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Life By Design Blog

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Business Book Club: Your Brain at Work

I've I've set myself a goal to read one self-development book per month. To make sure I really reflect on what I'm reading I'm going to extract the wisdom from the best business and personal development books and share it with you.

This month I’ve been reading Your Brain at Work by David Rock

The Book

I’ve had this book for a while now and for some reason never got around to reading it. Reading an article about neuroscience prompted me to look into again and as it encourages us to dive deeper into the working of our brain it had an obvious appeal for me.

In the book, we follow a day in the life of Emily, a newly promoted marketing director and Paul, a self-employed IT contractor. The book begins at the start of their day, follows them through their email avalanches, challenging client meetings and office conflicts all the way through to their evening at home with their two teenagers. At each stage, David Rock explains the factors that are working against them, shares some insights from the world of neuroscience and finishes with a take two for each scenario so we can see how Emily or Paul might use their brain power to focus better, be more productive, think creatively, cool conflicts and ultimately get better outcomes.

The book is divided into 4 acts:

  • Act 1: Problems and Decisions

  • Act 2: Stay Cool Under Pressure

  • Act 3: Collaborate with Others

  • Act 4: Facilitate Change

The book goes into great detail about the neuroscience of how the brain works. It's all fascinating stuff but I can't even begin to summarise it all. Below is a very simplified explanation of a few key learning points.

Your Brain at Work .png

The bad news and the good news

To deal with the demands of modern life we’ve never needed a clear mind more. Most jobs demand that we are productive, focused and creative. Unfortunately, we’ve never faced more distractions either. Emails, social media messages and seemingly limitless entertainment options make today the most distracting time in human history.

The bad news is that it doesn’t look like those demands are going to change any time soon but the good news is that we can learn how our brains work and how to use them to perform better.

We have limited bandwidth

Much of the demands placed on our brain fall on our prefrontal cortex. We rely on it for 5 major functions:

  • Understanding

  • Deciding

  • Recalling

  • Memorising

  • Inhibiting

Whilst our prefrontal cortex is very good at these tasks they are very labour intensive and consume a huge amount of the brain’s energy. We only have so much conscious brainpower to go around. This means we can only consciously carry out one process at a time.

We may also carry out other well-used processes on autopilot (like driving on a familiar route) but if we attempt two cognitive tasks at once, our cognitive capacity can drop from that of a Harvard MBA to the level of an eight-year-old child. This means we cannot effectively multitask. When we attempt to do too much, we do each thing less well. When we switch back and forth between tasks, we burn up valuable working memory.

What can I do?

Prioritise prioritising.

Prioritising takes up a lot of mental bandwidth but it’s a task that will save mental effort later in the day. Start your day by identifying the most important tasks and plan the most cognitively demanding for the times when you have the most mental energy. This means not clearing your entire inbox when you arrive at work for example.


Remove distractions

If you need to complete an important task remove all potential distractions. Any additional stimuli such as text notifications or interruptions give the brain extra work to do in all 5 of the major functions, leaving less concentration left for the job at hand.

Go bite-size

When making a decision the optimal number of options to chose from is two. You could perhaps manage three or four reasonably well. Of course, most problems are far more complex than that. Rock suggests chunking information into smaller chunks to help.

Did you ever hear about the famous study suggesting that the most amount of information you could hold in your short-term memory was 7? Well, it turns out that isn’t the case. Participants in that study we not holding 7 numbers in mind (e.g 2709365), they were chunking the numbers into groups of 3 or 4 (e.g 27-09-365). Break your decision into themes, each consisting of 3 or 4 choices, make those first, then work your way down the next level of detail chunking the options as you go.

Get out of your head

Because our brains can only hold so much information at one time, getting information out of your head and on onto paper or a document can be extremely useful. Now the information is there in front of you and you can use your brain power for working with the information rather than trying to hold on to it. Rock suggests that pictures and symbols are great for this. Images and symbols are rich in meaning and can show the relationship between ideas and concepts, making them more efficient for the brain to process. This is why techniques like cartooning, writing in shorthand and mind mapping are so effective.

Don’t think at all

You will know from your own experience that trying to force your way through a task doesn't make you more productive. Rock suggests respecting your brains limitations and recognising when we aren’t in a suitable state to do a good job. He suggests coming back to the task at a more appropriate time or at least taking a break and clearing your mind before pushing on. Finally, if you don't have to think at all then don't. save your concentration for the tasks that need it. Perhaps Steve Jobs was on to something by wearing the same clothes every day after all.

Just the right amount of stress

Your brain works best with just the right level of arousal. Too little and you’re bored; too much and you’re overwhelmed. If you’re struggling to get started on a task, Rock suggests visualising the negative outcomes of not doing the task to stimulate norepinephrine and raise your alertness (or light a fire beneath you as I would say). When you are too stressed, Rock suggests clearing your mind, getting into a more relaxed state and simplifying the task, using chunking to break it down.

Stay Cool Under Pressure

Walk towards, run away

We’re naturally hardwired to pay more attention to fearful situations than rewarding ones. Thousands of years ago, navigating a dangerous world where being eaten by a predator was a very real possibility, only the more fearful humans survived. We tend to be more motivated by avoiding a threat than we are by gaining a reward. Even though our chances of being chased by a tiger are slim there are plenty of ‘threats’ out there that light up our limbic system or fear response, and to us, they feel every bit as scary.

The problem is that it’s hard to make good decisions under threat. When we make a decision under threat we tend to do so using our ‘autopilot’, great for quick decision making but not so great for accuracy. When we do this we make more mistakes, miss important information and make links where there are none. It also kills neurons making it hard to form new memories.


What can I do?

Before

  • Try and avoid situations that generate a threat response in the first place. This can be tricky to do but it’s easier to prevent negative emotional responses than to deal with them once they arise.

  • If you can’t avoid the situation can you adapt it to make it easier to deal with?

  • Focus your attention elsewhere. Replaying a difficult situation in your head won't help, try and direct your focus to more positive aspects of the situation.

After

So what if your threat response has already kicked in and you’re feeling angry, stressed or fearful?

  • Express it-suppressing your emotions doesn’t work. For one thing, it involves the labour intensive process of inhibiting. Rock's research has shown that the more you try and inhibit a thought process or emotion the harder each attempt becomes. It’s a tiring process and uses up more vital mental energy the more you do it.

    Another good reason not to suppress your emotions is that it makes other people feel uncomfortable. Other people feel threatened when you suppress emotions, making it harder to connect with other people when you need them most.

  • Label it-just a word, short phrase or metaphor will do. Something about labelling an emotion makes it much easier to deal with. Your brain craves certainty so perhaps this isn't such a surprise.

  • Re-appraise the situation-you may know this as reframing, or taking the same information and choosing a different way of looking at it. You can do this by thinking of different interpretations (they shouted at me =they don’t like me/ they shouted at me =they are having a bad day), normalising it or looking at it from someone else's perspective.


Connecting with others

We are all people people

When we were very young we were reliant on other people for survival. For this reason, your brain places a huge emphasis on social connection. The areas of our brain that light up when we are excluded from a social group are the same as when we experience physical pain.

Upon meeting people we quickly decide whether they are friend or foe, this activates different ‘brain circuits’. When we decide someone is a friend we use the same brain circuits as we use for our own experiences-we see their experiences as being more like our own. When we decide someone is a threat or if we don’t know enough about them, we use a different circuit and our threat response is activated. This creates a lot of extra work for our brains to do as now, we will find ourselves focusing as much on the interaction as we do on the business at hand.

Clearly, it is better to get to know people and see more friends in our environment.

SCARF.jpg

Rock also suggest how we might make ourselves less of a threat to others. He suggests we try to reduce the threat to other people's SCARF factors:

  • Status-social standing or ego

  • Certainty-certainty makes us feel more in control of our world

  • Autonomy-the ability to decide for ourselves

  • Relatedness-connection to other people

  • Fairness-the need to be treated fairly and also to see unfairness punished

Rock gives feedback as an example of something that threatens many of these factors. Let's say you want to give someone feedback that they are doing something that frustrates you. You threaten their:

  • Status-by suggesting that they are in the wrong

  • Certainty-if they thought you were OK with their behaviour

  • Autonomy-by pointing out their behaviour rather than letting them identify the problem themselves.

  • Relatedness-because now they are worried about your relationship

  • Fairness-if they think that you are singling them out.


Rock suggests that facilitating a situation or conversation where they can examine their own thinking and identify the problem for themselves might be a better approach.

What did I think of the book?

For the second time this year, I’m saying this is the best book I’ve blogged about so far. I wish I’d read it sooner. I was initially cynical about the storytelling approach that starts and concludes each chapter of this book but I have to say that it works very well and really brings the science to life. The chapters about dealing with conflict and facilitating change in others were real eye openers and I’ve since purchased his two other books to learn more.

This book has helped me understand my brain better and I can easily see why my less productive days are not so productive and what I can do to fix them. In a world where psychological research is being used by tech companies to steal away more and more of our attention for profit and where workplaces encourage an ‘always-on’ culture, the learning from this book has never been more important for maintaining your well being and productivity. Essential reading for anyone in my opinion

What should I read next? 

Have you read the book? What did you think? What shall I read next?

If you have any recommendations let me know below or via Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn


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