"By understanding your brain, you increase your capacity to change your brain."
Drawing upon interviews with thirty leading neuroscientists from all over the world and more than 300 research papers based on thousands of brain and psychological studies conducted in the last 25 years, Your Brain At Work is an extremely valuable resource that helps readers learn about how the human brain works. More importantly, David Rock focuses on creating and implementing practical strategies from these findings that will help you overcome distractions, become more focused, and work more effectively. With increasing distractions and information overload, this book is a must-read for the 21st century working professional.
Written like a drama, Your Brain At Work follows two central characters (Emily is an executive for a company that runs large conferences and Paul is a freelance IT consultant) as they navigate through various challenges at work and home. Each scene begins with a description of how they handle a challenging situation, followed by related research about the brain that explains their behaviour. Finally, it ends with a “Take 2” that re-imagines the initial scenario with Emily and Paul behaving differently by putting what they’ve learned about the brain into action.
The Myth of Multitasking
"Despite thirty years of consistent findings about dual-task interference, many people still try to do several things at once. Workers of the world have been told to multitask for years."
Making decisions and solving problems relies heavily on a region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. There are five main mental processes relevant to getting work done: understanding, decision-making, recalling, memorizing, and inhibiting. Each process involves manipulations of billions of neurological circuits, and here’s the key: one operation must finish before another can begin. When engaged in conscious activities, the brain works in a serial pattern: one thing after another.
Hundreds of experiments demonstrate that when people do two cognitive tasks at once, their cognitive capacity can drop from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an eight-year-old. This phenomenon is referred to as “dual-task interference.” The myth of multi-tasking is that you are not really doing two cognitive tasks at the same time. Instead, you are switching attention between tasks very quickly, which drains essential brain energy and makes it even more difficult for you to accomplish either task.
Rock describes several strategies that can help you work more effectively than the myth of multi-tasking, including:
- Prioritize Information & Decisions – A serious implication of the serial nature of the prefrontal cortex is the formation of bottlenecks. “A bottleneck is a series of unfinished connections that take up mental energy, forming a queue” (pg. 41). This means it’s important to make critical decisions first because they impact and cascade downwards to other decisions. For example, it doesn’t make sense to send wedding invites without first deciding on a date and venue; yet it’s possible to spend hours worrying about the little details such as paper texture and font.
- Mix Up Your Attention – If you have several things to do at once, decide how much time you are going to spend on each task and stick to those timelines. This is more effective than continuously flitting across several tasks.
"Your best-quality thinking lasts for a limited time. The answer is not always just to ‘try harder.’"
The prefrontal cortex requires a lot of metabolic fuel and goes through it very quickly, much like a gas-guzzling SUV. This means that if you make a complex decision, your brain depletes significant fuel and making yet another complex decision becomes much more difficult.
Think about the first thing you do on a Monday morning. If you’re a typical business professional, chances are you boot up your computer and start pounding away at emails. A better way to start the week is to close your office door, direct your phone to voicemail, and pull up a clean sheet of paper to determine your priorities and objectives.
Prioritization, or decision-making, requires significant brain fuel because it requires inhibition. Prioritizing means deciding what is important, but also means deciding what is not important and being careful not to get distracted by those non-critical tasks. Therefore, it’s important to prioritize when you have plenty of brain fuel. If you do prioritizing after an hour or two of emailing, it will take much longer and be more difficult to do.
Divide Your Day
"It’s helpful to become aware of your own mental energy needs and schedule accordingly."
By understanding that certain mental processes require more brain energy than others, we can more effectively schedule our day to minimize energy usage and maximize performance. One technique is to break up work into blocks of time based on type of brain use rather than topic. For example, if you have creative writing to do for several projects, it might make more sense to schedule all of your creative writing for a Tuesday afternoon, as opposed to breaking it up according to when you’re scheduled to work on each project.
More often than not, we schedule by the calendar – according to a particular project, account, or client – not by task type. Worse yet, we let ourselves become consumed by continuous distractions, such as email, and respond to issues as they arise, even if they are non-urgent. We then become victims of multi-tasking, as we jump from task to task without considering the significant impact on our brain and subsequent results from our distracted efforts.
In order to discipline your brain and become more efficient with your time, it’s critical to create and adhere to a schedule that optimizes your brain activity. Try scheduling blocks of time for activities such as: deep thinking, meetings, and routine tasks.
In the 21st century workplace, we have more tasks to do, more information to absorb, and more distractions to deal with than ever before. It can be easy to become overwhelmed and fall into the trap of multi-tasking. What Rock’s findings about the brain teach us is that it’s far more effective to re-arrange the how (prioritization) and when (timing) of how we complete our tasks.
David Rock wrote Your Brain At Work to help readers transform their professional performance by imparting recent and important discoveries about the human brain. I would argue that he was successful in that objective. Packed with interesting and highly valuable information about how the brain works as well as practical strategies to effectively harness these findings, Your Brain At Work is a resource that I will revisit often.