Have a quick look around if you are reading this article at your desk or in your office. You are in a specific situation, an artificial environment, which was created for your tasks.
The thing is: no matter how thoughtful your office was designed, it most likely doesn’t correspond with the natural environment of your brain, just because a brain is not made for the typical office. Actually the brain isn’t “made” for any environment at all, it rather adjusts to its surrounding automatically. It learns and optimizes its thinking paths, depending on how we use it. That also means that the thinking performance of the brain can be improved, if you consider how we are thinking.
Anyone who is regularly working in an office will probably have recognized that our brain can be a troublemaker sometimes. It doesn’t focus, is distracted easily, gets involved in things it shouldn’t and needs a break all the time. But that’s normal, the brain is not a thinking machine. We can’t permanently work on a problem, we need breaks to think effectively. To be able to do its best thinking the brain works in rhythms.
Step 1: Activation
Before a brain can process information it has to absorb it. During the process of absorption the brain is very communicative, as it aims to gather as much information as possible. Sending e-mails, getting on the phone with colleagues, presenting in meetings and discussions – the more ways we exchange information regarding one specific task the better. This is because for our brain information isn’t static, instead it changes depending how they are used.
Tip: Talk first – work later! At the beginning of a workday a stimulating environment is activating. Do your e-mails and correspondence before you turn to further tasks of your day. That way the brain automatically collects the information that it will use more effectively afterwards.
Step 2: Focus
The activating warm-up time is followed by a phase of focus. Letting the brain do its work and freeing it of any external distractions is crucial in this phase, because our brain’s capacity is limited and even subconscious thoughts and processes need resources, which will be pulled from other processes. E-mail alerts, conversations in the background or music are disturbing this phase of concentration. The only way our brain is able to focus is to actively switch all these factors off.
Tip: Set the finish line! Every phase of deep focus should be limited to a certain timeframe. Always set yourself a specific timeframe or a deadline for focused work. It can be minutes or a few hours. Only if you can overlook the time scope of a task you can pace yourself according to the energy you have.
Step 3: Regeneration
Why is it that professional athletes are higher performers than amateurs? Not necessarily because they train more but because they use breaks more effectively. Only if breaks are used for regeneration you can improve. Same applies to the brain. It can’t permanently perform, it needs distraction and rejuvenation. Just like high performance athletes uses their breaks in smart ways, high performance thinkers use breaks to improve their brain’s performance. After an hour the latest the brain deserves a short break of a few minutes. The longer relaxation phases however are also very important, especially in the evenings before we go to sleep. It is not without a reason that we sleep. In this time the brain creates a stimuli-free room to process and save the information that it collected during the day. On a side note: free yourself from the thought that breaks are a waste of time. Subconsciously the brain continues to think about the task at hand and comes to new thoughts and ideas when you give it a break.
Tip: Mental pit stop! Micro pauses of a few seconds are often sufficient to keep the brain working. The glance outside is enough. The brain uses this short distraction to stop automated thought processes and restart them with new energy – just like a mental pit stop.
The brain doesn’t work statically like a computer, but in rhythms and it will always adjust to the tasks. The more you use it, the better it will work. Especially if you accelerate your thinking with these tricks:
• Attention: The natural enemy of focus is multitasking. Not only do you need too many resources and make too many mistakes when you switch tasks all the time, the more we do it, the worse we become in paying attention to tasks. Use to-do-lists and strike things of the list as soon as you’ve done them. This will activate the brain’s reward system and will motivate it for the next task.
• Routines: At first routine sounds boring and dull, however they are a sophisticated way of our brain to optimize thinking paths so they work almost automatically and therefore with less energy (which by the way is what distinguishes an intelligent from an average brain). Try to develop routines for repeating tasks. This will save time and thinking work which you will be able to use for more complex thinking.
• Space: We need necessary resources to be high performers. That also applies to the office. In the best case the work environment allows workers to choose between different spaces so they can pick their environment based on the task at hand.
Choose unusual places for unusual tasks, take your laptop for a walk or do your thinking at the cafeteria.
• Motivation: the best way to be motivated is to know where to go. If you know when a task is done you can conclude it. Work with check-lists and mark every progress you are making. Small acknowledgements like this are enough to activate the reward system in the brain.
Dr Henning Becks is a Neuroscientist at Steelcase.