Finite Daily Brainpower

When we realize that we have a finite daily amount of brainpower to expend on the things we care about, when we truly realize that, it’s life-changing.

I think about the first time I tried to learn Latin. I figured I would just sit down and start memorizing. I was very motivated, I thought, and would do however much it took. And then I would know Latin! How impressive would it be if I could make great strides in the language, over the course of only a few weeks? Someday they’ll make a biographical movie of my life and they’ll play something like the Rocky theme song at this part of the story!

After an hour and a half of brutally hard work that day, during which I learned very little, I gave up for the day, and the next day couldn’t bring myself to repeat the experience. A week later I got up the courage to try the same thing again, with the same results. Before long, I wasn’t even trying to fool myself into thinking that I was still attempting it.

That’s how college classes tend to go as well, at least for the majority of us. We start out with good intentions, doing all the assigned readings, the little assignments, and thinking ahead about some of the bigger projects. And then all of a sudden, a big assignment is due. It snuck up. We exhaust ourselves over a couple days getting it done, and we’ve fallen behind on the other, smaller daily tasks. And we don’t have the energy to get caught up on them right away, and soon enough we notice that nothing bad really seems to have happened since we stopped doing the regular readings. After that, we’re leapfrogging from big assignment to big assignment, long stretches of laziness punctuated by frantic bursts of intellectual effort.

That’s exactly the wrong way to learn. Whether we’re attempting that path because we’re inspired (as I was with Latin) or because we feel trapped into it (college classes), the whole approach undermines the long-term and masterful study of a subject.

The problem is just that we only have so much brainpower in a day, especially for a single task. Introducing some variety can help extend our daily limitations somewhat, but even then there’s only so much our brains can do in a day.

Pushing behind that daily limit, even only a small number of times, sets us into a counterproductive headspace. It makes us stressed, reluctant, resistant, tired, frustrated, distractible, lazy.

The smart way to learn, then, is to make a habit of doing a small amount every day. Never exceed that finite capacity.

Spend five, ten, fifteen minutes on a project, every single day. It will never feel burdensome or stressful, and progress will happen with surprising speed. Maybe learning a new skill will take a year or two at that rate, which might sound slow, but just think how much progress will be made over the course of a decade. Certainly I would know a lot more about Latin now if that’s how I had started out ten years ago.

So the next time you’re feeling inspired to learn something new, don’t be persuaded that motivation or willpower can overpower the brain’s natural limitations. That’s the way of folly. Instead, channel that inspiration into forming a new, small, repetitive habit.

The results might be astonishing.

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