Are your reserves of cognitive resources running low?

Are your reserves of cognitive resources running low?

Do you ever feel that you’re so under pressure that your self-control seems to be non-existent?  For instance, you’ve had a really challenging day and skipped lunch and now you just can’t resist that huge juicy burger and fries at the drive through on your way home?  Even though this morning you promised yourself that from now on you’d stick to a healthy diet.

Or perhaps you’ve have an important deadline looming and your boss just gave you another ‘urgent’ task and your nearest co-worker keeps wanting to chat. You eventually lash out at them in irritation and they retreat in a whirl of hurt feelings. Now you know you’ll have to waste even more time apologizing and restoring peace. This little episode has totally sucked the wind out of your sails as you struggle to refocus on meeting that deadline.

“Stress,” you think.  “That’s what’s getting to me!”

At a recent web developer conference, Kathy Sierra, author of “Badass – Making Users Awesome” explained the underlying, scientifically proven reasons for our behaviors and habits, as well as how to dramatically improve our efficiency.

According to Sierra, research shows that our cognitive resources are limited.  Everything we ‘spend’ our attention on depletes our short term finite supply of ability, specifically decision making ability.

When we waste our energy and attention on things that are not key priorities we not only waste time, but also make it much more difficult to achieve our goals.  We also place ourselves in a position where we are liable to make very bad decisions.


Sierra cites some specific experiments conducted that demonstrated this quite clearly.  One of these experiments involved two groups of people given the same task with some slight adjustments.

The one group was given two digits to remember. The other was given five.  Once each group memorized their digits, they were asked to choose a snack, either fruit or cake.  Those who had only two digits to remember were more likely to choose fruit. The other group were 50% more likely to choose cake.  The experiment demonstrated that even a small increase in the demand on our cognitive resources would affect our decision making. In this case by draining energy away that would otherwise be used for will power.  Will power and cognitive processing both draw from the same resource reserve.

cognitive resources

In another experiment, two groups of dogs were tested.  One group was made to sit for a few minutes before being allowed to play with a puzzle containing a treat.  The other group simply stayed in a crate and were then given the puzzle.  The first group gave up trying to extract the treat in less than a minute.  The second group continued playing with the puzzle for more than 2 minutes.  The only difference was that the first group was required to exercise self control prior to being given the puzzle.

Whether it’s an actual task or just exercising self-control, both activities use the same resources. Whether we are spending time looking for something in a cluttered office, or we are strategizing an important product development, both activities draw from the same reservoir of resources, but with a great difference in the quality of activity and the desired results.

Sierra says that our productivity and skill level is affected in exactly the same way.  Our efficiency and productivity is determined by how efficiently we use our limited cognitive resources.  The more skilled we are at a task, the more we perform on ‘auto pilot’ and the less of those precious cognitive resources we use.

While this seems quite obvious, not many of us actually examine our daily work to analyze our cognitive resource allocation.  This is why when someone is very good at something, they may have trouble explaining their exact process to someone else.  They are operating on ‘auto pilot’.

Sierra suggests that If we want to become better and more efficient at what we do, we need to be exposed over a short period of time to a high volume of high quality examples of the task being performed.

She explains that research shows that the human brain is exceptionally good at pattern recognition. When we develop pattern recognition in a specific area then we become efficient and skilled in that area.

Task performance goes through three specific stages:
1. Can’t do, but need to learn to do
2. Can do but requires effort
3. Mastered: can be done ‘automatically’ and reliably

The first stage is where the task takes much longer to do than is efficient and drains our cognitive resources significantly.  The second stage is a little more efficient, but still drains our cognitive resources more than it should.  The third stage is the most efficient and drains the least amount of cognitive resources.

The objective is to move all the processes from the first and second stage into the third.  In her video, she relates this to coding and the vast quantity of information and learning contained in the coding knowledge base. However, her insights and suggestions can be easily be applied to any kind of task in any discipline.
cognitive resources

Rather than trying to learn how to do the entire task well all at once, she suggests breaking the task into mini tasks and focusing on learning how to perform each mini task better and more efficiently.  Trying to learn to do the entire task well takes too long and ends up defeating the object.

Breaking a task into mini tasks allows far quicker progress. Each mini task will quickly move from the first and second stage through to the third.

How do you know if you should learn a process in stages?

The litmus test to decide whether a process is too big (difficult) to be learned quickly is this:

A skill should be able to be taken from stage one (Can’t do) to stage three (Mastered) within a maximum of 3 sessions of 45 – 90 minutes each.  If you haven’t mastered it by then, it should be broken into mini tasks, each of which should pass this test.  That way, even though you may not have the entire skill mastered, you will reach mastery of it far more quickly than if you wasted time and energy trying to master it all at once. You will also be spending much less time on completing the task because you’ve made parts of it more efficient.

In other words, it’s eating the proverbial elephant one bite at a time.

People with highly honed skills often do this unconsciously. Through intense exposure to high quality examples, they learn to automatically recognize and duplicate patterns.

Sierra warns that you have to be careful when you are working on developing a skill to study a high volume of high quality examples in a short period of time.  If your examples are low quality, you’ll create high efficiency in producing low quality results.  Practice, she points out, does not make perfect, it makes permanent. You want to practice high quality processes not low quality processes. She says it’s crucial to reduce time spent practicing being mediocre,  “A half skill is better than a half assed skill.”

Successful people, she says, are always evaluating both quality and relevance of their stage three skills. They do so to determine if they can improve, or eliminate obsolete processes. Doing this ensures that you are always leading in your industry.