Potential vs. Capacity

You’re in the middle of a long procession of tasks. Behind you are a pile of finished jobs, and in front of you are even more, and you find yourself standing completely still. You want to keep at it and move on to the next job, but your body refuses to comply. No matter how angry you get at yourself,  or how you try to goad or bribe yourself into action, you’re stay still.

It’s like you’re sitting in your car on an icy road. The engine is running, you have a destination, and you want to get there, but when you mash down on the accelerator, your tires spin uselessly. Congratulations, you’ve discovered the limit of your conscious effort!

You see, it takes a mental effort to perform complex cognitive tasks, or to exercise your self-control. And there is only so much energy that you have available for these tasks-when your mental battery runs dry, you lose the ability to push ahead. It’s not a figurative battery-heavy thinking causes your blood sugar levels to drop, and in that state, your self-control and complex problem-solving skills are severely hampered. It’s a psychological concept called “ego depletion”.

Here’s an easy test of the limits of your concentration: start running at a pace that’s faster than you normally run (this requires conscious effort) and as you’re running, try to multiply 657 X 383 in your head. You won’t be able to do both. Most people will slow down immediately, and a few will actually stop running for a moment when they start puzzling out the math question.

This limited capacity for mental effort is why you can find yourself over-committed and overwhelmed with a series of tasks that, on their own, you could easily handle. But when you try to manage them all at the same time, you run out of mental energy. It’s why I didn’t write this post yesterday, for example-too many challenges eating up all of my available processing ability.

So how do you work with this restricted capacity, when you’re always going to be presented with more challenges and opportunities than you can simultaneously handle? Practice. With repetition, even the most complicated tasks can eventually become routine, and routine tasks don’t use up your mental effort.

Remember, you have great potential, but limited capacity-make the most out of it.


Published by Chris

I'm an author, freelance writer, dad, and civic busybody living in London, Ontario

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