This was originally a memo to the Lift team as an explanation for the science behind Lift. If B=MAT is our model for helping a person take a single step, this is our model for helping people reach their maximum potential. Only the final appendix is @liftapp specific.

People have a daily cognitive stamina that represents their ability to do any intellectual work.

Every decision, big or small, every moment of mental focus, and every act of comprehension is part of your day’s cognitive stamina. Let’s call that your cognitive budget.

When your stamina is drained, you revert to your lazy self, choosing actions which are habitual, familiar and routine. Your stamina recharges completely overnight (and gets a partial refill after every meal).

Colloquially, people are most likely to think of this as willpower. Although scientists are most likely to refer to this as decision fatigue (this NY Times article is a great primer on the subject).

The application of this concept is now my default philosophy on behavior design (more important than even BJ Fogg’s BMAT). Many people wish they could improve their cognitive stamina (you can, with training), but there’s a much cheaper and immediate approach: efficient allocation of your cognitive budget.

Below is how this can change your life.

Cognitive Budget

The key to the useful application of cognitive stamina is to think in terms of a cognitive budget.

At the Neuroleadership Conference I answered the question of, “What are habits of effective leaders?” by telling an anecdote about Steve Jobs and his black turtleneck. Every morning, he would pick a black turtleneck from the top of a pile of black turtlenecks. This act has a cognitive load of zero. It’s habitual and requires no decision making.

This morning, I chose my shirt from among fifty different options including t-shirts and dress shirts, taking into account the weather and who I was going to be spending time with. Just by the time I’m dressed, my cognitive budget has been depleted by ten decisions because no part of my dressing routine is habitualized. Steve Jobs would leave for work with ten more decisions in his cognitive budget than I do.

The habits of effective leaders, then, are any habits. Any habit you build reduces your daily cognitive load, giving you more budget to spend elsewhere. (Of course, this is based on the idea that the highest achievers are channeling most of their cognitive budget toward their primary goal. That’s definitely true for me.)

Lift’s Effect on Cognitive Budget

Here’s where Lift comes in. All of the work we’ve done to create habits has the effect of saving cognitive budget for other parts of a person’s life. This is because a habit is something that doesn’t drain your cognitive budget (they are behaviors that originate in a different part of the brain). So any time we convert a habit from goal to routine, we’ve reduced a person’s daily cognitive load.

Mapping BJ Fogg’s BMAT model on to this, cognitive load is affected by the A and the T (Ability and Triggers).

When you don’t know what to do, you have to spend a lot of your cognitive budget figuring it out. Habit seekers get an immediate benefit from their first few attempts just by answering basic questions. The new flosser learns where the floss is, how much floss they should pull out, and how to wrap the floss around their fingers. Thus, the cognitive drain for the next flossing attempt is much lower.

Lift’s effect on reducing the cognitive load of a goal is getting stronger with training plans, because we can tell you exactly what to do, i.e. run 3 miles today. In that way, a good training plan has the effect of reducing the cognitive load of a new goal because you have to do less thinking.

New goals have one other major drain on your cognitive budget: scheduling. Imagine yourself following written driving directions in a new town. You’re constantly on alert, looking for the next turn. That’s a cognitive drain. Having Lift’s reminders prompting you lets you turn off that part of your brain. BMAT calls this the Trigger, but it’s also in the realm of reducing cognitive load.

Appendix: Implications in the Lift 2.0 design

These are some observations about how this concept is playing out in the Lift 2.0 design.

  • The cognitive load for choosing a plan is much higher than for choosing a habit. You need to decipher a plan title in order to figure out what the contents of the plan really are. Then you need to decide which level you are at and which, of several similar plans, is the right fit for you. We’ll need to work on our categories to make these choices much simpler.
  • Some plan instructions have very little cognitive load, but many have a very high load. Our old habit, Drink More Water, has very little load. You know how to drink water. The 10k Squats plan has instructions like 3x18. Maybe you worry about the wiggle room, such as how much rest is alowed. But generally this is in the same order of magnitude. The Various Forms of Meditation plan is giving me the instruction of “Practice iRest.” I’m going to need to learn what this is before I can practice it. The load is much higher (and I perceive it as a barrier to starting because I’m often in the mode of preserving my cognitive stamina).
  • Regarding the Meditation plan, I wonder if that step would be better written as “Listen to iRest meditation (10 minutes).” The actual instruction does include a youtube video and sitting for ten minutes listening to a video is actually pretty easy.
  • Continuing on that vein, I’m wondering if most plans should have very repetitive step titles. My calf rehab plan alternates between three things. A running plan mostly alternates between different distances. The cognitive load of figuring out what to do, and thus getting momentum, is very low.
  • Our current habit plan template does not have repetitive step titles. This is starting to feel very bad because it makes an easy task harder than it needs to be. The titles could all be “Floss today” with the tips relegated to bonus content in the descriptions. That would make good use of the discussion area without overtaxing the most common use case.