We’ve all found ourselves in this situation. Tired and starving, our tendency to grab chips, soda, sweets, or fast-food skyrockets. It’s tempting to blame this inclination on the ease and abundance of junk food. Though we may be subconsciously responding to fast food advertising, a recent article in the Boston Globe, Constant distractions can take a toll, reveals a bad-snack trigger exacerbated by multi-tasking: cognitive exhaustion.
The problem-solving part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, is the first to shut down when we’re fatigued. As a result, we find ourselves seeking nourishment in a stupor, equipped with dim decision-making faculties.
Cognitive expert Mark Fenske explains, ‘“brain fatigue often leads to failures of self-control…. It’s also why you are likely to make better lifestyle decisions when your brain is better fueled…as in, do I eat the fries or the broccoli?’’’
We can avoid mental burnout and subsequent unhealthy choices by using our resources wisely:
“The brain, like the rest of your body, runs on fuel. Every time you focus your attention, you use glucose and other metabolic resources, draining the supply,” says Jan Brogen of The Boston Globe.
Consider how often you focus and refocus your attention during any given hour. For example: You’re working, the phone rings, you get up to grab a glass of water, your friend g-chats you, a colleague sends an urgent email, you reply and refocus on work- “wait, what was I doing?” – you browse the open tabs for a spark of recognition. Ah yes, I’m researching. Your phone buzzes – two unread text messages! And so on.
Paul Hammerness, psychiatrist and assistant professor at Harvard University says, ‘“people think of multi-tasking as equally dividing up their attention across tasks with equal potency. Rather it is scattering attention and weakening it.”’
A constant onslaught of beeps, buzzes and flashes keeps our parietal cortex, the part of the brain scanning for sensory information, on overdrive and taxes our decision-making mind. This lack of focus not only impairs our ability to make healthy consumption decisions, but also our capacity to dig into a problem and achieve workflow.
Our brains are wired to seek new information. We are naturally drawn to distractions. Therefore, we must train ourselves to focus.
Meditation is an excellent brain-training exercise. Drawing full attention to our breath or the task at hand, we achieve focus, eliminate distractions and enable deeper thinking. Both work and play can be meditative. To facilitate this experience, try keeping your gadgets on silent and out of sight when possible, cut down the number of browser tabs open simultaneously, and each time you wish to needlessly divert attention – breathe instead.
Even with these practices we’ll confront exhaustion coupled with hunger on occasion, but we’ll be better equipped to handle such taxing situations. When breathing before acting becomes second nature, we’re empowered by the pause. In this space, we are less reactive, more thoughtful and capable of making healthy decisions.
photo by Ambro from FreeDigitalPhotos.net