Have you ever wondered why some things you can do on "auto-pilot" or without thinking, while other tasks are mentally draining?
Your thoughtful tasks are using your working memory (prefrontal context). Meanwhile, your repetitive, familiar and routine activities are using your basal ganglia, which doesn’t require conscious thought.
Working Memory vs. Routine Activity
David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz summarize the prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia in their article, "The Neuroscience of Leadership", in "strategy+business" magazine:
- Working Memory (Prefrontal Cortex) – Your prefrontal cortex is your working memory. It’s your brain’s "holding area," where perceptions and ideas can first be compared to other information. It fatigues easily and can hold only a limited around of information "on line" at any one time. It promotes and supports your higher intellectual functions. It’s particularly well developed in humans and doesn’t exist below the higher primates.
- Routine Activity (Basal Ganglia) – Your basal ganglia is involved by routine, familiar activity. It functions exceedingly well without conscious thought in any routine activity. Any activity conducted repetitively (to the point of a habit) will tend to get pushed down into the basal ganglia. This frees up the processing resources of your prefrontal cortex.
Example of Automatic Memory
You can relate to this using driving a car as an example. When you first learn to drive a stick shift, it’s a lot of thinking and processing. You’re using a lot of your working memory (prefrontal cortex.) Once you get enough practice, it becomes a habit and you no longer have to think about your driving. At that point, you’ve baked the routines into your basal ganglia.
How To Use This
You can apply this in a few ways:
- Chunk up things you learn. When you’re learning something new, chunk it up so your working memory can handle it.
- Create checklists. Second, when you are getting overloaded, consider creating a checklist so you can "dump" your working memory.
- Know what to expect. When you are learning a new task and it feels awkward, rather than get frustrated, remind yourself that you’re dealing with prefrontal cortex and you haven’t move it to your basal ganglia yet.
- Make it a routine. When you practice something enough, eventually you don’t have to think about the basics. The basics are automatic. You can then move your thinking up the stack and focus on higher level things.
- Take more breaks. When you’re mentally drained, give your prefrontal cortex a break. Do something mindless for a while, or get out of your head and into your body. In my experience, a pattern of 20 minutes deep thinking with a 5 minute break, or 40 minutes with a ten minute break has worked well. You need to test and find your own patterns. The key is to recognize when you’re getting diminishing returns from your sustained thinking and know when to take your own breaks.