November 19, 2019

Gaining a Mental Edge

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If you’re like most leaders, chances are you’ve given very little, if any, thought to what, why, when, or how your brain does what it does. However, having a better understanding of the ways in which various regions of your brain function can serve you well in business. This is particularly true with the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the frontal lobe area behind the forehead that serves as a person’s conscious brain.

  • Often referred to as your “executive brain,” the PFC is involved in planning, judgment, and emotional control. It allows you to comprehend the world around you and is critical in decision-making, problem-solving, and understanding others (i.e., reasoning). Your PFC also enables you to plan, memorize, recall stored information, and regulate your emotions.
  • Important as it is to realize what your prefrontal cortex is capable of, what you really need to understand are its limitations. When you start to recognize what your brain can’t do and how this affects your thinking or behavior, you can begin to regain conscious control of everything you do and better manage your brain.

Here are several things to keep in mind (no pun intended) about the PFC:

It’s small. The prefrontal cortex makes up only 4 to 5 percent of your brain; consequently, its working memory space is very limited. So if you have more than four or five major things you’re thinking about at once, your ability to make the best decision or complete a task accurately is reduced.

For example, have you ever made an outline of five or more tasks you wanted to accomplish during the day and forgotten to bring it with you or misplaced it? More than likely, you’ll be able to recall and complete three or four of the projects, but anything more will be an “impulse” action and not on your original list. (One way to support the function of your prefrontal cortex is to break your tasks into smaller groups of items that require a great deal of mental exertion.)

It uses a lot of energy. Do you ever get hungry when you’re thinking through a complex project or participating in continuing education? If so, you can blame it on your PFC. Though small, the prefrontal cortex is very energy-intensive and relies on glucose for fuel. That’s why you may find yourself craving something to eat by 10:00 a.m. on a workday even though you had a hearty breakfast, whereas on weekends you can have a smaller breakfast or even skip it altogether and not be hungry until lunch.

In addition to being energy-intensive, your PFC tires easily. Every thought takes effort and expends its limited resources. After about 15 to 20 minutes of intense concentration, you need to take a break to rest your brain; otherwise, you may find yourself unable to speak articulately or remain on task.

Given the amount of effort required to function at a high level, it’s worth noting that the PFC can also lose focus quickly. Every time you’re distracted, your brain burns energy to get back on track. This leaves fewer resources to use for decision-making, reasoning, memorizing, understanding, and recalling. Since the PFC also controls your ability to regulate emotions, it’s easy to lose your temper in stressful situations.

It’s methodical. The prefrontal cortex operates in a serial manner, processing one thing at a time. This isn’t necessarily the best news for business leaders. After all, multitasking has long been considered a required skill for many jobs; more recently, however, people have learned that it isn’t the best “skill” to use while doing things that require mental focus (think, driving). Still, many attempt to multitask, unable to comprehend that the brain can’t function optimally while doing multiple things simultaneously—or understand the (sometimes negative) consequences that can accompany such acts.

Not convinced? Try this exercise to experience firsthand how your PFC can’t multitask. Grab your phone and find the stopwatch function on it. Start the timer and count out loud from 1 to 10 as fast as you can. If you’re like most people, your time was probably around one and a half seconds.

Now start the timer over and say the alphabet from A to J out loud as fast as you can. What was your time—maybe one and two-tenths seconds or thereabouts?

Finally, reset the timer and time yourself again as you combine the numbers 1 to 10 and letters A to J as fast as you are able. For example, 1A, 2B, 3C, and so forth. Did it take you longer than the combination of your last two times? Were you able to do it accurately?

Research of a much more sophisticated variety has consistently shown that the prefrontal cortex isn’t able to multitask without losing efficiency or accuracy. That’s why it’s so important not to try performing two or more important activities at once. Doing so prohibits your brain from functioning optimally.

Bottom line: Understanding how your prefrontal cortex works and recognizing the signs of fatigue are not only good for mental health, they’re good for business. Sleep, periodic breaks, exercise, proper nutrition, and building emotional and physical resilience can help you maintain prefrontal function and effectiveness, and ultimately, achieve better results in the boardroom.

Elizabeth Markie is the founder and CEO of Welmagine, a business consultancy focused on neuro-coaching and leadership development. For additional information, visit

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