Guest Post - The Limitations of Your Brain

 

I have been a long time fan of Ari and listener of his podcast. He has greatly helped optimize several aspects of my life, plus automating/outsourcing dozens of them. Without us ever speaking to each other. That seems pretty effective!  

I have felt the benefits of a productivity system like Less Doing on myself, and experienced how it can be a tremendous relief of stress, when you get to take responsibility off your plate, and let computers or other people take care of it instead.  

Most times, it is not even about being lazy or getting off from doing something hard (although it can be). It’s more about getting just one more thing out of your head by automating it, so you don’t ever have to think about it or remember it again. This freezes up mental space to do something great instead of routine based trivial stuff.  

There is always a limit to how much you can do, how much time you have, how much you can remember and how many projects you can focus on at the same time.

I therefore thought, it would be relevant for Less Doing fans, to understand a few of the scientific explanations for, why you cannot expect yourself to do or remember everything, and thereby, why automating and outsourcing is essential to a productive lifestyle.  

Let’s jump right in, and shortly talk about four scientific concepts, that describes the limitations of your human brain.  

The magical number 7 (plus minus two)

Is actually the name of one of the most cited studies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magical_Number_Seven,_Plus_or_Minus_Two) in psychology literature. It was conducted by George A. Miller of Princeton University and published in 1956.

It basically proved, most normal people (no rain men included) can hold about 7 different pieces of information in their short term memory. This is also commonly referred to as Miller’s law.

A way this was tested, was to ask test subjects to remember a sequence of digits, and then have them repeat them back in reverse.

Since most people only can contain about 7 pieces of information in their head, the same is probably true for you.

This is why it makes so much sense, to defer tasks for later with a service like followup.cc, as it can be a huge trigger of stress, to hold a whole to do list/schedule and everything else in your short term memory – all the time.  

Dunbar’s number

The Dunbar’s number (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar's_number) is an approximation of how many meaningful relationships to others, we human beings can have. It was proposed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar in 1992, who showed with his research, that our brains are not geared to have more than 150 strong connections to other people.

This is believed to be an evolutionary trait, as the tribes of our ancestral forefathers probably never exceeded an amount of 150 members. Bigger populations first came with cities later in history.

This concept speaks to the fact, that you might want to automate some of the maintenance of the relationships you have to your network or customers.

Ways to do this, could be with a good CRM system, an automated happy-birthday message or maybe a thank-you card to all guests that has been on your podcast.  

Your brain’s capacity in gigabytes

What if your brain was a computer? How many gigabytes of storage space would it have, if you converted all the information you are able to remember?

Well, several neuroscientists have estimated this number to be around 100 terabytes (http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/explainer/2012/04/north_korea_s_2_mb_of_knowledge_taunt_how_many_megabytes_does_the_human_brain_hold_.html). This is based on the assumption, that the about 100 billion neurons your brain has, is able to make 1000 connections or synapses each, which gives you 100 trillion data points, that some believe, can be translated into 100 terabytes of data.

This is a fun proposition to think about, even though the calculations behind it has been heavily disputed by other scientist.

But the fact still remains the same – there’s an upper limit to how much information, you can store in your head long term, and that’s why you want to take advantage of a concept such as “The External Brain”, so you don’t need to accept, that most of what you learn will be forgotten again.

By funneling as much information as possible into for example Evernote or by archiving everything in Gmail, instead of deleting it, you will at any point be able to, search your way back to articles and materials you have read or used even years ago.  

Multitasking is not possible (or at least effective)

The last point I want to make, is one that you’ve probably also heard Ari talk about several times, and that is how you just shouldn’t try to do multitasking. Ever.

Several studies (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-11035055) has shown, how you are significantly less effective when you do so, because it takes time for your brain to adapt to the new task, every time you switch. In one of the studies I’ve linked to, was it furthermore discovered, that people who multitasks are more susceptible to being distracted by irrelevant information.

You cannot do several things at a time, but you can get several things done at a time, if you accept the help from computers and other people, like virtual assistants.

I think the overarching lesson to be learned here, is nicely explained by Peter Thiel (one of the original founders of Paypal) in his new book Zero to One.

He says, we shouldn’t ever try to compete with machines, or ever think they are going to replace us completely.

We should just realize, there are things that they do better than us, and there are certainly things, we will always do better than them. A synergistic effect is the ideal.

Only a human can write a creative and inspiring blog post. Only a machine can remember to share the post on all of the writers social network accounts, instantly, every time.

So use optimization, automation and outsourcing to your advantage, and start focusing on, what only humans does best.

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This article was written by Max Micheelsen, a Human Performance coach and blogger based in Copenhagen Denmark.

Be sure to check him out at his own blog maxmicheelsen.com