This is a guest post from our client Leslie Shreve, founder of ProductiveDay.com. Enjoy!
I recently finished a great book called “Your Brain at Work” by David Rock. As I was reviewing it again I realized how fascinating some of the research is about how your brain affects your thinking and your productivity. I felt compelled to share some of it with you as it relates to how you manage your day, getting the most out of your productivity and your success. The more you know about how you’re brain is working, the more you can help it help you so you can be more productive and more successful on the job.
Here are 6 fascinating facts that can help you understand how to maximize your brain at work:
1. Focusing on your task list first will help your ability to prioritize
Most people come into work, get settled in their offices, get their coffee and then the first thing they check is e-mail. I encourage my clients to check their Outlook Task list first.
Why? Because Rock says “…prioritizing involves … understanding new ideas, as well as making decisions, remembering, and inhibiting, all at once. It’s like the triathlon of mental tasks. […] doing ten minutes of emailing can use up the power needed for prioritizing.”
Instead of looking at (and get sucked into) your e-mail first thing every day and many other times throughout your day, look at your task list first, no matter where it is.
2. Good health is the solution for sharpening your focus
If you push the limits of your body and mind and wear yourself down, it’s no surprise that your brain checks out. When you get tired or hungry it’s easy to get distracted and lose focus.
Why? Because you’re low on fuel. The prefrontal cortex is used for planning, controlling impulses, thinking creatively, thinking things through and problem solving. It requires significant resources to operate, like glucose and oxygen, and your brain uses them faster than people realize.
Take care of yourself and your prefrontal cortex – the outer covering of the brain that sits behind the forehead. You can do this with good eating habits, getting plenty of sleep at the right times and regular exercise.
3. Making tough decisions and deep thinking are best when you’re rested
This may seem obvious, but don’t try to make one difficult decision after the next or attempt continuous problem solving for any length of time. Half day and day long meetings spring to mind when I think of this one. They can be exhausting.
Why? Because just like varying your daily exercise to work out different parts of your body, your brain benefits from mixing up the kinds of thinking it does all day long. New and different tasks will give certain parts of your brain a rest while working other parts. Your “[prefrontal cortex] tires from use, and can do a lot more after a good rest. Making a tough decision might take thirty seconds when you are fresh and be impossible when you’re not.”
Get to know your brain and its energy levels so you can plan to use your time for different types of tasks or thinking. Schedule time blocks for prioritizing, creative work, or project planning when you are at your most rested. This time may be late at night for some and early in the morning for others. It could also be after a break or exercise. Be sure to vary the kinds of tasks and thinking you do every few hours or less.
4. Distractions work against you x 2
As mentioned earlier, your prefrontal cortex needs lots of fuel to operate at peak efficiency, so when you get distracted on top of being tired or hungry you have to deal with a double punch. If you were successfully focused on a task and holding your own, then someone or something interrupts or distracts you, you will have less luck getting focused again at the prior level when you come back to your task.
Why? Because “distractions are not just frustrating; they can be exhausting. By the time you get back to where you were your ability to stay focused goes down even further, as you have even less glucose available now.”
Reduce your susceptibility to interruptions and distractions of any kind if you want to finish what you start when you begin a task or project. Channel your break times and socializing between stretches of focused time for getting things done.
5. Routines are time savers and brain savers
“Routine” is defined by Dictionary.com as a “customary, regular, unvarying, habitual, unimaginative, or rote procedure.” Creating routines and systematic processes can save you lots of time throughout your day.
Why? Because the basal ganglia are “highly energy efficient, with fewer overall limitations than the prefrontal cortex” and “[w]hen you embed a repetitive task, you are pushing routines down in to the […] basal ganglia [which] are central to how the brain stores routine functions.”
Practice routinely adding tasks to your Outlook Task list instead of spreading them out in different places. Consistently use the same file system for all your papers and files, the same contact system for all your contacts (and other people’s business cards) and the same e-file system for all your electronic documents. Then organize the items in your smaller desk drawers so you always know exactly where things are.
Imagine rethinking everything you already know how to do! Like learning how to drive, dance or type on the computer. The more things you can embed in your brain and do with very little conscious attention, the more you can accomplish every day easier and faster, saving your brain some energy and saving you lots of time.
6. Multi-tasking can cause mistakes
A lot of people pride themselves on multi-tasking, which can be confused with two other types of activities: switch-tasking and background tasking, according to Dave Crenshaw, author of “The Myth of Multi-Tasking.”
Background tasking means you can do one conscious task and another one subconsciously, which is usually fine because there’s less risk of mistakes. But switch-tasking requires you to jump from task to task very quickly, which can diminish focus, use lots of brain energy and open you up to mistakes. A good example of this is trying to read and reply to an important e-mail while talking on the phone with an important client. You will likely make a mistake or risk negative outcomes on both tasks.
Rock says that “If you do multiple conscious tasks at once you will experience a big drop-off in accuracy or performance.” Why? Because as Rock states, “You can focus on only one conscious task at a time. Switching between tasks uses energy; if you do this a lot you can make more mistakes. […] The only way to do two mental tasks quickly, if accuracy is important, is doing one of them at a time.”
So catch yourself the next time you try to do more than one conscious task at a time. Focus yourself on one thing or one person at a time. Your results will be better and you’ll be more respectful of the people around you.
Productivity expert and founder of Productive Day, Leslie Shreve, publishes Work Day Wonders to help highly motivated experts like you put their work day on cruise control at peak productivity to enjoy less stress, more progress and great success. If you’re ready to be in the driver’s seat of your work day and leave your frustrations behind, subscribe now to get your FREE subscription. As a BONUS, you’ll also get the 7 Power Steps to Peak Productivity, a 7-day e-mail series of tips you can start using today!