How much can the brain really hold?

Your brain is a great place to have ideas, but a terrible place to manage them. -David Allen

A key principle within GTD is creating a system external to your mind–if you want the system to be seamless.  In fact, there’s a good chance if you’re trying to hold more than about 7 things in your mind at once, you’re dropping things all the time.  And guess what?  Your brain doesn’t care if what you dropped was important or not important, urgent or not urgent, about buying bread on the way home from work or solving world hunger.   If you’re trying to balance more than 7 things in there at any given time, something’s gonna drop.

Now, wait before you get riled up–this is not challenging how smart you are or how good you are at memorizing. This is working memory.  And for most of us, there are about 7 parking spaces in working memory, plus or minus 2, at any given time.  This phenomenon was also explored in the Science behind GTD article.

NPR’s Radiolab did an interesting podcast on this topic of working memory as well.  In fact, they cover something I hadn’t heard before, which is that when the brain is stressed at holding 7 it will make an emotional decision, not necessarily a rational one.  You’ll choose cake over a piece of fruit under stress. Fascinating stuff, especially if you look at how this applies to what you choose to Do. [Podcast is about 20 minutes.)


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