May 13, 2015 Tahj Mayes

Put Your Brain to Work for You

Your brain is a 3-pound organ inside your head that tells you what to do. It controls everything about your life: your movement, your memory, your moods, your senses, your speech, your sleep, and even involuntary functions like breathing, digesting, and circulation. It is a magnificent, complex bundle of wires that scientists have barely begun to understand.

When it comes to our work lives, we can either choose to work with our brain’s natural systems or in opposition to them. Ever feel like you’re falling asleep at your desk, or you just can’t focus on that project that’s been looming? It may be because your happy hour lasted a little too long the night before–or it may be because your work environment is in direct conflict with the way your brain is wired. If you’d like to unlock your potential for focus, motivation, problem-solving, and creativity on the job, you need to work with the brain in mind.

5 Ways to Make Your Brain Work for You

1. NOVELTY

You know that feeling when you look in your closet (that is full of clothes) and say, “I have nothing to wear”? You’re really saying, “I having nothing new to wear.” Wearing new clothes, listening to new music, traveling to new places, and meeting new people make us feel good. But did you know there’s actually biology behind it? Studies have shown that completely new things cause strong activity in the midbrain area, including the release of dopamine. And dopamine stimulates movement, cognition, and pleasure.

Novelty at work: Keep it fresh! Every day change something around: sit in a different desk or a different position, or even change your furniture arrangement. Frequently bring new photos, artwork, flowers, or other items of visual interest. Take a different path through your office building. Work on tasks that require focus for only 20-30 minutes at a sitting, then set it aside and do something else for a while. Pursue a new challenge or award every month. Partner with a different team member. Surprise everyone by bringing pizza for lunch. Wear a new piece of clothing or alter your look.

 

2. MOVEMENT

It’s surprising that many of us sit at a desk all day long and expect to be productive. Brain researchers have produced a plethora of evidence that shows a strong link between movement and cognition. Movement improves memory, enhances motivation, relieves stress, provides energy, and boosts confidence.

Movement at work: When working on long projects, take a “brain break” every 20-30 minutes. Sure, they take 1-3 minutes to complete, but you’ll easily make up the time in productivity and focus. Stand up and stretch. Do push-ups against the wall. Touch your toes. Pat your head and rub your tummy, then switch. Walk up and down the stairs. Use your water bottle as a weight while you do some curls. Hand deliver paperwork instead of emailing it in. Sit on a yoga ball. When brainstorming, take a walk and think out loud–bonus points for doing so with a partner!

 

3. STRUCTURE

Our brains are basically complex filing systems. We file information by connecting it to things we already know, and each night as we are sleeping, our hippocampus decides whether the new information is valuable enough to hold onto in the long-term memory. The more connections you make between new information and old information, the more likely your hippocampus is to decide to retain the information.

Structure at work: Give your filing systems an extra helping hand by using lists, charts, graphs, and tables to organize information, provide you with extra clarity, and the ability to see new connections. In decision-making, use Venn Diagrams to compare and contrast various options to help you weigh the pros and cons. Also, when training or completing a new type of project, activate your prior knowledge by making a list of what you already know about it, giving your brain hooks on which to hang the new information.

brain concept

4. OWNERSHIP

When we possess something, our brains see it as an extension of ourselves, wrapping it into our sense of identity. This is true of objects like your car, your phone or even your favorite coffee mug. But this is also true of less-concrete items, like an idea or a goal. The brain motivates us to hold on to those objects or ideas by releasing dopamine when you get something new (see Novelty). Interestingly, just the expectation of future possession is enough to activate this sense of ownership in the brain. If there’s something your brain decides it could reasonably have but does not have, your brain will produce tension and stress until it is obtained.

Ownership at work: Motivate and focus yourself by setting goals and daily expectations. Your brain will repeatedly produce thoughts on the object of its desire and limit itself by weeding out ideas of lesser importance. Start small with something measurable you could easily accomplish, and break big projects into small tasks. Avoid setting unreasonable goals or setting too many goals at once. The more your brain thinks it should own, the more stress and anxiety you will feel by not accomplishing those goals.

 

5. SOCIAL INTERACTION

In the book Social by Matthew Lieberman, the author theorizes that our need for human interaction is more basic even than our need for food and water. Our brains respond to physical pain or pleasure, but Lieberman’s research shows our brains respond to social pain and pleasure in much the same way. To avoid these pains, our brains use sophisticated techniques to analyze thousands of signals to read others’ moods, motives, fears, and dreams. Lieberman claims our need to connect to others is one of the greatest–if not the greatest–motivators behind our behavior. Chronic isolation is not only unproductive, but it can also have disastrous effects on our minds and bodies.

Social Interaction at work: Collaborate effectively. Collaboration provides accountability, spurs innovation, utilizes diversity, fuels problem-solving, and increases efficiency, so if you work from home, keep your energy and mood up by utilizing Skype or Google chat. Be sure team members properly set expectations, including project goals and deadlines. Play to each other’s strengths by assigning specific roles to each team member and delegating tasks. Celebrate small victories and show appreciation for jobs well done. Create a culture of openness about challenges team members notice, and treat everyone with respect to build long-lasting, working relationships that will motivate successes for years to come.

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