Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Our Brains Are Wired for Inattention and Inertia

Our consciousness relies on the ability to process only 50 bits of information.

Procrastination and inattention can lead to all kinds of issues in our lives. We sometimes put things off in hopes that they will go away. And we often consistently pay no attention to certain areas of our lives, even though we know we should.

Source: Bob Nease/amazon

Awareness is hard work. It turns out that it is not actually a lack of willpower that puts most of us in this predicament. According to Bob Nease, author of The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions into Positive Results, we have really great intentions that get sidetracked. Why? His research is based on a simple premise: the human brain processes millions of bits of information at every moment, but only fifty of those bits seep into our awareness. In fact, he claims, our brains are wired for inattention and inertia. With our limited ability to pay attention, we may harbor good intentions but because we are most often on autopilot, we don’t act upon them.

Anyone who signs up for a year-long gym membership come January 1 knows what I’m talking about. We want to live better lives. Then we do what we always do with little effort to really change things. That is, unless you have a pain point so strong, you simply have to take action. Or the other option seems more appealing.

Trained as a medical professional with a large dose of engineering who worked for years at Express Scripts, Bob has designed ways to out trick our wiring to make the better option the more convenient one – or at least the more obvious choice based on our ever-slacking attention span. He offers all kinds of engineer-type arguments, most of which are extremely amusing. I found myself trying really hard to pay attention to his logical thinking. Sometimes I failed because although his writing is clear and very well thought out, I was more aware of not being aware than of comprehending what he was saying. I may have to gather my fifty bits and give the book another read because I do think what he has to say is extremely important. I have managed to make it palatable to a handful of friends. The book itself came up in conversation so much that I found myself quoting from it nearly every day.

Perhaps it is no wonder that the FitBit – a digital armband that measures your daily steps, number of stairs you walk (up or down!), caloric burn and even the time of day – is so popular. It is a great example of a device that "borrows" our fifty bits until walking 10,000 steps a day because a habit. Once the habit is established, the fifty bits can go back to paying attention to other pressing matters that require our newly placed attention.

Therein lies the lesson. We cannot cruise through life without mindfulness. It’s a richer one when we pay attention – or at least try to. And even if we don’t always understand what is happening, what others are saying or what we ourselves are doing, there are ways to improve our thinking and actions. And to cherish the moment. Right here. Right now. With every bit available to us.