Dan Beverly

Your Amazing Brain

Your brain is amazing. Currently light years ahead of anything that man has so far created, it is the ultimate supercomputer, working relentlessly, non-stop 24-7, continuously reshaping to adapt our skills, abilities and behaviours to suit an infinite variety of real and imagined, imminent and far-distant challenges.

But here’s the thing: to access the phenomenal resources of the unconscious brain, we use the prefrontal cortex (PFC): the orchestrator of our attention and focus. And this region of the brain, sometimes referred to as our working memory, has its limitations.

So, what are those limitations? And what can we do in our day-to-day to overcome them, to maximise our cognitive resources and improve our performance at work?

PFC Limitation #1: Energy Intensive

The PFC is extremely energy intensive. Every conscious thought and all our new thinking requires effort that continually drains our limited resources: to the tune of about 20% of the body’s total resources.

Conscious thinking is so expensive, in fact, that our brains actively avoid new thinking much of the time. Try it now. Ask and answer these simple mental maths questions: 1+1=? Easy, right? No prefrontal cortex there. 2+2=? 10+10=? 157+75=? Actually do these sums and you’ll notice yourself take a mental step-back on that last question. That’s the body reacting with a minor threat response in an attempt to conserve resources.

So what can be done to work within this limitation and keep new thinking alive?

  1. Feed your brain. Give your brain what it needs to operate. Water, food, sleep, downtime. You can also feed your brain with activities that help refresh working memory: connecting with other people; being spontaneous and creative; exercising and playing sport. All these help re-energise the brain.
  2. Know your flow time. Are you a morning person or a night owl? When are you in the zone and fully switched-on? Know this and you can start to shape your day to play to your in-flow times – and not just leave it to autopilot.
  3. Prioritise prioritisation. The most expensive type of thinking is prioritisation – so let’s do that first, before our day takes hold. Prioritisation also gives us opportunity to plan a brain-friendly day, with other expensive high-level thinking tasks (creating, visualising, deciding, comparing, understanding, memorising, recalling, etc.) scheduled for when we’re at our best – and not automatically neglected behind low-level tasks like email.

PFC Limitation #2: Limited Capacity

Compared to our unconscious brain, the PFC is extremely small. (If the PFC were a cubic foot in size, our unconscious brain would be the size of the Milky Way.) And at any given time, the PFC can only hold about 4 chunks of information – and that’s if we know those things well.

With such a small capacity, it’s really important we use our PFC wisely and guide our attention accordingly.

  1. Write things down. Whatever note-taking system you have, use it as much as possible: it’s your second brain! Noting thoughts, ideas, actions, reminders and everything else essentially frees-up your PFC for other thinking. Invest in your system, making it as efficient and fool proof as possible – and then use it.
  2. Chunk information. “Chunking” is about grouping information (and sub-levels of information) so more complex ideas or patterns can be represented in working memory as simpler units. Try this experiment: memorise the sequence 1387465982 as a series of 10 x single digits. Now memorise the sequence 2891637405 as a series of 5 x 2-digits; or as a series of 4-digits, 3-digits and 3-digits. Did you get quicker and more accurate at memorising?
  3. Get visual. The PFC is a visual processor: picturing something is relatively less effort. If you’re working-up plans for the future or tackling new concepts, using visuals and diagrams taps into a larger region of the brain and minimises the work of the PFC.

PFC Limitation #3: Serial Processor

Working memory can only do one thing at a time. And whilst the PFC can hold a few chunks of different information at once, it cannot then perform more than one conscious process at a time without significantly impacting performance.

We can, of course, do more than one thing at once: like walk to work whilst having a conversation on the phone. But there, we’re using the embedded routines and hardwiring of our unconscious brain. For conscious “thinking”, we need to get focused.

  1. Avoid multitasking on important tasks. Be aware that the task you are about to undertake is important – and so give it your full attention. Make a conscious decision to park other activities. Make this your sole focus.
  2. Avoid incomplete intentions. A task left unfinished or a goal left unattained can be a major source of internal distraction: essentially, an unfinished connection. Complete what you set out to do. And where that’s not possible, take activities to a logical breakpoint which allows you to complete temporary connections and gain (mental) closure.
  3. Empty your recurring-thought queue. Much of our thinking is spent on recurring thoughts that we continually revisit because they are caught in the queue behind some other decision. To address this resource-waster, spot the recurring thinking – and then look for the decision higher-up and turn your focus to that.

PFC Limitation #4: Extremely Fussy

The PFC has been called the Goldilocks of the brain: needing just the right neurochemistry to operate at its best. Getting the neurochemical balance wrong can lead to fatigue and boredom at one end of the scale; and to stress and overwhelm at the other.

How do we help our PFC achieve the right neurochemistry? (And don’t worry: I’ll just jump to the answers and spare you and your overwhelmed PFC the chemistry techno-babble.)

  1. Create interest. Look for ways to introduce novelty, humour, variation and insight to your daily work. Make it interesting and new.
  2. Generate alertness. Set targets – and go for it! Instil a sense of urgency by continually raising the bar: for yourself and for your team. Introduce rewards for jobs well done.

PFC Limitation #5: Easily Distracted

You don’t need me to tell you your day is a constant bombardment of distractions: both internal and external; some welcome, some not-so. And management of each distraction comes at a cost, leaving fewer resources for important, higher-level or intentioned activities.

To tackle this limitation, we must minimise distractions.

  1. Tailor your environment. When you need to focus, remove some of local external distractions from your workstation. Clear your desk. Put other project work in a drawer. Switch phone and email off. (Being “always on” is a particular drain on our brains.)
  2. Clear the (mental) space. As well as your physical environment, it’s useful to have a mental clear-out before engaging in a focused task. Try this: notice what’s in the background. Any thoughts, worries, preoccupations. Then, simply and succinctly, acknowledge it to yourself. And then, in a word, label the emotion attached to that thought. For example: “I’m thinking about this afternoon’s leadership team meeting. And the feeling there is anxiety.” Then, in whatever way works for you, mentally park it. Stick it in a drawer. Put it on the shelf. Essentially give yourself permission to focus on something else.
  3. Work to your brain’s natural cycle. Our brain’s natural cycle is 90 minutes “online” followed by a break of 20 minutes. Stretching meetings or higher-level thinking tasks beyond 90 minutes without a break will have us go looking for distraction. How could you architect your day to match your brain’s natural rhythm to keep it on task?
  4. Catch distractions early. Whether an internal or external distraction (and most are internal thoughts about ourselves – the default network of the brain), catch it and deal with it early. Don’t allow distractions to gain momentum!

Practising Thought Awareness

The human brain is truly amazing. But when it comes to the modern world of work, it has its limitations. Understanding just a little about those limitations and practising some thought-awareness gives us opportunity to minimise the impacts, maximise brain-efficiency strategies and architect a brain-friendly day to transform our performance.

If you’re interested in discovering more about a brain-efficient approach to work, you might like to read David Rock’s fantastic book: Your Brain at Work (New York: HarperCollins, 2009).


  • John J. Ratey, A User’s Guide to the Brain (New York: Pantheon, 2001).
  • David Rock, Your Brain at Work (New York: HarperCollins, 2009).
Dan Beverly

Dan Beverly is a leadership and performance coach helping high-calibre, high-performing professional women embrace the pivotal career moments.

To work with Dan, go online to book your complimentary “Session Zero” – and start capitalising on your pivotal career moment, today.