Subroutines for the brain

Image courtesy of MARIA KALOUDI


To do all that it needs to do of a day, the brain sucks more than its fair share of the glucose, or energy, that you have. It’s always working but, as with any bodily system, there are, sadly, limits.

Put another way, the fewer resources it has, the more poorly it performs.

A key question for us all therefore, is this:  how can we maximize what we’re able to do within the limits we have?

Maximizing what your brain can do

Ok. Think about it like this. Imagine a pail of sugar cubes.

This quantity of sugar cubes must get you through the mental tasks you have for a day. A couple of times during the day you’ll add a few more (lunch, for example) but, otherwise, this is it. Use it wisely, they run out.

Some tasks take more sugar than others, and even just keeping the brain ticking over requires at least a minimum. Wherever we can, then, we need to be thinking about the most efficient way of using the resources we have.

We’ve already talked about this a little and how we need to schedule what we do to

  1. take advantage of strong and weak performance times and,
  2. work around greedy or not so greedy mental tasks.

Here’s another part to add.

Automate what can be automated

As a rule, the brain likes to do things efficiently, and it will find expedient ways of doing things. As we do something more and more, the brain gets better and better at it. No surprise.

What’s important for us here is this: The more automated you can make something, the fewer sugar cubes you take from your pail.

If you want to skip the biological bit, hop the next paragraph. If you don’t, enjoy.

Basically, what happens is that instead of effortful thought which requires frontal lobe input at a cortical level, automated tasks can be performed at a subcortical level. This leaves the frontal cortex free for other, complex, un-automated tasks.

Tasks that are familiar require less energy. In short, teach your brain to run subroutines. These are familiar routines that brain is used to that don’t take away from the other tasks you have to do.

If you were programming, you might think of it as a macro, or a formula in a spreadsheet. Either way, it means you don’t have to fulfil each step, just run the subroutine.

So here’s the take home bit

Again, automate what can be automated

  • practice simple tasks so that they require fewer mental resources. Keep standard letter formats or email responses that can be inputted “without thought”
  • Develop common and familiar procedures for work flows
  • Develop conventions that others know and use too, as this will make it easier for you
  • find things in your day that can be easily automated such as chores and regular tasks
  • if you’re at home, develop a good structure for daily tasks so that one thing flows optimally to the next
  • if you’re at school, rehearse basic facts to embed them so that new information can be more easily assimilated

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat


What have you seen?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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