On Cognitive Credit Lines

(Epistemic Status: Speculative, leaning towards endorsed – it’s a model more than something actionable)

When you take out a credit line, you provide yourself with a lot of liquid capital.  This capital must be paid back, but generally resources now are more useful than resources later – present resources create significant flexibility and ability to respond to trends appropriately.   Present resources also allow you to make more bets at the same time – while the point is obviously maximizing your future resources, present resources are better than any future valuation.  This is a very long winded way of saying it takes money to make money.  My proposal is less catchy – it takes mental resources to make mental resources.

I feel as if we have a cognitive credit line of sorts in terms of how we live our lives.  The things that draw on this resource tend to include baseline mental management (reducing or maintaining your prickliness, controlling your narrative), ongoing projects, upcoming commitments, and marginal activities.  What is left is what you have to deal with unexpected events or crises (this is Slack).  It is much easier to do things when you have a fairly high cognitive credit limit and aren’t using too much of it.  It’s a lightness that lends itself to being able to allocate additional resources to all of your projects, or weather a crisis with equanimity.  Unfortunately, it is very easy to notice this lightness and be a cognitive spendthrift – taking on too many commitments, keeping too many ongoing projects in memory, or trying too many new mindhacks.  You get heavy very, very quickly and suddenly anything that seemed like a minor annoyance before becomes almost a full blown crisis – you’ve run out of cognitive credit and have to make costly choices to maintain any executive function; you also often start finding your cognitive credit ceiling lowers over time as you overspend and have difficulty paying off the cognitive debts.

Now, so far, this sounds less like a credit line and more a pool of resources – the reason I call it cognitive credit, however, is that there’s some level of elasticity as well as interest payments.  Cognitive interest payments are simple – as you hold onto a project for a longer time, especially if you are having trouble making headway, it starts costing you more cognitively.  Your thoughts start shaping more around this mental object – that’s your interest payment.  The more things you commit to, the more mental overhead they take up as you think about how busy you are or perhaps how much you dread an upcoming party or meeting – that’s your interest payment.  Mental management is a little different – in a way it’s just a fixed cost; that said, making changes to mental architecture does often impose increased ongoing balance until it becomes baseline, and that increased cost is part interest, part principle.

The elasticity of the cognitive credit line is more interesting – when you complete a project successfully or manage to clear a commitment from your stack, you frequently get a minor (or sometimes major) boost in cognitive credit.  Not only have you paid off your cognitive debt, but a success often increases the ceiling for cognitive expenditure – you can spend more resources because you have a memory of having succeeded.  Part of this is compression, but another part is the fact that the cognitive expenditure was an investment with positive yield, justifying a belief in going further.  On the flip side, failures often damage your cognitive credit line, sometimes permanently. It becomes much harder to start new projects or make new commitments when you’ve failed recently, or had to take a project off the stack because you couldn’t afford the upkeep or interest payments – this is a risk of running your cognitive credit line to the limit.  Your cognitive bank doesn’t trust that it’s worth the extra expenditure to extend you further credit.  Depending on how lasting the effect is, this is often how success spirals and failure spirals work – it’s a cognitive credit problem.

Maxing out the cognitive credit line is generally a really bad idea.  The costs of ongoing draws often increase over time unless you are able to pay off some of the principle. Further, you’re left with less room for crisis management.  Worse still, you often start cutting mental management unless you are free to drop an ongoing project – so your tradeoff is either handle your prickliness worse, which increases stress, which imposes additional future costs, or you drop a project early, get your credit line reduced by a sense of failure, and have to rebuild cognitive resources to handle future issues.  Much like how managing your credit score can involve not using more than 30% of your available credit, you should likely not exceed 40%-60% of your available cognitive credit (this is a guess, this is likely high variance based on neurotype).

There are several ways to gain additional cognitive credit – as mentioned before, success at a venture funded through cognitive credit will often increase the limit, at least for a little bit.  Medication (usually stimulants for a general increase, though often specific medications treating various conditions will increase cognitive credit purely by lowering the mental management draw on the resource) is often used, as is self care, and various weirder mindhacks.  Medication and mindhacks are often the highest variance, risks in their own right in terms of managing your cognitive credit line.

Overall, the cognitive credit line is one model of many for managing mental overhead and optimizing productivity – I’m unsure how much of this is actionable, but I find it’s a helpful model when I’m very down on how well I’m keeping up with my life.  It allows me to go from “I am an idiot who never should have thought she was capable of anything” to “I think I might be overdrawing my cognitive credit line and should consider if I can complete or drop any projects.”  This model does have some similarity to spoon theory, though rather than being on a day by day basis, this is more longitudinal cognitive overhead and how costs of ongoing projects can increase.  I think it’s worth playing with and improving and exploring extensions to see if actionable moves can be made within this model.

Discussion questions: How well does the cognitive credit line concept resonate with you? If it resonates, how often have you found yourself overdrawn and how did you handle it? How capable are you of managing your cognitive expenditures? If this doesn’t resonate, what seems to fall short? Are there any parts that seem incomplete or absolutely wrong? How do you model your longitudinal resource management?

3 thoughts on “On Cognitive Credit Lines

  1. Your exposition makes sense to me if you consider cognitive credit to be fixed. I think its’ associated with the ‘intelligence factor’ G , which is shown to be maybe 50% genetic and 50% upbringing. I’ve had some very terrible things happen to me which have caused me a lot of anxiety, and in my experience, while those things were unresolved, they ate up all my cognitive resources (even if there was nothing or little I could do to change them) , so I was functioning at a very low level. The same can happen if you are multitasking many small things at once.

    I think you can gain better control over your resources, for instance if you have a success, your brain might allow more to allocated to the types of things you just did to get the success. However the resources (“credit”) you have remains fixed at all times.

    I think meditation and focus can help somewhat in clearing out stuff that is using unconscious processing. Sometimes your brain is unconsciously processing things that are bothering you, like a big decision you’ve been putting off or a difficult conversation you need to have in the future. I’m not sure precisely the mechanism but I think meditation might help in such situations.


    1. Hmm – so what you’re saying is that you can’t actually get more cognitive credit, but you can increase efficiency so you’re spending less of it on things? That seems compelling, but I’m unsure how much of a difference that makes – I think it’s a sense of shifting from general additional overhead to specific additional overhead. I…hmm, I’d need to think on that more. I think it makes sense.


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