A little while back I wrote a blog post centered around a quote from Cal Newport, “You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.”
The idea is that our brains get tired, and as they get tired, they become worse at practicing self control. When you are exhausted, when you have had to concentrate really hard on school work, a business presentation, or on paperwork to ensure your child’s medical care is covered, your mind’s ability to focus becomes deminished. You have trouble staying away from that piece of cake in the fridge, from scrolling through Facebook, and you have trouble being patient with a child or spouse when they try to talk to you.
In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes something very similar to the quote from Newport, “self-control and deliberate thought apparently draw on the same limited budget of effort.”
Our brains only have so much ability to do heavy duty thinking. It is as if there is a set account for deep thinking, and as we think critically we slowly make deductions from the account until our brains are in the red. Using our brain for serious thoughts and calculations requires focus and self-control. However, our willpower is depleted as we use it, so as we focus for longer periods of time, our brains become worse at ensuring that we stay focused.
Kahneman suggests that this is part of why we spend most of our life operating on System 1, the automatic, quick, and lightweight thinking process of our lives. System 2 is the deliberate thought process that we engage to do math, to study a map to make sure we know where we are driving, and to listen seriously to a spouse or child and provide them with support. System 2 takes a lot of energy, and has a limited budget. System 1 runs on low-power mode, and that is why it is our default. It makes mistakes, is subject to biases, and doesn’t always answer the right questions, but at least it saves us energy and allows us to reserve the effort of attention for the most important tasks.
Kahneman and Newport would likely both agree that we should use our budget for System 2. We should maximize the time we spend in deep work, and set ourselves up to do our best System 2 work when we need to. We can save System 1 for unimportant moments and tasks, and work with our brains so that we don’t force too much System 2 work into the times when our effort budget has been depleted.