After my experience with burnout last summer, I've had a fascination with how the brain works. At my lowest point last year, I could feel how limited my capacity was to take in new information. I can still remember one afternoon going into a dark, quiet room in our basement, lying down on a pillow, and waiting for my brain to recover.
While I took three pages of notes from the book, here are my take-aways that have made a difference for me:
- Build recovery time into the day. The brain is an energy hog, dipping into limited resources. Newness doesn't help. It's why you can find yourself exhausted at the end of the day when you are learning a new skill or coming up to speed with a new job. Knowing this has helped me to respect my own limitations and take a break when I feel the need. In addition, I no longer schedule back-to-back-to-back appointments, hoping to cram as much into the day as possible. Instead, I purposely leave large blocks of time open and plan my work around 60-90 minutes sprints, focused on a single task.
- Work your hardest problems when conditions are optimal for your brain. The prefrontal cortex is more like a fine-tuned Ferrari than a Mack truck. The prefrontal cortex is used heavily in our professional life--helping us make decisions, prioritize, compare, and analyze. (BTW--prioritizing is one of the activities that takes the most energy. Do it at the beginning of the day.) Peak performance requires the right conditions in terms of level of stress (not too much and not too little), removal of distractions, and adequate energy for attention. This means doing my hardest work in the morning, when I'm fresh, and when I feel like I'm "in the flow". If I'm feeling tired or anxious or pre-occupied, I leave my most challenging "to-do" for another day (or after taking a nap!) Photo by Andrew J. Sutherland.
- If you run into a roadblock, don't persist or resist. I'm sure we've all had this experience--the harder you work on an impasse, the more muddled it gets. Physiologically, resolving an impasse requires letting the brain idle, because it reduces the activation of wrong answers. (It's a painful and familiar conversation: "The answer is not 4. Why isn't it 4? How could it not be 4? Maybe I should try once more to see if it comes out 4...")
- Instead, take a break. Having a new insight involves hearing subtle signals--taking a whisper or an inkling and focusing on that. To do this requires having a quiet mind, with minimum electrical activity. Instead of continuing to think about the problem, engage other parts of your body or your brain (e.g., eye-to-hand coordination, fine motor skills.) Do activities that will allow you to see another perspective. I particularly like this strategy when I run into technical difficulties--my computer freezes, a download doesn't work, or my printer keeps returning an error. This happened recently when I needed to download software for a webinar I was giving to a corporate client. The download didn't seem to be working and I couldn't get the webcam on my end to work. After a brief walk around the neighborhood, I broke through my own logjam of thinking and realized that I had not rebooted my computer after the download. It worked. Photo by jmayer1129
- Write things down. It's better to use the brain to interact with information rather than trying to store informaiton. Continuing with the theme of a fine-tuned Ferrari, the prefrontal cortex has an amazingly small capacity for holding more than one concept in memory at the same time. In fact, it's downright pitiful, compared to what we can hold with plain paper and pencil, let alone our iPhone. Studies show that the brain can hold no more than 4 concepts at a time in memory and the more complex the concepts, the worse it gets. Give me four things to buy at the grocery store. If I have to remember to stop at the cleaners on the way there, chances are I'll forget one of the items by the time I get to the check out lane. Photo by quacktaculous
- Don't multi-task. If you do, expect that your brain will get a lot "dumber". Trying to do multiple tasks that require attention means a huge drop off in accuracy and/or performance. It's as if your brain just regressed from college level to kindergarten, or mastery to novice. I think of this every time I'm tempted to multi-task on a phone call. (If you are a coaching client, don't worry. I make it a rule never to multi-task when coaching.) According to the author, multi-tasking only works if you are executing automatic embedded routines with active thinking tasks. For example, driving to work and thinking about what you will say in a status report for your boss. Taking a new route to work or moving to a new city where the streets are unfamiliar? Better focus on driving if you don't want to take a wrong turn.
- Turn enemies into friends. This is one of the most fascinating things I learned. The brain quickly classifies strangers as "friend" or "foe". In the absence of positive cues, your brain defaults to classifying a stranger as "foe".
I experienced this firsthand when I went to my dentist's office to get a crown on my tooth. Just before the appointment, my dentist--the one I had known for the last twenty years--retired and sold his practice to two brothers. Intellectually, I knew that my old dentist had picked his successors carefully. But emotionally, my brain was still saying "Foe! Foe! Foe!" I found myself in the dentist's chair tensing up as the assistant was prepping me for the crown, before meeting the new dentist. Remembering the "foe" default, I mentioned to the assistant that I was nervous. She said something to the dentist and being sensitive to taking over an existing practice, he sat down and said, "I would be nervous, too. Let me tell you about myself, my work, and the process of deciding that this practice was a fit." After a few minutes, my brain was registering, "Friend. Ahh...." Photo by kingeroos.
I used to be driven by the challenge of "how much I can get done", even if it meant driving myself into the ground. Now, I see that the challenge is getting the right things done, in a way that uses my energy wisely.
How are you making the best use of your brain?
For more info about David Rock's work and the concepts from the book, watch the following GoogleTech Talk: