Ten things to do with your brain today

01 March 2014, at 12:00am

Chris Whipp puts forward 10 ‘easy’ things to do to avoid bottlenecks in our brains and to improve the way they function and stresses the importance a maintaining a positive state of mind

THIS article is inspired by an article written by renowned Australian neuroscientist, David Rock. David is the author of Your brain at work and one of a small band of neuroscientists making the advances in brain research of the last 15 years more accessible.

He is a director of the Neuroscience Institute in Australia for whom I have been assessing PGC students on their “Neuroscience of Leadership” course for about five years.

Whilst amazingly complex, our brains have some significant bottlenecks from a functioning perspective; we can pay attention only to a quite limited number of things at one time, we can’t multitask in a true sense and severe depletions to energy reserves frequently impair us.

Here are 10 easy things to do to improve the environment and way your brain functions. Most are counterintuitive and most you may instinctively reject or avoid because our natural habits of thinking and doing often push us in the opposite direction of what we really need to be doing.

1. Don’t check your e-mails first thing in the morning 

E-mail’s are one of the most ubiquitous drivers of computer habits and it can be difficult not to jump into your e-mails at the start of the day. From a neuroscientific perspective this is one of the worst things you can do.

Your brain is rested, clear and the energy tank is full: this is the time of day to get your brain working on demanding, complex or creative tasks. Instead, we overwhelm our brains with a deluge of largely irrelevant/unimportant e-mails that taxes our brain, reducing our decision-making capacity and energy reserves.

When you do address your e- mails, the advice is to be critical of what you read and engage with, write sparingly and generally don’t discuss complex issues or give feedback (particularly negative).

2. Prioritise your day to just three tasks 

Following on from the above, making your first task of your day prioritising your day whilst your brain is fresh, active and fully fuelled is logical. What might surprise you is that most of us cannot cope with more than perhaps three or four threads of thought, so the guide is to identify and engage with just three important objectives for the day.

As soon as you go beyond this, distractions and derailers interfere and we lose both conscious and unconscious focus.

3. Conserve your decision-making energy at every opportunity 

Our brains rapidly become fatigued and our decision-making energy should be protected wherever possible.

Focusing on identified priorities and saying no to other issues is as important as delegating, not thinking about non-urgent tasks until you really need to and actively avoiding internet distractions such as e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and the like.

4. Find and protect your quality thinking time 

Having talked to a lot of people, David has come to the conclusion that for many people our always on 24/7 world means that quality thinking time is severely limited, maybe little more than two hours per week.

For a species whose success is founded on cognitive abilities, this poses a serious threat.

The answer is to carve out quality thinking time and protect it vigorously. Producing and using quality time can be the biggest single driver to performance and results. 

Scheduling this time early in the day and in the first half of the week also helps as does turning off/avoiding all distractions.

5. Reserve meetings for your low-focus time

As part of protecting your quality thinking time you should identify when your brain is at its best.

Unless the subject is high stakes, there is a logic for arranging meetings for times when your energy might be on the ebb. Many meetings have limited productivity associated with them so, whilst counterintuitive, it may make sense to book meetings for low energy times.

6. At the beginning of a meeting, decide where you want to be by the end and how to get there

Most meetings start with detail, then rapidly devolve into problems and drama. In the absence of a clear vision of where the meeting needs to go, direction is lost, complexity overwhelms and conversation expands to fill the time available, whether it is productive or not.

Taking a few minutes before the meeting to identify clearly where you want to be at the end and how to get there most efficiently can have a profound effect on meeting productivity. 

7. Don’t waste precious energy trying to multitask 

Contrary to what your instincts might tell you, our brains can only do one conscious thing at a time.

We can develop some expertise at switching between tasks but there is always a cost involved and multitasking leads to reduced performance, more mistakes and wasted energy.

Also, it doesn’t actually save any time. One touch, focused single-task work is more efficient and does not deplete the brain’s reserves to as great an extent.

8. Learn to maintain a positive state of mind 

At its simplest, the brain defines everything as either a threat or a reward: without conscious thought we naturally move into a “toward state” or an “away state”, seeking more or less exposure as appropriate.

The reptilian part of our brain, which is concerned with survival, tends to be dominant which is why modern life can sometimes seem so challenging.

Becoming aware of and managing our mental state enables us to respond differently and the aim is to rebalance towards the “toward state” which offers positive opportunities.

9. Ensure down time

In evolutionary terms, the higher centres of the brain are relatively young, have high energy requirements and are very sensitive to the depletion of those energy resources.

Limiting your contact with technology and particularly internet- driven services is important as are simple things like good diet and sleep.

Simply doing something different and taking time out helps. Don’t be tempted to believe you can work at high pressures without paying a price; protecting down time enhances both productivity and creativity.

10. Celebrate small wins

Vets are both by nature and training excellent problem solvers. The flip side is that we often are so motivated to move onto the next problem that we lose sight of the value of the solutions we have already created.

We then focus so intently on problems that this becomes all we see, which carries a serious wellbeing price. Maintaining a positive state of mind is important, so recognising and celebrating our small successes are essential. n If you would like to know more about the subject, contact