to get ahead, try taking 20-30 minutes the day before to help make sure your week starts off right.

Further Reading…

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Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long

By David Rock