In my years of studying adult learning and neuroscience, I loved this concept of “brain snacks” – meaning quick bursts of information that are designed to be easily consumed and, hopefully, quickly understood.
In fact, when I was first creating this podcast, I went against a lot of the conventional wisdom to have a longer format and, instead, I choose to keep these episodes between 5-10 minutes long. It’s not that I don’t think you as listeners aren’t capable of understanding the details of deeper context; it’s that – like you – I live in the attention economy and struggle to keep my attention and focus on basic daily demands.
So anything new – whether it’s entertainment or education – can feel overwhelming if there’s a lot of extra. Well, that’s one theory. What I’ve noticed lately is that I am sinking more and more into summer brain. I feel less motivated to do the education and the adult things in my life. If I’m being totally honest, my brain is feeling pretty lazy lately.
And then earlier today, I got some hard evidence of just how lazy. If you use an Apple device, it will send you a weekly summary of your screen time. So today it was daunting to see how many hours (and that’s plural) I was averaging on my device. I wish I could say the majority is in support of true brain snacks, but the reality is that it’s much more like brain fast food. Feels great in the moment, but you pay for it later.
The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that time multiplies whatever you feed it. And while it’s fun to have fun, it can be a slippery slope on the way to a mental slump. What that looks like is different for each of us, but we’ve all experienced lost time when we become engrossed in certain activities.
Going back to attention spans and brain science, this episode offers three ways on how to sneak some healthier snacks to your brain.
The first is microlearning. Now this is a traditional concept, but I was reminded of this while scrolling on a social channel the other day and I saw an ad that said: instead of scrolling, you could be learning. Wow, I don’t even remember what it was selling, but the message struck me because I don’t think I was learning in that moment.
Microlearning is essentially the practice of small doses of information delivered in short bursts of a few minutes. Microlearning when designed can go up to around 10 minutes (like these podcasts) but are typically most effective when done in 2-3 minutes.
And sometimes even that feels long. Popular social channels YouTube and TikTok allow longer video uploads, but the average sweet spot is around 44 seconds. So while we might watch something for less than a minute, we’re far more willing to sit there to watch a series of somethings over and over.
And it’s actually this tactic that can help interrupt our inertia. Offsetting our entertainment with learning is a way to better balance the brain. There are two approaches for how you can do this. The first is to stack & swap. In the case of technology, this looks like inserting intentional cognitive calories in 2- to 3-minute microbursts. Before and after you have the fun.
For me this week, it was responding to an email before and after an episode of a show I wanted to watch. The reward was in the middle, but work was being done on either side. The second part is that sometimes this works in reverse where a set amount of time of work is being done is the trade for guilt-free fun.
The secret here is in the science. Episode 39 shared the habit hack of the power of 5 good minutes. Once you start to take an action (the theory goes), it’s easier for your brain to follow through. Those 2-3 minutes might go to 4-5 and it’s the starting something that often stops us in the first place. So once you start you are more likely to continue a little bit more.
The other element that helps add in micro moments of learning is in the in between time. When you’re driving or commuting, waiting in a line, or on an elevator, or in moments before something starts; we often reach to be entertained instead of educated. Having something saved or within reach that you can read, respond, or listen to makes those moments count where we would otherwise have less patience or interest.
The second tool outside of microlearning is micro-doing. This is leaning into something physical vs. mental for those few minutes. Tackle something right in front of you without any expectation of completion. The other day, I folded two towels from the laundry basket when walking through the room. There was more to do, but that is all I did. Wash one dish in the sink. Walk to the mailbox and back. Do 5 jumping jacks. Wipe a counter. Fill up a glass of water.
The intention here is to do something completely disconnected from conversation or technology. The doing is minor, and that’s the point. Physical effort, no matter how small, sends a different signal to the brain than any mental processing. And action often begets other action – without the same cognitive load as learning something.
You can do more than you think in a few minutes. Reframing action into intermissions takes away the dullness of a chore and slots it into subtle steps of progress.
The third tool is a few moments of fresh air. Much has been studied about the positive cognitive effect on the body and brain when exposed to sunlight and fresh air. Even a few minutes can alter your breathing, stress levels, and even decision making.
One way to try this: Use your micro-doing to change locations when you’re in the middle of something that is uninspiring or pulling you under into inaction.
Change locations and that movement adjusts your sensory stimulus and, if you add in an outdoor component, you’re more likely to feel a positive physical shift in mood and concentration. Even moving closer to a window creates a broader mental awareness.
So to recap, enjoy the lazy days when you have the opportunity. We need mental rest as much as physical rest. And if you feel the mental lethargy taking too much of the day, add in small bursts of learning, doing, and scenery.
The effort to take care, no matter how small, is a message you send to yourself about the value of your time. And there’s always time for us to take good care.