We live in the age of the superhuman. We’re supercharged supercomputing superbeings supertasking. We do more than any single human being in any previous era ever imagined possible. Watch us juggle between jobs and hobbies, family and friends, home stuff and travel, professional networks and personal lives. You name it — it’s already on the calendar.
No wonder we’re overwhelmed.
You know that feeling. When one task or one demand too many shifts us from all systems go to overload. That surrendering realization of, “Ugh. I. Just. Can’t. Anymore.” That’s when productivity stalls and we get stuck.
Counter to the advice of every sports coach we ever had, the answer isn’t to try harder. It’s to work smarter, to work in tune with our bodies, our brains, and our metabolic needs. In his book Your Brain at Work, David Rock explains why the burden we place on ourselves these days wears us down:
• First, decision-making is metabolically expensive. It’s not very efficient and it requires a lot of fuel (glucose and oxygen). And pretty much everything we do requires decisions — including choosing to take a left turn or a right turn, or to say no to a candy bar and choose a carrot instead.
• So it makes sense that the more decisions we make, the less fuel we have, making each successive decision harder.
• Not surprisingly, our best quality thinking lasts for a limited amount of time (some experts say 90 minutes, other say 25 minutes). And then, pffft! We need a break. The duration of that time depends on factors such as individual attention spans, stress, and energy levels.
• And perhaps most important, our best quality thinking is only possible when we’re focused on a single task at a time.
To power up our productivity, it helps to understand our brains and the massive mental energy costs of our busy modern lives. Then, we can adjust our work habits accordingly and increase our capacity to get things done.
WORKING WITH OUR BRAINS, NOT AGAINST THEM
Brains are remarkable engines. They’re also fussy, fuel-hungry, and highly susceptible to tiny changes in both the internal and external environment. To maximize their power, we can prioritize information and decision-making, automate routine tasks, and reduce distractions.
1. Prioritize critical thinking tasks. You know how, after an hour or so of browsing at a mall or a grocery store, everything starts to look the same? You can’t make decisions anymore. You’re so mentally tired that your brain wants to shorthand its work and stop filtering through billions of bytes of incoming information. That’s called decision fatigue — and it affects even the best of us.
A 2010 study of decision-making among parole review boards found that judges were six to seven times more likely to grant parole if parolees appeared before them first thing in the morning or just after a lunch break. Tired judges, low on glucose and fatigued from a whole day of high-stakes mental work, simply defaulted to the easiest possible decision.
Like those judges, we do our best quality thinking when our brains are fueled and alert. Several elements are responsible, including: rest, glucose levels (fact: our brains are powered by this basic food substance, not just our muscles), and hormone levels — which, in turn, are affected by factors such as our emotional state, stress levels, and 24-hour circadian rhythms.
Here are three ways to extend your quality thinking time:
• Determine what kinds of mental tasks deplete you and which help you build momentum for other tasks. If email drains you, save it for later. If your inbox tends to be filled with notes and ideas that help spark insights, however, it might be a good kickstart to your day.
• Take breaks to rest your brain between difficult tasks.
• Fuel yourself with complex carbohydrates to give a time-release supply of glucose to your brain. Simple carbs give your brain a spike, but then it crashes. Choose foods low on the glycemic index to maximize your energy high.
2. Automate routine tasks. Are you spending 30 minutes each morning picking your outfit? Or, in between brainstorming ideas for your afternoon meeting, is the choice between tuna salad and grilled cheese sapping your mental energy? Brain power is finite and precious, so it helps to save fuel for the decisions that matter and to automate the rest. This is where routines help. Tasks that we practice over and over again are embedded into the less-fuel hungry parts of our brains, freeing up the conscious, decision-making parts for more demanding mental processing.
Some tried and true alternatives:
• Elect a go-to outfit and lunch (e.g., Obama only wears black and gray suits; Anderson Cooper eats the same lunch daily).
• Schedule routine tasks when more important decisions or information aren’t competing for your conscious attention (i.e., pack your lunch and pick your outfit the night before).
• Perform the same task at the same time every day, such as a yoga session or reviewing your weekly budget. This is how new habits become familiar routines.
• Create habit cues. If you want to exercise every morning, keep your running shoes and equipment near the door. If you want to practice the guitar, keep it in an accessible place.
• Keep your essentials, like keys, wallet, phone, in designated places so you don’t have to exert mental energy to search for them.
• Use technology to automate bill-paying, save shopping lists, remember birthdays and anniversaries, set routine calendar reminders, or save maps or directions. Here are some good suggestions from Lifehacker.
• Make your shopping list before you set foot in the store. Retailers use all sorts of tactics to tempt you toward impulse purchases. Every time you have to consciously inhibit an urge to buy, mental energy is sapped.
3. Single-task to do your best work. The glory of multi-tasking is a myth. Each mental process (whether understanding, deciding, recalling, memorizing, or inhibiting) requires firing up billions of neurological pathways. Because each process requires many of the same pathways and lots of brain energy, one process must finish before the next can begin. So, when we think we’re multi-tasking, we’re really stopping one task and switching to another very quickly — and then back again.
Called dual-task interference, this wear-and-tear depletes the brain’s fuel stores and puts valuable insights and ideas at risk of evaporating just as they are beginning to form. Indeed, dual-task interference can cause your brain capacity to drop from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an eight-year-old, according to a 1992 study on the subject.
Another fact: when we’re fielding emails and texts all day long, we’re forcing our brains to multi-task. A 2005 study on “always-on technology” found that it reduced an individual’s performance on an IQ test by an average of ten points (five points for women, and fifteen points for men).
Follow these single-tasking tips to work smart:
• Chunk instead of multi-task: Divide your day into different kinds of mental tasks (brainstorming, then reading, then writing, then reviewing, then emailing, and so on), prioritizing the most energy-hungry tasks for the freshest part of your day.
• If you must multi-task, combine automated routine tasks with critical thinking tasks. For example, brainstorm while dishwashing. Answer voicemail while walking to the store.
• Constant emails and texts are distractions. When you need to focus on an important task, switch them off so you switch your productivity on.
• More digital distraction busters: Unsubscribe from promotional emails that suck your time or attention (or finances). Maintain “inbox zero” by archiving old emails and using filters. Use Facebook filters to keep annoying posts out of your feed and only tune into the kinds of status updates that you love. Adblock is also a great tool for blocking content or ads.
4. Get into the stress flow. The average person has a love-hate relationship with stress. Too much stress, and we can’t focus. Too little stress, and we can’t get motivated. We do our best work when we’re right in between. In psychology, this is called the Yerkes-Dodson law.
This is because stress is regulated by the levels of hormones in the blood stream. There are feel-good hormones (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphin) that calm or arouse us, and high-alert hormones (norepinephrine, adrenaline, cortisol) that focus our attention by putting our systems on alert. Each is sensitive to internal and external signals. However, we can coax our bodies into releasing intermediate levels of feel-good and high-alert hormones through some simple tricks.
• When you’re too stressed, it helps to bring norepinephrine or cortisol levels down through relaxation techniques. Take a shower. Meditate. Go for a walk. Doodle. Write down your distracting thoughts and put them aside for later.
• On the other hand, to increase motivation, try something new to stimulate the release of dopamine. Could be reading about a new topic, a different route home, a new recipe for a familiar food.
• Reach out to others to talk through ideas out loud and ask for feedback when stress gets you stuck. Sharing thoughts and emotions and collaborating on goals bathes your brain in oxytocin.
• A few minutes of strenuous physical activity (a set of push ups, for example) can also kick you into gear with a release of endorphins.
• Visualization is another powerful trick to adjust stress levels. Imagining a feel-good reward (you’ll win the contest!) or a high-alert threat (your partner will be angry!) can help rebalance your stress levels and get you motivated.
“By understanding your brain, you increase your capacity to change your brain,” Your Brain at Work tells us. So, when productivity nosedives, take a moment to figure out what’s going on in your head. Are you wasting precious brainpower on routine tasks? Are you trying to do too many things at one time? Do you need to decrease or increase your stress level? Once you put a label on your cognitive roadblock, it’s easier to reach for the right tool or tip to start moving forward. As an extra benefit, we create new neural pathways that rewire our brains for greater productivity.
PRINTABLE TIP CARD #16: 4 principles for productivity