The Neuroscience of Time Management

December 21, 2013

Living Longer Every Day

Is our life span the only way to measure our longevity? Spend a little time thinking through the answer with me. I think you’ll get a good return on your investment.

In 1905 Albert Einstein forever changed our perception of time when he proved that  time is not a constant but speeds up or slows down relative to the perspective of the observer. An important implication from Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is that, unless you are living way too close to a worm hole, time  flows in only one direction, and that is forward.

Time is the gold-standard currency in the free market that is our human existence. Unlike other currencies, time has no intrinsic value until we actually spend it and there are absolutely no refunds. Whether or not it was his intention, Albert Einstein proved` that Abraham Lincoln was spot on when he said, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”

The recent advent of functional neuroimaging (functional MRI scans (fMRI) and PET) has provided us with new insights into the sleeping brain from which we can derive some basic principles that enhance the relative value of our finite allotment of time. While everyone recognizes that their overall performance declines when they are sleepy, it’s only in the past decade that we have a clear picture of why we should not operate heavy machinery or do cognitively complex tasks while drowsy. During REM sleep while we are dreaming most regions of the brain appear very similar on functional imaging as when we are fully awake. However, on functional imaging our rational brain, aka prefrontal cortex is metabolically silent and therefore barely detectable during REM sleep.

Our prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the most recent advance in a 3.5 billion-year process known as evolution. It therefore takes nearly 30 years for the PFC to fully develop in each of us. Our Prefrontal Cortex is what actually distinguishes us humans from other Primates.

If we imagine ourselves as a Corporation our PFC is the CEO. It is responsible for our executive function, which is essentially our ability to stay focused and on task while simultaneously  inhibiting those  more “reflexive” or “impulsive” behaviors that will take us off our course. Our PFC is home to our personality and our will power. Every task, from what clothes we want to wear today to what we want to be when we grow up is conceived and executed by our Prefrontal Cortex.

So this disengagement of our PFC during REM sleep explains a lot, such as why we can do such “irrational” things in our dreams such as fly or be the same age as our parents and all of that entertaining weird stuff. When the CEO is away on vacation all the other areas of the brain are disinhibited and and are allowed to function irrationally creating the stuff dreams are made of.

What’s most important, our PFC shutdown during REM sleep is as critical to our next day sense of wakefulness as it is to our next day level of executive functioning. This underlies such observations as there are at least as many fatalities in the US every year due driving under the influence of drowsiness as driving while intoxicated; every nuclear accident in history (until the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan) was directly caused by human error made by a sleep deprived nuclear power plant shift-worker. (Shift Work Sleep Disorder) Our sense of wakefulness and our level of executive functioning are over lapping  prime functions of our Prefrontal Cortex.

To understand the practical implications of our missing prefrontal cortex during REM sleep in a way to get more life from our years, let’s think of each day as a microcosm of our entire lives. Considering that we Earthlings evolved on a planet that rotates once on its axis every 24 hours, this is more of a biological reality than metaphor. We are all familiar with the difference between feeling awake and feeling drowsy or tired. Well, we now know that traveling on the same set of tracks in our brain is our ability to do cognitive gymnastics (executive functions). That fist-sized PFC right behind our eyebrows is our cognitive quarterback; coordinating all of our other cognitive processes, such as planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, verbal reasoning, inhibition of distraction, mental flexibility and task switching. Just as our wakefulness peaks shortly after we wake up in the morning, so too does our PFCs’ ability to flip and genuflect. As the day progresses, it is completely normal and completely human that  our level of wakefulness and our cognitive functioning gradually decline. Just as we are most awake and most useful every morning we are extremely sleepy and useless 16 hours later, and sleeping  well is as essential to our next day’s productivity as it is to our next day’s feeling of wakefulness.  No amount of coffee or any other stimulant for that matter, can replace our prefrontal cortex’s need to dream. Each morning upon awakening the clock is ticking for our ability to optimally perform our tasks, so we need to strike while the iron is hot. We should do our highest priority, particularly our most dreaded tasks as early in our day as possible. That client that you dread calling, do it first. When you do your homework, start with the subject you like the least.  If you have the opportunity during the school day to do your most challenging homework, take it! By synchronizing our most cognitively challenging tasks with our brain’s ability to perform them with maximum efficiency, we not only perform the task in less time we remove the task from our PFC’s finite hard-drive, allowing us to do our less challenging tasks most efficiently. In essence we are slowing down time, therefore we get more of it.

Now that we made it through our work/school-day let’s skip to evening time. Let’s recall what happened the last time we shut down our PC with multiple windows still open. The next time we started up we had to wait 90 seconds, a cyber-eternity, for our PC to be functioning optimally. This is where the human brain is scarily similar to Windows Operating System. In order to optimize our productivity tomorrow we need to make a conscious effort to close down our productivity window at least 90 minutes before we go to sleep tonight. If we don’t do this guess what happens? Our PFC will refuse to disengage during R.E.M. sleep tonight. Say gooddbye to those entertaining dreams and even more importantly say goodbye to our A-game tomorrow; we may even be a public safety hazard. So neuroscience dictates to have better dreams, a safer and a more productive tomorrow we must chill for a couple hours before we go to sleep tonight.

To summarize, each time Earth rotates on its axis, us Earthlings must rotate with it. To help guide us, let’s divide our day into three, roughly 8-hour periods beginning with sleep, followed by doing what we have to do and concluding our day with doing those things that we most want to do. The  take-away from this neuroscience lesson is that doing those things that we must do and those that we most want to do each day are not competitors in some zero-sum time-game. To the contrary, by doing each of them at their appropriate time each day, we discover that’s our have-tos and our want-tos are interdependent, equally essential components of a full and valuable life. So work hard, play hard turns out to be excellent advice.

Thank you for investing some of your precious time reading what I have to say. I hope you have many happy returns.


End Post

Mitchell R. Weisberg, MD, MP


Internist-Psychopharmacologist-Personal Physician and,

Corporate Wellness Consultant at:

Optimal Performance MD


2 Responses to “The Neuroscience of Time Management”

  1. Nice article Dr. Weisberg. Would love you to write more on the neuroscience of productivity!

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