Why you shouldn't use your brain if you don't have to

I went to a chapter meeting of the local ICF group on Friday. While it wasn't all of the networking opportunity I had hoped for, I learned a lot of interesting stuff about the brain and how its functions affect effective coaching relationships as well as life in general. Our attention is limited.

What this means for coaching clients is that it is truly helpful to focus, and preferably on one goal at a time. What this means for the coach is to provide an environment where the client is able and encouraged to stay on course.

Our working memory is a DUMIR.

Watch a couple of House episodes and you'll hear the term, prefrontal cortex. That's the executive decision maker of our brain, a.k.a. working memory. Ever walked into a room and forgot what you got in there for? Ever knew a word / name / thing, but couldn't for the life of you remember what it was? That's the prefrontal cortex being overloaded. It takes care of

  • Deciding
  • Understanding
  • Memorization
  • Inhibiting (that's when the hippocampus wants to send the message of why you walked in the room, but can't find space to unload that information), and
  • Remembering.

While it takes up only 4 or so % of our brain, it zaps over 20 % of the available energy doing one thing at a time, so you want to make sure it only uses the energy for what it's there for, DUMIR. This also means:

Stop trying to multi task.

Your working memory decision maker likes to do things sequentially, one after the other. You may be able to quickly zoom from one thing to another, but chances are you'll burn out quicker than if you paid close attention to one thing, see it through, and then begin the next. Charlie Gilkey actually talked about some of that in a recent tele-class he gave with Pam Slim. Those two are quite awesome resources for creative entrepreneurs, but you probably knew that. Anyway, they were also debunking the multi-tasking myth by saying you may be doing two things at the same time, like listening to an audio-book while exercising, but only because you're not using the same type of psychological energy. Better to find out what your natural preferred rhythm is, and scheduling tasks accordingly. You feel inspired in the morning, go write in the morning. If you don't, don't force yourself, do it in the afternoon.

The last thing you want to know about your prefrontal cortex, or working memory, is that it's fussy. In fact, Tony called it "Goldilocks," which I thought was hilarious. Everything has to be just so, serial/sequential, and if it doesn't get the information or work orders the way it likes them, it'll go on strike and stop working. Anything that's too complicated, your brain will resist and say "nah, not gonna do it." This is when your eyes glaze over and you stop focusing your attention.

Summing up and circling back to the title of this post, then, don't make your prefrontal cortex work unless it's for the functions it's meant to perform. In other words, as you're trying to prepare for a meeting and run into a colleague in the hallway who asks you to send him some documents, don't try to remember that. Ask him or her to send you a reminder email. And the A+ coaching question Tony gave us in the room: If you truly respected your attention as a limited resource, what might you do differently?

Post your comments below!

Til next week, have a good one.

All information in this post, unless otherwise noted, is based on the presentation given to the ICF NT Chapter by Tony Pottle.

Image by Fredrik Rubensson, flickr, Creative Commons License