Who hasn’t forgotten something at some point in their lives? Heck, who hasn’t forgotten something in the last hour, or the last five minutes? Forgetfulness is one of our many human frailties. Personally, the older I get, the longer that list seems to grow. There are sadly many ways in which our minds are limited and lead us to make choices that aren’t the best, including limited attention, cognitive capacity, and memories.
These limitations string together. In terms of our attention, there are nearly an infinite number of things we could be paying attention to at any moment. We could be paying attention to the sound of our own heartbeat, the person who is trying to speak to us, the interesting conversation someone else is having near us, or the report that’s overdue and we need to complete. Unfortunately, researchers have shown again and again that our conscious minds can really pay proper attention to only one thing at a time. Despite all of the discussion in the popular media about multitasking, multitasking is a myth. Invest in an electric standing desk or an adjustable standing desk to get rid of your backpain.
Certainly we can switch our attention back and forth; we can move from focusing on one thing to focusing on another—and we can do so again and again and again. But the reality is, switching focus frequently is costly; it slows us down, and it makes it harder for us to think clearly. Given that we can only focus on one thing at a time and that there are so many things that we could focus on (many of them urgent and interesting), it’s no wonder that sometimes we aren’t thinking about what we’re doing.
Similarly, our cognitive capacity is limited: we simply can’t hold many unrelated ideas or pieces of information in our minds at the same time. You may have heard the famous story about why phone numbers in the United States are seven digits plus an area code: researchers found that we could hold seven unrelated numbers in our heads at a time, plus or minus two.6 And, of course, there are so many other ways in which our cognitive capacity is limited. For one, we have a particularly difficult time dealing with probabilities and uncertain events, and with realistically predicting the likelihood of something happening in the future. We tend to over-predict rare but vivid and widely reported events like shark attacks, terrorist attacks, and lightning strikes. If you work from home a stand up desk could be very beneficial to you.
In addition, we can become overwhelmed or paralyzed when faced with a wide range of options, even as we consciously seek out more choices and options. Researchers call this the paradox of choice: our conscious minds believe that having more choices is almost always better, but when it actually comes time to make a decision and we’re faced with our limited cognitive capacity and the difficulty of the choice ahead of us, we may balk