Use Biochemistry to Increase Your Personal Productivity
According to the neuroenergetic theory of attention, your ability to focus is limited by your neurons’ access to energy. After about 12 seconds of effort, your neurons run out of gas and you are left with a wandering mind.
Now you have a sciencey explanation for all those unscheduled mental walkabouts that take place when you really should be working. This sciencey explanation can also be used to develop strategies to maximize your ability to focus.
Paying attention takes energy
Here is simplified version of how your brain is powered. Your neurons’ preferred super-premium fuel is lactate. When your neurons run out of lactate they turn to the glial cells for a refueling. Glial cells, more specifically astrocytes, are your neuron’s gas stations. Like a gas station, their job is to store and release energy to your neurons when your neurons get tired.
Unfortunately, your glial cells only have a limited amount of lactate. Think 1979 fuel crisis gas stations.
Luckily your neurons are like a hybrid car. When your hybrid car runs low on electricity, it switches to good old fossil fuel. Your neuron’s backup energy source is good old glycogen.
I assume that you’ve probably long forgotten reading that chapter on glycogen from high school biology so let me refresh your memory. Glycogen is your body’s primary energy reserve. When your muscles or nerves call for more energy, glycogen can easily be converted into glucose (sugar) on a moment’s notice.
When your glial cell gas stations run out of lactate, they fuel up your neurons with the glycogen that they’ve stockpiled the night before. Your brain’s neurons are the Humvees of your body’s glycogen burners and will burn through 25% of all your glycogen. This is pretty amazing when you consider that your brain only makes up about 2% of your body’s total weight.
Now we are getting to the weak link in the neuron fueling process. Glial cells only have enough lactate and glycogen stocks to keep your neurons powered for a limited period of time. According to “Absent without leave; a neuroenergetic theory of mind wandering,”
“functional units in the brain will deplete energetic resources in their neurons over the course of a dozen seconds, and will draw down resources from the astrocytes over the course of dozens of minutes.”
“Dozens of minutes”? Yikes. That is not much time to get my intellectually challenging tasks done today.
When your stores of glycogen are tapped out, you have a problem. Without glycogen power, your neurons can’t do their jobs which is to release glutamate (aka “monosodium glutamate,” or MSG… yes it is the same MSG used in Chinese food). Glutamate is a critical neurotransmitter. If your neurons don’t have the right amount of glutamate, in the right concentration, in the right place, your neurons will be unable to process data by sending messages. In other words, your circuits will be down.
No glycogen means no glutamate. No glutamate means that the neurons we are using to focus on a project can no longer compete with all the other neurons in our brain that are calling for attention. The end result is neuron fatigue. Your mind is now officially wandering and you are probably already distracted.
Biochemistry powered productivity.
Now that you have a solid model for how neurons’ access to energy affects your ability to focus, how can you use this knowledge to improve your own personal productivity?
1. Tightly manage your neuro-energy.
Attention and focus are limited resources. Therefore you need to be a good manager of when and how you spend your neuro-energy. Most of these strategies have already been discussed in current productivity-porn but now we have science backing them.
- Simplify your life by reducing the frequent decisions you make every day by structuring your life around a relatively ridged regular schedule. You can greatly reduce or eliminate most daily decisions by having a set plan for each day/week and only adjust your plan when need be. Don’t waste energy selecting outfits, deciding what to eat, when you are going to go to work, etc.I would even extend this strategy to the standardizing of your grocery shopping. Shopping for anything can be a huge drain on your neuro-energy so be cognizant of when you shop in relation to other intellectual tasks you may have over the course of a day.
- Make important decisions in the morning when your brain’s power reserves are at their highest. Go ahead an put off unimportant decisions for later in the day.
- Embrace quick decisions and avoid analysis paralyses at all costs. Unless you have a “jump off the cliff” decisions (one that you can’t change later) make your decisions fast and get comfortable knowing that you are going to have to live with a little regret.
- Don’t make decisions if you don’t have to. Keep a list of decisions you are not going to make and you can always return to them later.
2. Get your 8… no wait, I mean 7 hours of sleep EVERY NIGHT!
This is yet another reason why your body needs its sleep. Your glial cells require slow-wave sleep to replenish their supplies of glycogen. No sleep, no glycogen. No glycogen, no focus or concentration.
3. Exercise builds brain power.
Regular “exhaustive exercise” has been found to substantially increase glycogen storage capacity in lab animals by 29% to 63%. That is huge. The ancient Greeks had it right, strong mind / strong body. If you want to read more about the mind/body connection, The Hour Between Dog & Wolf is a great book with lots of compelling research on the topic.