More and more in our fast-paced world, we are actually working against our brains rather than with them. I’ve been studying what neuroscientists have to say about how to be most effective and I’ve discovered five really simple brain hacks you can use to start working with your brain and stop working against it to easily double your productivity.
1. Reframe potential threats and rewards
Neuroscientists have found that our brains are wired to seek reward and avoid danger. Dr. Evian Gordon, the founder of the Brain Resource Company, found that “Everything you do in life is based on your brain’s determination to minimize danger or maximize reward.” This means that we make decisions and take action based on whether we are seeing a potential threat or a possible reward.
Generally, when we see possible threats or dangers, we avoid taking action. Think about that difficult conversation you’ve been avoiding or the project you haven’t started yet.
Whether we perceive that a situation poses a threat or a reward can depend on how we frame it. I can’t emphasize enough how strongly your brain wants to avoid danger. This is how we have evolved. Those of us that saw the danger and ran from the lions are the ones that have survived so our brains are hardwired to constantly search for possible danger and avoid it.
Now we aren’t running from lions anymore so the possible threats look a bit different. Threats to our sense of competence or our identity can stop us from taking action, like trying something new or taking on a challenging project where we might fail.
Likewise, seeing a possible reward can encourage us to challenge ourselves. There is potential danger and potential reward in every situation. Your brain will naturally seek out and avoid the potential dangers so you have to train it to see the potential rewards.
If you notice that you’re having trouble taking action, reframe the situation and envision all the possible rewards that taking action will result in. This focuses the brain away from the possible danger and on to possible reward, which makes it much easier to take action.
For example, I was avoiding getting started with writing my book, Working Well: Twelve Simple Strategies to Manage Stress And Increase Productivity because all I could see was possible threats and dangers.
Writing a book is a huge task, I was already really busy and didn’t know where I would find the time and I was afraid of failure – what if I didn’t finish the book or I published it and it was a flop? All my brain could see was a potential danger.
So I reframed writing the book. I focused on the potential reward of helping clients that I knew really needed the book and would appreciate everything they learned. I envisioned the possible reward of success and focused on that rather than the possible danger of failure. Then I worked really hard to make sure the book was a success.
I also chunked down the massive task of writing a book into smaller daily tasks so my brain saw them as achievable (possible reward) rather than impossible (possible threat).
These were small tweaks in my mindset but they made a huge difference in my ability to take action. Take a minute now and think about the situations that you’ve been avoiding.
- What situation have you been avoiding because your mind is focused on the potential threat involved?
- How can you reframe it to see the potential rewards?
- Identify at least one step you can take to deal with the situation.
When you notice that you’re having trouble taking action on a particular task, stop and find a way to reframe the task so that you can see the potential reward. Potential rewards engage your brain and you will feel motivated to complete the task.
Too many people put all their focus on the potential threat and what’s stressing them out, rather than on the potential reward of addressing their challenges and improving the situation. When you reframe the situation so that your brain is focused on the potential rewards rather than the potential dangers, it becomes much easier to take action.
2. Use Your Attention Wisely – It is a limited resource
We can’t concentrate for eight hours a day. We can’t even concentrate for five hours a day. Think of yourself as a kid in school: you need recess, lunch break, and a whole lot of school holidays.
Our capacity for focus and attention is limited. We run out of attention. We can’t keep focusing. But we try anyway. All of a sudden, it’s eight at night; we’re still working, but we’re not getting much done.
Neuroscientist David Rock explains, “Every time you focus your attention you use a measurable amount of glucose and other metabolic resources. . . . Each task you do tends to make you less effective at the next task, and this is especially true for high energy tasks like self-control or decision making.”
Decision-making and self-control consume our limited resources. They wear us out. In today’s high-pressure, multitasking, a filled-with-distractions-and-demands world of work, we often use up our self-control and decision-making powers on tasks that don’t warrant them. If you spend the first hour of your day going through e-mail and making decisions about how to respond, you’ve used up critical decision-making powers.
Your decision-making ability might be done for the day, but you have a whole lot more you need to get done. If you have a stressful day at work and you use up all your self-control managing your work stress, you may be more likely to snap at family or friends at the end of the day.
You’re also more likely to have that chocolate bar you’ve been denying yourself all day and slip into the world of social media for hours on end because you’re all out of self-control by the end of the day.
This can be remedied by recognizing that you run out of the mental resources that help you focus, make decisions, and control your urges. Instead of continuing to push yourself to keep working when you notice your brain getting tired, take a break.
Just as you would never expect to be able to run without a break for eight hours a day, you shouldn’t expect uninterrupted activity from your brain either. A break will recharge your brain’s ability to focus and make decisions, it will also increase your self control.
To make the best use of your limited mental resources do the following 3 things every day and watch your productivity skyrocket:
- Spend the first hour of your day working on your highest priority tasks before checking your email. You will easily get twice as much done working when your brain is fresh.
- Take breaks every 90 minutes. This recharges your capacity to pay attention, make decisions, and focus.
- Stop working after 8 hours of work. You will be much more productive the next day after recharging.
With this understanding of how our brains work, we can make better choices about what we give our focus and attention to. When you think of your mental energy (ability to concentrate, make decisions, and think clearly) as limited, you can be more intentional about how you use your mental energy.
3. Take breaks
If you want to recharge your mental energy throughout the day, get way more done and still have energy at the end of your workday, breaks are the silver bullet. Tony Schwartz, CEO of the Energy Project and author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, has led studies that indicate our energy rhythm cycles every ninety minutes; those people who take a break every ninety minutes are the most productive.
His entire life’s work is dedicated to helping people manage their work by energy rather than by time because energy is a renewable resource.
He says, “Like time, energy is finite; but unlike time, it is renewable. . . . A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal—including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations—boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.”
I’ve worked with a lot of clients who have been very skeptical about the value of taking breaks but after just a few days of scheduling regular breaks, they are complete converts. Commit to scheduling at least two to three breaks a day for the next three days and watch your productivity skyrocket.
Remember that a true break requires you to get away from screens and stop thinking about work—try to get outside for a bit of fresh air or do some stretches.
When we take breaks, we are working smarter—not just for our bodies and our energy, but for our brains. When you take a break, your brain recharges its resources and is more able to focus, concentrate, make decisions and use self control. Not only that, but taking breaks allows your subconscious to do your work for you.
I took many breaks while working while writing my book when I normally would have just powered through. Those breaks recharged me and allowed my subconscious to work on the problems I was having with the writing. More often than not, when I returned from my walk or my swim, I had the solution I needed.
Mark Beeman, one of the world’s experts on the neuroscience of insights, found that “about 40% of the time people solve problems logically, trying one idea after another until something clicks. The other 60% of the time an insight experience occurs. In insight, the solution comes to you suddenly and is surprising, and yet when it comes, you have a great deal of confidence in it. The answer seems obvious once you see it.”
Taking breaks is the best way to generate an insight experience. We’ve all experienced this. On your morning drive to work, the perfect solution to the problem you’ve been working on all week pops into your mind. Or, when you’re in the shower, you suddenly know exactly how to solve the issue you’ve been struggling with for weeks.
If we can just stop trying so hard to solve problems logically and give our brains a break, our subconscious will kick in and help out. I know so many people who won’t stop working, even to go to the bathroom. I used to be one of them. Go take a pee, for crying out loud! It just might generate the best insight ever—and if it doesn’t, at least you won’t pee your pants.
4. Stop multitasking
How many of you are doing two or more things at once, multiple times a day? It’s frying your poor brain. I know that we’re all maxed out and trying to get everything done, but multitasking is making us dumb. In fact, one scientist, Harold Pashler, “showed that when people do two cognitive tasks at once, their cognitive capacity can drop from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an eight-year-old.”
That’s alarming. Not that there aren’t some brilliant eight-year-olds out there, but I’m pretty sure the Harvard MBAs would give them a run for their money.
So, how do we stop multitasking in a world that holds it as the height of productivity? We go back to focusing on doing one thing at a time because intuitively we know that we’re actually going to be more productive, thoughtful, and present when we’re maintaining a single focus.
Many of us have gotten into the habit of multitasking, usually because we are moving at a frantic pace and we think it’s the best way to get work done. It’s not. We need to break ourselves from the multitasking habit. When you notice that you’re trying to do two (or more) things at once, stop and retrain yourself to perform one task at a time.
When you multi-task or even just switch tasks, you waste a lot of time and tax your limited powers of focus and concentration.
A study conducted by Gloria Mark, professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, “found people switched activities on average of every three minutes and five seconds. Roughly half of them are self-interruptions.”
How often do you do this to yourself? You’re working on one task but then something pops into your brain and you rush to deal with that instead. This seems like it’s not that big a deal, right? You’re working on a presentation but you remember you need to send an e-mail so you switch tasks. You send the e-mail in two minutes then you get right back to the presentation. Except you don’t. Mark’s research found that “it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the [initial] task.”
Distractions are costing us a lot of time. And they’re causing us a lot of stress. Mark’s study “used a NASA workload scale, which measures various dimensions of stress, and we found that people scored significantly higher when interrupted. They had higher levels of stress, frustration, mental effort, the feeling of time pressure and mental workload.”
How often are you distracted when you’re working on a task? Make a list of your most common distractions and ways to avoid them (turning off the phone, the notifications on our computer, turning off the Internet while working, closing your office door, forcing your children to play outside).
When we are aware of what distracts us, we can make different choices and not get caught up in the distraction. When we reduce or eliminate some of our more common distractions, we can gain back up to two hours of productive working time every day.
One of the best ways to stop multi-tasking and avoid distractions is to turn off your phone. We easily lose up to 4 hours a day of productive time by being connected to our phones.
One study reported in the Harvard Business Review found that the average employee checks email 74 times a day, while people touch their smartphones 2,617 times a day.
Hopefully, you’re not that connected to your phone but if you take a minute to check out your screen time stats on your phone, you’ll probably be surprised at just how often you pick up your phone and how much time you spend on it. All the multi-tasking and interruptions associated with your phone is really taxing for your brain.
The first time I checked my phone stats, I was alarmed to find that I picked up my phone seventy to eighty times a day and spent up to 4 hours every day on my phone. Probably half of that was productive working time. The rest was a social media time suck.
I can’t think of anything else I do seventy to eighty times a day. I decided I should do a push-up every time I picked up my phone. It didn’t work. It was just a little too awkward in public places.
But I did force myself to open up the notes page and write for ten minutes before I let myself check e-mail. I also deleted all social media apps from my phone. Now I’m down to about twenty to thirty pickups a day. Still alarming, but at least I’m heading in the right direction.
Having a constant connection to work without getting a true break isn’t helping us be more productive or be fully present in our work or personal lives. We’re missing out on connections with the people we care about when our faces are buried in our phones.
It’s hard to disconnect. Especially when you see an e-mail or a text pop up that pulls you right back into the world of work. But resist the pull of the phone. Turn it off, or, at least, put it away for a few hours every night. If you want to be super productive while you’re working, turn off your phone!
A study done at the University of London “found that constant emailing and text messaging reduces mental capability by an average of ten points on an IQ test. It was five points for women and fifteen points for men. This effect is similar to missing a night’s sleep. For men, it’s around three times more than the effect of smoking cannabis.”
I know there are some of you who are reading this and thinking that you’re an excellent multitasker, and this research doesn’t really apply to you. You may be the exception to the rule, but let me ask you this: what is multitasking doing to your relationships, to your ability to concentrate, and to think deeply? We need to slow down before we lose these important skills.
In a nutshell, if we want to be more productive, we need to quiet our inboxes, turn off our phones, and pay attention to one thing at a time. These actions will also decrease our stress and improve our health because:
when the brain is forced to be on “alert” far too much, it increases your allostatic load: a reading of stress hormones and other factors that relate to a sense of threat. The wear and tear from this threat have an impact.
Neuroscientists have found that this always-on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace era has created an artificial sense of constant crisis. What happens to mammals in a state of constant crisis is the adrenalized fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in.
So many of us are “always-on” and we feel that we’re in a state of constant crisis. We’re often in fight or flight mode and that’s taxing on our bodies. It’s no way to live! It’s no wonder that so many people are dealing with physical and mental health issues.
Let’s find ways to turn off, to disconnect from work and our phones, so that we can become less stressed and more productive.
5. Get A Good Dopamine Hit
Dopamine is the feel-good chemical that your brain produces when you’ve accomplished something or had a positive social interaction. This important neurochemical boosts mood, motivation, and attention, and helps regulate movement, learning, and emotional responses.
Dopamine activates the reward center in the brain and increases motivation. It is released when you reach a goal, accomplish a task, meet a deadline, win a game, get something right, do something really hard, achieve success, or have a successful social interaction.
Our brains want the easy hit of dopamine. And what is easier than clicking on social media and having a successful social interaction? This is the reason you spend hours a day on social media that you could be spending working towards achieving your goals or having meaningful social interactions. Add to that, social media sites have been designed to keep us coming back to check for likes and comments to get that dopamine hit.
So, how do you help your brain out and stop working against it? You want to focus on getting legitimate dopamine hit. The first thing you’ll need to do is eliminate the easy dopamine hit. Because your brain will always go for the easiest hit.
As I mentioned, I’ve removed all social media apps from my phone. It was hard. It took me a few months to actually do it even though I’d read all the research and I knew it was messing with my brain and my productivity.
But removing the apps has been a game-changer. I am now way more motivated and way more productive because I’m not constantly checking in on my social media sites.
There are some great ways to get your daily dopamine hit that will also dramatically increase your productivity. Have positive social interaction in real life, not just online. Make time to give a colleague or family member some positive feedback, check-in with a friend, set time aside for your relationships.
Relationships are important in all aspects of our life – research by Harvard has found that if you want to live a long, happy, healthy life, strong relationships are the key. Research has also found that having strong relationships at work will increase your productivity.
Another way to get a good healthy, motivating dopamine hit is to set daily goals. You can do this in Ntask or on whatever system you use to keep track of your goals and daily tasks. Chunk your bigger goals down into daily tasks – make them achievable and once you’ve accomplished them, check them off.
When you accomplish even a small goal, you get a hit of dopamine which creates motivation and inspires you to keep working towards your larger goals. Taking the time to check off your completed tasks in Ntask or simply crossing the task off your to-do list increases your dopamine hit and your motivation. You’ll get an even bigger dopamine hit if you’re collaborating with others and you can celebrate completing your tasks together. Even small wins are important to celebrate.
It can be challenging to work with your brain because we live in a world that is designed to work against our brains. Our phones and the internet are designed to distract and interrupt us and many of us use up our limited powers of focus and decision making before we’ve even properly started our work day.
Now that you know more about how your brain works, you can make a few small tweaks with these simple brain hacks so you can start working with your brain and stop working against it and easily double your daily productivity.
Stephanie Berryman is a leadership coach, consultant, and bestselling author. Her latest book is Working Well: Twelve Simple Strategies To Manage Stress and Increase Productivity. Her online course, ‘Supercharge Your Days’ teaches you a simple system to implement all these strategies and more to free up 2 hours every day.