Is your inbox bursting with emails, your calendar crammed with meetings, and your schedule full of deadlines? Do you feel like no matter how long or hard you work, you’re never able to get ahead and complete the important projects that require your attention? While some of these circumstances might be beyond your control, there are steps you can take to work smarter, center your focus, and increase your productivity. By helping you understand how your brain works, the tools in Your Brain at Work will help you accomplish your tasks more efficiently and effectively.
Instead of drowning you in complex scientific language, this book simply tells you the story of how your brain works. Along the way, you’ll benefit from practical tips that will help you harness your brain’s innate potential. By understanding how your mind responds to deadlines, distractions, stress, and other factors, you’ll learn to master the pressures you face at work. You might even surprise yourself with how well you perform in situations that once gave you trouble.
Your Brain at Work follows two fictional figures, Emily and Paul, who serve as practical, relatable examples of how people respond to everyday challenges at work. As Emily and Paul discover more about how their brains operate and learn to make different decisions, you’ll also learn how to incorporate these changes into your own way of doing things.
Solving Problems and Making Decisions
Recall a time when you felt like you just couldn’t make one more decision. Maybe you worked all day, wrangled your kids, ran errands, and juggled other commitments. Finally, at a certain point, you felt that your brain needed a break.
You were onto something: Your brain did need rest. Scientists call this feeling “decision fatigue,” and it happens when your mind has experienced information overload. Thinking, solving problems, and making decisions require a lot of brain power, and you have biological limitations that determine how many of these activities you can do in a certain amount of time. Understanding that these limits are a natural part of being human can help you rethink how you organize your schedule and restructure your work.
Begin is with your morning email. If you’re like many people, you wake up, roll over, and immediately check your phone to find that you’ve been bombarded with emails as you slept. Some might be personal, while others might be work related. Before the day has even begun, your mind is flooded with stress hormones, and your thoughts are racing in search of an approach to the various problems that popped up overnight.
Maybe you can relate to the character of Emily, who feels flooded with anxiety when she sees 100 new emails in her inbox and knows that it will take all day to respond to them. But how can she manage her inbox when she also has four meetings, a doctor’s appointment, and an upcoming project deadline? Despite her best intentions, she knows there’s no way she’ll be able to keep up with all these pressures.
In moments like these, the brain’s prefrontal cortex goes into overload. This is the part of the brain where decision making and prioritizing take place, and without it, you wouldn’t be able to set goals, make choices, or control your impulses. Yet this important section of the brain requires a great deal of energy (in the form of glucose and oxygen) in order to function, and the more you use it, the more down time it needs to recharge. Its resources are limited, and it takes time for it to process additional metabolic fuel that it must use to function at its best. Although one option to increase the functioning of your prefrontal cortex is to start sipping sugary drinks throughout the day (and many people do just that), this solution obviously isn’t great for your overall health.
A more beneficial strategy is to rethink how you use this valuable yet limited resource. Rather than devoting your early morning energy to an overwhelming load of emails, prioritize your tasks for the day. Decide what is most important for you to accomplish before you actually begin tackling anything. This takes the pressure off your prefrontal cortex to keep deciding what is most important as new challenges pop up over and over again throughout the day. Since you’ve already mapped out a plan in advance, you can stay focused and protect your priorities, giving your mind ample time to reenergize itself between tasks.
But sometimes, even with careful planning, you hit a roadblock that threatens to knock your day off course. How do you stay focused when this happens? The first thing to do is remove any external distractions that may deplete your brain power: Clear your desk, turn down your lights, put your phone on airplane mode, and even turn off your internet temporarily. Vigorously defend yourself from such sensory intrusions. Next, shut out internal distractions: Stop worrying about the problem or thinking about what you’re going to tell your client. That can all wait; you’ll get there. But what you need to do in the moment is allow your brain to concentrate on coming up with solutions to the roadblock you’ve encountered. By removing both internal and external distractions, you empower your mind to use all its valuable energy to tackle the problem.
Staying Cool Under Pressure
In addition to helping you make choices and solve problems, your brain is equipped to help you detect danger. As you go through your day, your mind is constantly noting subtle changes in your environment, evaluating potential threats to your wellbeing, and making sense of dangers and rewards. Often, your emotions are tied to these underlying processes in your brain, even if you’re not aware of it. Your brain’s vigilance keeps you alive, but it can also flood you with strong emotions — like anger, fear, or distress — that prevent you from performing at your best. To overcome these emotions, you must develop the ability to regulate them. Emotion regulation is an essential skill that can help you lead a calmer, more balanced, and more rewarding life.
Consider the example of Paul, who works in a creative field and has just had a meeting with two clients. They press him with important questions about his budget and timeline, and then threaten to move their project overseas, which would severely impact his finances. During the discussion, they also manage to insult him. The meeting ends badly, and Paul heads home and immediately starts picking fights and yelling at his family members. Paul knows he should control his temper, but he feels worried, enraged, and threatened by the potential loss of income. He knows better than to blame his family for the unsuccessful meeting, but the emotions that he suppressed during the professional encounter — fear, sadness, helplessness, anger — come spilling out of him. Paul mistakenly believed that trying not to feel those difficult emotions in the moment would make him stronger, but he wasn’t truly able to keep his cool under pressure because he exploded the moment he got home.
What causes emotional outbursts like these? The brain processes emotions through a large network called the limbic system, which connects your thoughts, memories, and emotions to objects, people, and events. The limbic system works to minimize pain and maximize reward, so it’s always trying to determine whether something in your world is a potential threat. When this system perceives a potential danger — in Paul’s case, losing income and being insulted — it goes into over drive. This impairs the functioning of the rest of your brain in an effort to protect you. Whether the threats are real or imagined, physical or mental doesn’t matter. The limbic system takes energy away from your prefrontal cortex, making you more likely to respond negatively to threatening situations, just as Paul did when he got angry with his family.
How can you learn to stay cool under pressure and regulate your emotions, even when a difficult situation pushes your limbic system to the breaking point? The first step you can take is to stay aware of your physical responses. Is your heart pounding? Is your face red? Are your hands sweaty? Are you having trouble focusing? These are warning signs that your brain is being flooded with fight-or-flight chemicals. When you observe these signs, take a step back and acknowledge how you’re feeling. Just by recognizing and articulating how you feel, you’re reestablishing more balance in your system.
Next, consciously regulate your breathing and take in more oxygen through slow, deep breaths. Try to refocus your attention on a neutral external stimulus, such as the light coming through a window or the sound of someone’s voice. This redirects some of your brain’s heightened energy and allows the more rational, reflective part of your brain to resume its work. And remember, trying to suppress how you feel will only make the emotional response more powerful, not less.
Working with Others
Solving problems, making decisions, and staying cool under pressure are all ways to harness your brain’s abilities and improve your personal performance. But what happens when your results are determined by how well others collaborate with you? In these situations, you must not only be aware of how your brain is working but also how others’ minds are operating. Many people find working with others to be one of the greatest challenges of their workplace. People approach projects with diverse skills and perspectives and finding common ground can be difficult. Your colleagues may have priorities that you find unimportant and vice versa. But regardless, you must work together to meet your deadlines.
Collaboration can be hard, but there are ways you can apply what scientists know about how the brain works to your advantage. To succeed in your projects with others, you need to focus people’s attention the right way. First, create a safe workplace environment that provides people with a sense of certainty, autonomy, familiarity, and fairness. When your colleagues feel comfortable, they’re more likely to be open to cooperation.
Then, focus your team’s attention by asking compelling questions about the project or framing your ideas in a narrative form. In other words, tell a story about how you came up with your perspective. Both techniques allow the brain to focus its attention in non critical ways. Finally, work on establishing goals together that help the team share a common vision. This will make your colleagues more receptive to new ideas and more invested in the objectives you share.
Your brain has magnificent abilities, but it also experiences complex responses and has limitations that must be understood in order to help you perform at your best.
In this summary, you learned about how these systems work together to keep you safe and provide you with the resources you need to thrive. The prefrontal cortex plays a vital role in helping you solve problems, make decisions, plan for the future, and exercise self control, but when you’ve been making too many decisions in a short amount of time, your energy gets depleted, and you experience decision fatigue. This is why it’s so important to prioritize the tasks you tackle early in the day and try to stick to a plan that enables you to remain focused and productive.
In addition, the brain’s powerful limbic system serves to identify threats and rewards to keep you safe, but it can become flooded with stress hormones that dull your thinking and make it hard to take appropriate action. By identifying the signs of limbic system overload, practicing deep breathing, and redirecting your attention, you can help some of these hormones dissipate so that you feel calmer and make better choices.
With these tools in mind, you’ll feel less anxious and distracted, so you can thrive at work.
About The Author
David Rock is the author of three bestselling books on how breakthroughs in neuroscience help people be more effective leaders