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Jan Hills

Head Heart + Brain


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Are your work habits messing with your brain?


It's Neuroscience Learning Month on HRZone. You're reading one of the pieces that's been written to help you develop a sound understanding of why neuroscience principles are important to business, and a basic understanding of how you can apply them effectively. There's loads more content going live over the month to help you on your way, from articles to videos and podcasts, and it's all available in our Neuroscience Learning Hub. Head there today to read more!

We ran two breakfast club meetings on the topic of what neuroscience is telling us about effective work habits. We took the opportunity to ask people a bit about how they currently work.

These are some of the results and the tips we shared, some are from us but many are from the participants.

Working smarter v working longer

We asked whether people felt they had to work smarter because they had no more hours in the day to work longer. Pretty much everyone said they were maxed out on the number of hours they could work and there was a clear split between those who felt they must find smarter ways to work and those who felt they were pretty productive already.

This is interesting given we might have expected that those who are struggling to work smarter would have signed up for the breakfast club topic.

What does the science say on effectiveness and performance?

The brain science says taking short breaks every 60 to 90 minutes is the best way of managing your brain’s capacity and staying at the peak of your performance and creativity. 66% of people said they work like this, but 44% said they had to take breaks surreptitiously as it was not acceptable in their company to be seen to ‘rest your brain.’

Given the brain continues to process and solve problems, deepen our understanding of ourselves and others and help us make better ethical decisions during this ‘non-work’ time companies are missing out on lots of brain power.

The myth of multitasking

Our final poll was on multitasking. Three quarters of our participants said they multitask even though all the science shows that it is not possible to multitask on cognitive matters, what we are actually doing is quickly switching from one task to another, which slows down processing.

A simple test for you…

If you don’t believe me try this simple test. With a stopwatch measure how long it takes you to count quickly from 1 to 10. Now do the same thing except saying the alphabet from A to J. Now measure how long it takes when you put the two tasks together: alternately saying a letter and a number (A1, B2… etc). 

I can guarantee it will take more than twice as long to do the combined task as you took for each single task. This is because the brain slows down when it has to keep switching between numbers and letters. (For most people the first two tasks take a couple of seconds each. The mixed, switching task typically takes 15 to 20 seconds.)

On top of the slowdown, your working memory gets fatigued. Depending on how stressed you are, or how much you've been using your brain, you may also keep forgetting where you are in the task.

Here's the reason you think you can multitask

We keep trying to multitask because of a cognitive illusion generated in part by dopamine-adrenaline activity so you feel like you are doing well. Part of the problem is that workplace cultures encourage you to multitask through rules like responding to emails within time limits and keeping the chat box open. The other issue, research has shown, is some people multitask because it makes work less boring. Check your motivation for multitasking and if it is boredom look at our more detailed article on brain habits: it has a section on how to stop being bored at work.

Some of the tips shared at the breakfast club by us and the participants were:

1. Create quiet time for thinking

  • We use ear phones in our office, it signals you are concentrating and need quiet time in a busy office
  • Close email and show as away on your IM system
  • I am 'invisible' on Google mail when I need to concentrate

2. Organising thinking time

  • Have a 'to do' and a 'to think' list to help secure thinking time
  • Put meetings with yourself in the calendar to block out thinking time
  • Start a bullet journal
  • I use mind-mapping to remember things – use multiple colours

3. Re-setting your brain

  • When tired or stressed do something routine
  • Mindfulness training really helps. It makes it easier to do tasks 'mindfully' – calms the stress and panic and probably gets it done faster
  • Some participants said  standing at work helped and we use coaching on the go to help people focus on new behaviours and commentiment

Working with your brain; being brain-savvy makes logical sense. It will also help make work more productive and enjoyable. And if you think that is impossible in your case you will at least have energy left at the end of the day to do what you are passionate about.

If you are unsure about whether you work in a brain-savvy way you can take our Brain-savvy Leading self-assessment. You will get a report of how you work alongside details about connecting with others, your mindset for developing yourself and your leadership of change.  

There's loads more content going live over the month to help you on your way, from articles to videos and podcasts, and it's all available in our Neuroscience Learning Hub. Head there today to read more!

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Jan Hills


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