Only You Can Prevent Brain Abuse

Our brains are good at many things, and not so good at others. When you give your brain a task it's not great at (half-made decisions, mundane thoughts, trivial reminders), that's brain abuse. We all do it, and we can all stop it. Here's how.

I think you would be hard pressed to find someone who would argue that their brain was unimportant (and if they did, you would wonder how well it was functioning anyway). Yet on our travels we find that many people misuse their brains. They expect it to perform well in areas where science and experience tell us it just doesn't cut the mustard. And that means they don't exploit its full potential.

We've learned enough about the brain in the last 60 or so years to know that it is powerful and dependable at some things, and limited and unreliable when it comes to others. Thinking creatively, drawing connections, brainstorming, focused thinking — all great uses for our grey matter. But counting on it to remind me of the fact that I need to buy olive oil? Allowing it to have the thought over and over "I need to email the proposal to the client"? Only half-deciding what to do with several (hundred?) emails and leaving them in the inbox to fester?

That's brain abuse. Of course if you're guilty of it, you are also the only one who can put an end to it. A first step would be to consider a spotter's guide to the forms the abuse might take:

Re-thinking things

If your brain space is precious, why would you allow it to have a mundane thought more than once? The only thoughts you should have multiple times are thoughts you enjoy. Anything else should be dispatched to some place in your organisational system where you'll be reminded when you can do something about it.

Leaving thinking half-finished

This is a close cousin of re-thinking. If you have an email inbox that's chock-a-block, I'm imagining there will be more than a few emails in there that you have opened, gotten a sense of, closed, possibly marked unread (the digital ritual that indicates "I'll think about that some more later"), and then left so you could move on to other things. And you might have repeated this several times for the same email. That's not only brain abuse, it's inefficient. Better to finish the thinking: what's the outcome that you want to or need to create that relates to this email? In other words, when will it be done and off your mind? And what is the very next visible action that you will take to move it forward?

Trying to fill your brain beyond capacity

Ever since George Miller's research at Princeton in the 1950's, we've know that our short-term memory is limited. There is only so much that we can keep in there — Miller reckoned about seven items — before things are either lost, or fall into long-term memory. And the problem with long-term memory is that you can't be sure when things will re-emerge from it, like a huge field of jack-in-the-boxes popping up without much rhyme or reason.

You'd think that, knowing that our memory is so severely limited, we would deduce that there is no way it's going to cope with tracking all of the dozens of moving parts in our lives. But we see most people soldier on, heads full of details they're hoping desperately to remember, but often generating failure, internal stress and distraction instead. Better to make it a habit to empty your head at any opportunity. Employ "distributed cognition". In plain English, write things down, or send yourself an email, or voice mail, or whatever it takes to free up that precious mental space.

Counting on your brain to remind you when you want to be reminded

My wife is fuelled by Earl Grey tea. Her day starts with that first cuppa, and if it's not available, it doesn't start well. When we go on holiday, it's a very good idea to make sure we have some with us, as most places overseas won't have it on the breakfast menu. Do I count on my brain to remember that I need to pack the tea bags? I value holiday tranquillity too much. Earl Grey appears (in bold letters) on my packing list.

Identify your brain's strengths and weaknesses, and stop giving it things to do that it doesn't do very well. Remember, only you can prevent brain abuse.

Only You Can Prevent Brain Abuse [Next Action Associates]

Todd Brown is the cofounder of Next Action Associates.


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