Do you ever struggle to get things done? Do you sometimes feel your brain is not as sharp any more? Did you used to read books and now find it challenging to even finish a short article in a newspaper?
Most of us will have answered yes to those questions. As a neuroscientist, I can tell you feeling this way is normal. The truth is that over time, our brains are shaped by our experiences, due to something called activity-dependent brain plasticity. That means if you are constantly shifting your attention from one activity to another, your brain attention systems will find it harder to focus. That has an impact on our productivity.
My brain is no exception. During my PhD, I faced real problems with procrastination and multitasking. In fact, my friends keep joking that I started my coaching business as a way to put off writing my thesis. Now, I work with clients starting all sorts of exciting projects, but who keep getting distracted when they are faced with challenges. As a result, their brains become less productive over time, which just feeds the procrastination cycle. As mysterious and wonderful as the brain is, there are some rules you need to obey to boost its productivity.
1 Take regular breaks
As with any machinery, the brain needs both active and down time. During the active phase, neurons use nutrients, delivered by blood to your brain, to function well. But when we are tired or stressed, those nutrients are shifted to the most vital organs. This leaves our more sophisticated brain networks, such as the ones involved in creative ideas, sound decision-making or learning new information, starved and means our performance declines.
Neurons also use chemicals called neurotransmitters to communicate with each other, which need to be replenished. If you want to maintain your performance throughout the day, take frequent breaks – 10 minutes every hour is ideal. Your brain is in its most energetic state in the mornings, so schedule challenging activities at the start of the day, or right after a break.
2 Reduce stress
During stress, the brain and body chemistry changes to create a “fight or flight” mode, which prepares the body to escape from the real or imagined danger. Your heart starts beating fast, your digestion and immune systems are blocked, blood rushes into the limbs and your brain energy supply is reduced. This particularly affects the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for rational thinking, sound decision-making and problem-solving. It also controls critical evaluation, so we often don’t realise how poorly we’re doing. Breathing exercises and daily meditation can help fight stress, as can getting enough sleep, reducing coffee intake and taking physical exercise.
3 Stop multitasking
From the brain’s perspective, there is no such thing as multitasking. The brain can only fully focus on one thing at a time. This is due to a limit we call the cognitive load – usually four to seven items such as words or numbers. What is actually happening during your version of multitasking is your brain is switching from one task to another really fast. That has three consequences: we waste a lot of time, we are more likely to make mistakes and we become stressed more easily.
To avoid this, start training your brain to focus on one task for short periods of time. One method is the Pomodoro technique – do nothing but your chosen task for 15, 20 or 30 minutes, followed by a break of five, 10 or 15 minutes, where you can do whatever you like. If you’re struggling, start by trying five minutes of uninterrupted work, followed by a five-minute break, three times during the day. Then increase those focused work intervals to 10 minutes, 15 minutes and so on.
4 Break tasks into small steps
Before trying the Pomodoro technique, break tasks into small steps that can be done in one uninterrupted work session. If a project seems overwhelming, it activates our brain’s pain centres and makes us more likely to procrastinate. Small steps also help the executive centres of the brain, which need specific commands to complete a task. If these aren’t in place, they waste precious energy analysing the job as a whole.
5 Reward yourself for achieving tasks
Productivity is important at work because completing tasks activates the reward centres of the brain. Even the tasks you would normally find boring give you a buzz of dopamine once they are finished, creating a sense of achievement, pleasure and motivation. Plus our brain blood vessels are dilated when we are enjoying what we do, which provides the brain with more fuel. When you are enjoying your work, your brain is at its best in terms of your efficiency, communication with colleagues and clients and imagining great new ideas.
Article from The Guardian - Original article