Building the Cognitive Budget for Your Most Effective Mind

We can achieve the rewards of reflection and avoid the pitfalls of rumination by having a plan to direct our energy.

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The neuroscience is clear: Our brains are capable of processing only a fraction of the information available to them, and we have a fixed amount of mental energy at our disposal, regardless of how much we want or need in any given moment. Consequently, our brains use as little mental energy as possible whenever possible. It isn’t laziness — it’s fuel efficiency.

The bottom line is that there is a limit to how much thinking we can do and how much energy is available to us on any given day, so it’s essential that we spend our precious mental energy deliberately and thoughtfully. We can’t afford to waste it on things that serve to distract and deplete us in harmful ways.

So, what’s a good approach to avoid wasting our finite energy on that which doesn’t serve us? A budget, of course, to forecast resources, estimate need, and create a plan for future decision-making. But for our minds? A “cognitive budget” is hardly a natural pairing of concepts. Our days are unpredictable, and our brains don’t work like spreadsheets, so a cognitive budget will necessarily be sloppy. But creating one, and revisiting it often, allows us to enact proactive and reactive strategies that leave us happier with more effective minds.

Unconscious and Conscious Thinking

Our unconscious minds play a much larger role in our lives than many of us realize, including helping to protect us emotionally and functionally from the challenges of everyday life — from debilitatingly painful feelings to massive information overload. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist and behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman describes two types of thinking that provide a conceptual understanding of unconscious behavior. System 1 thinking is easy, fast, intuitive, and emotional. System 2 thinking is hard, slow, intentional, and logical. Compare the act of driving home from work (System 1) with driving somewhere you’ve never been before without using a GPS (System 2). One takes a lot more work than the other.

We have only so much System 2 thinking available over the course of the day, so we naturally spend as much time in System 1 thinking as possible. (Many studies indicate that 90% to 95% of our decisions are made unconsciously.)

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Comment (1)
Claudette Hayle
Excellent Article with immediate actionable advice which I plan to benefit from and share with my students an dcolleagues.