I wrote a while ago about how context switching comes at a high price, and I used a comparison to computers to explain the problems. Brace yourselves, because I’m going to do it again – partly inspired by some of the chapters I read in CLR via C# by Jeffrey Richter and Why Plans Fail by Jim Benson.
So your brain consists of short-term memory, medium-term memory and long-term memory. Short-term memory is a fixed allocation of bytes that acts like RAM. You get to store a certain amount in short-term memory, but when you overflow the allocation, it cycles round and starts over-writing the older parts.
If this is all we had, we wouldn’t be able to remember anything more than a few minutes old. For this reason your brain has two processes for selecting the important data from short-term memory and moving them into medium-term memory. The distinction between these two processes is very important.
The first process is a low-priority process that does a quick-copy of information it believes is important. Information of medium or low importance is usually ignored by this process. This process doesn’t make a full copy, but copies enough to be useful. If you only had this process the quality of your medium-term memories would be very low-resolution, but the process can run concurrently with all of the other processes you are running in your head.
The second process is of the lowest priority. For this process to run, there needs to be no other process that wants CPU time. This process copies information from short-term memory at ultra-high resolution, which results in a better copy in medium-term memory. This process also has a lower threshold for what is “important” – so this is the only way for some information to get copied.
The final process is an over-night back-up from medium-term memory to long-term back-up storage. You need to schedule a decent night’s sleep for this process to be effective, but it stores the information, processes it and links it to existing related information.
So to be effective, you need to make sure you have breaks during the day to allow the ultra-high-resolution copy process to run. If you work flat-out you’ll be less effective because you’ll only have the low-resolution information stored. You also need a good sleep to run the full back-up and linking process, otherwise there is a chance you’ll lose important data.