Do you know what “speed” means when we’re talking about computers? Specifically, about the Mhz/Ghz number before a CPU name, like 3.2Ghz Intel Xeon? If you’re a geek, you obviously do, but if you’re not, you probably imagine is something related to how fast a computer can be at running certain tasks. And, overall, you’d be right.
But let’s go a little bit deeper. That number is indeed a speed measurement, in the sense that it measures a certain metric in a certain time. And that’s also the only resemblance with our traditional definition of speed, which measures subunits of distances in a certain time. Like meters per second, or kilometers per hours. Because in a computer we’re talking about “cycles”, not distances.
A computer runs operations in bursts, it starts at, let’s say, t0, runs all the operations in its registries (don’t worry if you don’t know what a CPU registry is, think about it like a closet in which you put files), and then take the results of those operations and feed them to the next cycle, t1, and so on, and so forth. A computer with a speed of 3.2Ghz it can run 3.900 000 000 cycles every second.
Also, if a computer clock is at 3.2Ghz, there’s little you can do to increase this number. You can overclock it, of course, but that’s relatively risky, and it may shorten the life of the device.
If we’re talking strictly about CPUs, there are, of course, other factors that are influencing the overall speed, like the number of cores, the total amount of RAM, and even the operating system which can, or cannot, take advantage of some of the hardware features, like multi-threading. But I think it’s safe to say that the clock speed is the basic measure for how much a computer can do.
Why the geeky introduction?
Because, in many ways, we can assimilate our own process of thinking with how a CPU handles computing tasks. We also have the tendency to think in bursts and, just like the CPUs, our number of cycles is limited.
Optimizing The Cycles
It’s this limitation that should make us very aware about how we’re using our main processing device – our brain. We tend to take it for granted (like many of the things that are creating our reality) and go around like it doesn’t really matter how we use it, as long as we decently use it.
Lately, I realized it does make a difference, and even a big one. I’m talking not only about what we focus on, but how we manage this focus. We only have a limited amount of brain cycles, so how we use them, how we improve them, can make a huge difference in the quality of our lives. Just like an operating system can optimize the CPU cycles, we can take some shortcuts and improve the result of our cognitive activities.
What follows is a very short, and obviously incomplete, list of how I try to optimize my brain cycles. This whole optimization approach basically means I want to get an optimum of processing power, in relationship with the energy consumption (or, in human terms, in relationship with a good health).
If It’s Not Immediately Important, Once Per Day Is Enough
Like everybody, I tend to get obsessed with some thoughts, or ideas, or situations. My brain circles around them many times, and I obviously get to repeat some of the paths and patterns. When I observe that, I try to ask this question: “is this immediately important?”, or “do I need to find a solution to this in the next few hours?”.
If the answer is “Yes”, I keep the processing power on those thoughts. But most of the time, the answer is “Not”, so I can just move my focus to something else. This approach is very useful when I’m in an emotional state (being it “low” or “high”) because in that state I can’t regulate my processing power properly.
Prioritize To The Task At Hand
Getting back to the task at hand is something that I try to do at many levels, not only when optimizing focus. It’s a more holistic approach, in which I always try to remain centered in a conversation, in a relationship, or in the pursuit of a goal. In terms of optimizing focus this translates as slashing the “rogue” cycles. Like, for instance, I’m in the middle of a coding session, and my mind starts to wonder. The moment I see this, I try to slash those cycles, and literally get back to the task at hand.
Almost always there is some level of discomfort when I’m doing it (many times my mind wonders specifically because there was some level of discomfort in the task at hand, so it was searching for some “comfort thoughts”). So the most important part in this optimization is actually how I deal with that discomfort. Tolerating mild discomfort for significant amounts of time makes me not only very productive, but also promotes a state of gentle well being. It’s counterintuitive, I know because we’re surrounding by messages promoting well being as a reward for the stress we’ve been experiencing, but I reckon some level of healthy, manageable stress, is desirable at times.
Process It Later
This is a very simple, yet incredibly effective technique. When I realize I’m spending way more brain cycles than necessary on something, I just write it down, with the intent of taking care of it later. I do this with blog post ideas, challenges that I want to start, books I want to read, movies I want to watch, and so on and so forth.
Here, the emphasis is not necessarily on the habit of jotting down quick blurbs, this can be formed relatively easy, but on the safety of the storage system. If the system where you store these postponed activities is not safe, you’ll lose the habit, because you’ll lose the data, and you’ll not trust the process anymore. In time, I created my own app for that, it’s called ZenTasktic.
These are the main approaches for me when trying to optimize brain cycles, and, done consistently, they help a lot with focus, productivity and balance.
On a side note, I just realized that I have a lot of articles with parallels between personal development and computing devices. If you’re here for the first time, maybe it’s worth having a look: