It’s only easy if 1-2-3

by Mechaferret on January 18th, 2010

I recently finished the book How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, which was recommended to me by my good friend DC of Sentient Meat (he is also a primary inspiration for this blog). It’s an excellent book that covers many interesting topics in the neurobiology of decision-making and it’s definitely worth reading. One of the studies, however, suggested a little more than that… it actually suggested a strategy for effective high-level planning. The strategy itself is not new, but after I realized how the neurobiology supports it, it became much more compelling.

The study in question was fairly simple: people were asked to memorize either a 2-digit number or a 7-digit number, and then walked down a hall to another room where their memory of the number would be tested. On the walk, they passed a refreshment table that offered either fruit salad or chocolate cake. The point of the test was to see how the complexity of the memorization task would affect the subjects’ willpower (the proxy for which was whether they chose the healthy fruit salad snack or the unhealthy chocolate cake). 59% of the 7-digit subjects chose the cake, as opposed to only 37% of the 2-digit subjects. Having to memorize 7 digits as opposed to 2 significantly diminished one’s willpower/ability to resist self-indulgent choices.

The theory behind the experiment is that the frontal cortex is responsible for both memorization and willpower, and the frontal cortex has a very limited capacity (other studies have shown it to be 7±2 on average). So if all of your frontal cortex capacity is being used up holding memorized digits, there is little left over to resist the temptation of chocolate cake. So far, so interesting.

However, the obvious application to this study, to me at least, is to strategies for getting things done. Accomplishing hard, complex, energy-intensive tasks, such as delivering a software product, studying for finals, or starting a company requires a lot of willpower: you have to do a lot of things, all of which require energy and many of which aren’t fun, in a  timely manner, even when you’re discouraged because something didn’t work out, even when you just want to hang out with friends, surf the web, or go to sleep. Accomplishing these tasks also requires knowing what subtasks you are working on: you have to have a list of high-priority tasks that you keep in your mind at all times. Thus these tasks require both willpower and memorization.

If your list of high-priority tasks contains 7 or more tasks, then you’ve used up all of your frontal cortex capacity on the list and have none left over for the willpower you will need to execute the list. In fact, since you’re going to need a lot of willpower, it’s probably better to allocate at least 50% of your cortex capacity for that. You can’t allocate all of it because you do need to keep focused on some high-priority items at all time. Focusing on just one is risky, as you may get stuck on it for a while and if you can’t immediately switch to another one, you’ll be less efficient. Each additional item you can add to your priority list decreases the risk of getting stuck: you want to have your list be as long as possible while still leaving space for willpower.

Given all this, the optimal strategy is clear: have a high-priority list of size 3. That’s the maximum size that will still leave at least 50% of the average frontal cortex capacity available for willpower.

So, if you’re trying to do something hard and complex, something that has many moving parts and requires lots of willpower, you should make a list of your top three tasks, focus on those, and save the rest of your cortex to provide the willpower. If you have fewer than 3 items you run a higher risk of getting stuck; if you have more, you are likely to run out of willpower before you get any of them done. You need a “must-do” list so that you get things done, but a list of 7 “must-do” things is just too hard for your brain to handle. A list of three, however, leaves you plenty of brainspace for willpower, and makes it (almost) easy.

1 Comment
  1. Interesting observation.

    Along these lines, I also find that if I am working on a complex task and holding too many To-Do items in my head, I am also more cranky and anxious. I don’t know if this is merely because I’m operating slightly beyond comfort zone (or drinking too much tea).

    It feels… (going out on a speculative limb here) It feels like my attention is occupied with my external tasks, so less attention is available for self-regulation.

    On the flip side of exhausting executive function… In a terrific NYC acting class with William Esper, he taught that the easiest way to free the impulse within a beginning actor is first to make him or her focus completely on another difficult task (like fixing a disassembled clock). By distracting the executive function completely, the impulsive side is all that’s left to react. Instead of “pretending” to react to the scene (under direction from the executive function–which audiences see as fake), the actor’s reaction is organic, emotional. This brings what artists call “life” to the scene.

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