Recipe: How To Make The Most of Your Brain

Sometimes people say that human brain is not fit for the tasks and challenges of today’s jobs. For me, the main problem is rather that we tend to use our brains very inefficiently.

The following principles make it easier to understand why the brain is not the ideal tool in today’s working environment, where people often try to monitor several information channels simultaneously, all while multitasking:

  • The brain likes immediate novelty — it likes Facebook updates more than everyday work. Updates in social networks are like candy that provides direct pleasure. On the other hand, in everyday work the rewards (paycheck, good words from colleagues) come only after several hours of hard work.
  • Due to our brain’s preference for novelty it’s really easy to disturb the brain — a glimpse of a new e-mail or a constructive remark by a co-worker are both the kind of things that can destroy concentration. They are both novel inputs that capture important resources.
  • One can already infer from the previous points that the brain is a really lousy multitasker by nature. Working tasks that require thinking are always approached in a serial fashion (one task after the other). Every time a work-related phone call occurs or some question from social media needs answering, the brain has to switch from one task to another.
  • Our conscious evaluation of our own abilities is often wrong. Some people think that they are superb multitaskers, although the facts prove this wrong.
  • After intensive slaving away, the part of the brain that was being used needs rest.
PET-image of human brain

The activity patterns of our brain depend on the task. Different tasks recruit somewhat different brain areas. Image by Jens Maus / Wikimedia Commons

Thus, in accordance with these principles, if you want to complete an important task at hand, then you are better off if you:

1. Concentrate on one thing at a time. Close down everything else (the browser, Facebook, mailbox, smartphone, a nosy co-worker). Disable all updates and notifications.

2. Use your best working time (for many it is morning) for the most important creative work. Don’t let yourself be disturbed at that time.

3. Keep your eyes on the process (“Five sentences already!”), as opposed to the result (“This 40-page development plan needs to be completed in two days”). Focusing on the small steps during the process is more rewarding than being constantly aware that there is a lot of work that still needs to be done.

4. Don’t forget breaks. Each time you feel your concentration wearing down, stand up. Though you may think that you are doing hard work if you continue behind your desk, in reality your effectiveness is declining sharply. A common trick is to work for 25 minutes, followed by a 5-minute rest. You can check Facebook during the rest, but it would be wiser to stand up from the table, stretch a bit, and take a look at the beauty of the world opening up from your windows. If you drink a lot of water during work, then it gives you a good reason for regular breaks (for going after new water or tea, or visiting the toilet).

5. Try to find some variety in your tasks as well. After you have completed a task with, let’s say, a couple of 25-minute blocks, continue with something as far from that as possible — different tasks require different parts of the brain. In this way you can hopefully shift the work load from the already tired brain regions to those that are fresh and ready for action.

6. When you feel that your brain is shot and changing the task doesn’t help, try a 15-minute nap! It’s highly likely that some parts of your brain need rest.

7. It’s inevitable that even with the best concentration, other things sometimes have to capture your attention. If something is doable in 5 minutes, give it a go right now. If not, write the task down, as well as the thoughts it inspired in you, so they’re “out of your system”.

8. Do some physical training before and after the work (jogging, cycling, rowing, skiing).

9. Try to keep your sleep cycles in order. Each day, go to bed and wake up at as similar times as possible.

10. Eat healthily and in modest quantities. Instead of coffee, use the trick revealed in point 6.

Jaan Aru is a researcher at the Computational Neuroscience Research Group and at the Talis Bachmann Lab at the University of Tartu. The Estonian version of this post was originally written for the Äripäev newspaper and appeared on Jaan Aru’s personal blog.

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