Keep an eye on the brain fuel gauge

You know how it feels at the end of the day when you tend to avoid some of those projects you should really be doing or decide to put it all off until tomorrow. It’s the best time for someone to talk you into something that you didn’t want to do as the ability to stand strong seems to disappear. That feeling is your brain getting near to an empty fuel tank!

Your brain runs on a fuel of glucose and oxygen. That fuel needs to be replenished on a regular basis with rest, exercise, nutrition and sleep.  

When you have a good supply of fuel, you can use your brain in a more controlled way.  When your supply dwindles (and this happens quickly), you have less control over the way your brain responds to any given situation.  

Different parts of your brain and different brain activities use your brain fuel with different intensity.  
For example, learning your times tables when you are eight years old is an energy-intensive activity, while recalling your times table at age 20 uses much less brain fuel.

It’s a bit like driving a car along the highway. When you want to accelerate, you press the accelerator and use more fuel. Once you have reached your desired speed and begin coasting, fuel consumption drops significantly.
Overcoming whatever inertia is in the way, such as a change from a habitual activity to a non-habitual activity, takes energy and attention.

When your brain fuel tank is low, you have limited metabolic resources to “run” your brain and it will transfer into a sort of “auto” mode, relying on habitual responses and behaviours to get you through your day.
These responses may not always be appropriate for the given situation.  

Have you ever found yourself heading out when you are tired or distracted (low on brain fuel) and suddenly find yourself driving on auto pilot?

Or when you’re trying to cut back on chocolate and then find yourself immersed in something and reaching for it without thinking.

Your ability to inhibit your more primal reactions is also compromised when brain fuel is low. It’s hard to say no.
You may say things you didn’t mean to say, and your capacity for empathy is lower, so you can appear insensitive or non-caring.

Habitual thinking patterns are the most difficult to control when you are brain-fuel challenged.
Negative thinking patterns contribute to stress and anxiety.  It takes energy and effort to break these habitual patterns and your brain will tend to avoid using unnecessary energy.

So keeping an eye on the fuel gauge and ensuring regular, good quality top-ups is important for a fit and functioning brain.

Here are three more tips for keeping your brain fully focused:

  1. Practice mindfulness. It’s not necessary to meditate or go on a retreat, just practise being in, and staying in, the present moment. You’d be surprised how difficult it is for the human brain to concentrate for just one minute on your own breathing without your mind wandering. This type of practice builds the muscle in your brain that needs to be more in control more often.
  2. Experiment with naps.  Just six minutes of lying down or dozing off, or giving yourself a brain-break can do wonders. Optimum is the 20-minute snooze!
  3. Stay hydrated, with water. Your brain is made up of 80 per cent of the stuff, so dehydration can have a huge impact.

Michelle Loch is an expert in the neuroscience of human motivation.