Jan Hills writes on neuroscience and how it can improve personal performance, team performance, organisational outcomes and leadership behaviour. She has had a varied career in HR, including over 10 years as a consultant and coach. Jan now runs Head Heart + Brain, a consultancy dedicated to brain-savvy HR and to improving all aspects of the organisation through the findings of neuroscience.

One of the things people often find hard to accept about the brain is its limit in capacity.

The brain you work with has limited capacity and these limits can make your work more difficult and you less productive. By understanding some of the limits you can better organise yourself to use your brain in a savvy way, one that works with it capabilities not against them.

You can think of the brain’s prefrontal cortex as the executive brain; this is the area primarily engaged in analysis, planning, goal attainment and aspects of decision-making.

It’s the newest area of the brain and the most energy hungry. Its capacity is limited and it’s these limits that we tend to fail to take into account. One analogy which can be useful is to think of the PFC as the credit in your bank account: as you use the brain this area gets depleted and if you are not careful after a morning of planning, creative tasks and emails you can have spent all the credit in the account.

The brain seems to process information and ideas in a serial manner; one after another. When you procrastinate on a decision or ruminate over a piece of information you can create a bottleneck. Something that is unresolved, which you keep coming back too or which interrupts your thinking and decision-making on a new matter.

One of the things people often find hard to accept about the brain is its limit in capacity.

These half thought through issues and half reviewed information eat up more brain resources as you swing backwards and forwards, go off at tangents and then need to return to the ideas stuck in the decision path. Almost like a conveyer belt. When one idea gets stuck it impacts the whole production line.

This bottleneck eats up resources, creating issues with attention and retention of information. You may also need to re-process information because you have not done it efficiently the first time or you have forgotten what you decided.

What can you do about this?

The short answer is to resolve information or decisions as they arise. But this is not always practical and when information is complex or very conceptual it may not be possible without taking intermediate steps. Some rules of thumb are:

  1. Simplify information, particularly conceptual information into simple points which are easier to retain and quick to understand. This is why initials like PFC can be very helpful once you have internalised the bigger concept of the prefrontal cortex. So if you need to understand and keep recalling complex concepts embed aspects into your long-term memory where they can be accessed without reference to the higher brain resources.
  2. Break down complex ideas into smaller chunks. The brain seems to do this automatically so you can take advantage of this by chunking information for easier storage and retrieval. The small chunks should be easy to understand and remember. This also makes them easier to communicate to others and to relate to additional new information. This is why tools like mind-maps and bullet points on cards work for remembering a presentation, for example. These techniques mean you are not having to hold everything in your memory you can trigger the long-term memory with the picture or bullet point. In a similar way relate something new to an idea which is familiar, like an analogy. For example the one used above about the brain’s capacity being like an account using up credit.
  3. Finally prioritise what you need to do now and what can be left to later. To do lists help with this they get things out of your PFC and save you trying to hold ideas in short-term memory. Getting them on to paper or your device means you can revisit them when you are ready.

So the old saying, deal with something once to be productive and efficient, is true. It always surprises me how old wisdom understood the brain in ways we sometimes seem to have forgotten.