I was delighted, many years ago, to discover a mysterious command on my phone. It was called “Optimize”. Whenever I noticed that my apps were running more slowly than usual, I’d tap the little “optimize” icon in my system folder, and bam—efficiency and speed would be restored.
Apparently, the way the “optimize” command works is by triggering a process of defragmentation. Using our phones causes bits of information to scatter, like a thunderclap startling a herd of sheep. The defragmentation process is a bit mysterious, but it seems to boil down to the deletion of duplicate bits of data and the reorganization of what is left. Prior to defragmentation, a processor is like a messy desk covered in illegible sticky note reminders marked “update file x” and “don’t forget to call y”. Afterwards, it's a pristine expanse of working area.
Imagine how much we could improve our focus if we could do the same thing for our brains.
Of course, we can.
Our brains have much in common with messy desks. The sticky notes are the ideas, tasks, problems, appointments, worries, and other bits of information that life expects us to organize and manage. These bits of stray information carry varying levels of emotional charge—“call lab Friday for test results” hits differently from “buy printer paper”. However, the chaos that both notes inhabit allows the emotional weight of one to bleed into the other, and ramps up the overall level of stress.
Managing life’s details requires the application of many of our limited personal resources: memory, energy, intellect, and emotional self-regulation. We do best when we deploy these resources sparingly and efficiently. There are two keys to resource efficiency: compartmentalization and avoiding task-switching.
Task-Switching is Inefficient
As fashionable as it is to claim that we’re great multi-taskers, it’s been proven that what we call multi-tasking is really a process of constant task switching. Task-switching is the enemy of focus. It makes us a little less good at everything, and a lot more stressed. Think it’s hard to study for your Solicitor Licensing Exam? Try studying for the Solicitor exam while stressing over the Barrister Licensing Exam, worrying about the tone of the last text your partner sent, and keeping a mental list of what to pack for your brother’s wedding next weekend.
Compartmentalize or Cry
As we progress from being teenagers to university students to lawyers, the volume of details we are expected to manage grows larger and larger until it gets to a point where we just can't afford to spread our mental energy too thin. Compartmentalization becomes the only answer. Fortunately, we can get better at it.
Just how good we can aspire to become was demonstrated to me when I was an articling student. I’d been assigned some research and was summoned by the partner to report on it. When I reached his office he was on his feet, pacing back and forth and yelling into his phone with a display of outrage that I'd never seen before. Arteries bulged on his neck. Pens bounced on the desk as he pounded it with his fist. I cowered outside the door, but to my horror, he waved me in. He yelled for another minute that felt like an hour before slamming the phone down on the receiver. Then he sat down, put on his glasses, and beamed cheerfully at me. “So, what’s the story?”
I opened and closed my mouth like a guppy. “What was that?”
He frowned, genuinely confused. “What was what?”
In that moment I learned about the power of compartmentalization. Whatever the phone call was about, it was on a different file. That file was now closed and everything about it was gone from his mind: the facts, the argument, even the emotional charge. We’d moved on—or at least he had. I was still shaking.
Decades later, I’m almost as good of a compartmentalizer myself—not because I don’t have multiple priorities to juggle, but because I’ve learned that it’s essential for both concentration and good mental health. When we allow our thoughts or worries about one task to bleed into our time spent working on another, the result is intellectual and emotional depletion.
How to compartmentalize boils down to calendaring and time management. These are lifelong skills that we’ll tackle in future blog posts; for today’s purposes, all you need to know is that until you’ve scheduled a time to deal with a task, you’ll waste a small but needless amount of mental capacity stressing about it until it’s done. Make an appointment in your calendar to deal with the task and treat the appointment like a promise to yourself. If you can trust yourself to deal with it then, you can allow yourself to forget about it now. The critical element is self-trust, and that comes from developing a strict discipline around actually doing what you’ve scheduled in your calendar when the time comes, whether you feel like it or not. It may be hard at first if you're not used to this way of working, but you will quickly come to see that the benefits, in the form of reduced stress and better focus, make it worthwhile to keep the promises you make to yourself.
The final critical skill for successful brain “optimization” is learning how to give your intellectual and emotional capacities a chance to replenish themselves by regularly stepping away from all the demands on your attention. Getting enough sleep is one way to do this. As a student, you have likely heard that it’s important to sleep after studying and before an exam, because the neural connections we build to solidify what we’ve learned are formed during sleep.
But sleep is only part of the picture. To truly make the most of your energy and focus, it’s important to develop your ability to “lock out” stray details and worries during your waking hours too, so that you can give your brain a break between high-focus tasks.
There are a few different ways to do this, depending on your personality and interests; but what good brain-break strategies have in common is that they involve a marked change in the nature of our attention. For some people, the key to locking out distracting thoughts is to engage in an activity that’s all about the body: for instance, you might hit the mountain bike trails if that’s your thing, tackling a trail that requires enough concentration that it prevents your mind from wandering. Or if you’re a person who likes to work with your hands, you might try a craft, like crochet or woodworking.
Other people find that the best way to change their minds is a change in incoming stimuli: for instance, going outdoors for a walk where the air is fresh and there are green-growing things all around to delight the senses.
The important thing is to find something that feels immersive and captures our attention—the opposite of distraction. In other words, don’t try to distract yourself from multiple looming deadlines by aimlessly scrolling on your phone—the key is to avoid further fragmenting your attention. By finding an activity that engages you in a completely different way, you disrupt your mind’s tendency to ruminate, and you have a chance to mentally relax.
The more you practice this kind of attentional gear-shifting, the better you’ll become at short-circuiting unhelpful thought patterns—and at saving your intellectual resources for when you really need them!
Written by: Nora Rock