Back in the day it was common to charge by the hour for time on a computer. I suppose that dying institution, the cyber café, still does this, and of course in research facilities and university departments across the globe, time on a mainframe or supercomputer is still allocated on a chargeable basis. Computer scientists break down complicated things (like showing you cat video on your phone) into individual calculations. Each design of computer processor can figure out a certain number of these calculations per cycle, and it cycles a certain number of times per hour. It takes a certain amount of work (let’s define that as processing power multiplied by time) to achieve a certain task, like modelling the weather of South Dakota for the next week, and that translates into a certain cost. Those costs have dropped, year on year, since the invention of the silicon chip.
Psychologists often talk about the brain as a kind of highly specialised computer, and as much as that metaphor might have its drawbacks, it’s pretty useful too. One big difference is that unlike with an electronic computer, where we can simply invent more powerful ones, we’re at least a few centuries off being able to add extra brain cells into a living human and thereby give him or her a speed boost. You can’t buy extra mental RAM. That means there’s a fairly linear relationship between how complex a mental task is and how long it takes.
I’d like to encourage you to think of your attention as “number of cycles”. Your brain can only run a certain number of cycles per day. Anything that uses up your attention for ten minutes, for instance, takes up one percent* of your daily cycles. Next time someone says, “it’ll only take half an hour,” ask yourself whether it’s worth three percent of your processing power for today. When you’re about to press play on Netflix, ask yourself whether this is how you want to spend the next 2.3% of your brain power for the day.
I’m not the final arbiter. You are. The show on Netflix might be exactly how you want to spend 2.3% of your mental power today. Good for you. Just remember that everything, every interruption, every audiobook listened to, every angry outburst mentally rehearsed, takes up processing power.
Every ‘quick check’ of social media whilst you’re queueing at the check-out or waiting for a friend to turn up uses up spare cycles. Could you be putting them to better use?
*Assuming you sleep roughly the average amount and are capable of maintaining mental focus the whole time you’re awake.