Your Brain at Work — Summary

This book will teach you how to maximize your mental resources

Our mental resources are limited, don’t multitask!

Our brain’s ability to perform is limited. And modern technology, despite making our lives easier, represents a significant problem when it comes to our concentration.

One study showed that constant distraction of, for example, emails and phone calls, reduces the performance of individuals in IQ tests by 10 points. A similar effect happens after missing a night’s sleep.

Prioritize mental energy

One strategy to deal with our limited mental resources is to prioritize tasks. And spend our brain’s energy on the most important tasks first.

Just be aware that prioritizing in itself is drains mental energy or willpower, so don’t overdo it.

External distractions

Smartphones are especially distracting. People tend to attend to their smartphones all the time. When we divert our attention, refocusing it on a task takes time and effort.

One study revealed that 2 hours of worker’s office time tends to be consumed just by distractions. Another study found that we spend around 11 minutes on a task before getting distracted and then return to work after 25 minutes.

Internal distractions

Not just external distractions are harmful to mental performance. Streams of unwanted thoughts can impair our focus. For example in the form of worries.

When we resist distraction, we decrease our ability to do so because resistance requires Willpower which is a limited resource.

So how can we solve cut out distractions? One way is to veto them.

Veto all distractions

Turn off your phone, and prevent all distractions from seizing your attention. That way you will use less Willpower, and your concentration will improve a lot.

Create Habits

Another good way to conserve mental energy is by creating habits. Habits are routines for the brain, once they are formed the brain can execute those patterns without giving full attention to them.

Too much and too little arousal is bad for mental performance, strive for a balance

A chemical called norepinephrine is responsible for focus in our brain. Another one called dopamine causes us to feel interested in something.

However, the levels of those two chemicals need to be in the sweet spot for maximum focus and attention. They can’t be too high or too low. If they are low, our performance suffers. If they are too high, we’re stressed.

Luckily we can to some degree, control our levels of arousal. Whenever you feel that you are not focused remember what will happen if you miss the deadline. That will boost your norepinephrine level.

A good way to increase your dopamine levels is to think about the rewards which await you once you finished your work.

Insights are often found through unconscious thinking

We can’t always come to the solution through logical reasoning. For example try to come up with a word which connects with these tree words: “pine,” “crab” and “sauce.”

Often the solution just suddenly pops into our mind, without a conscious logical reasoning process. The solution, in this case, is the word apple (pineapple, crabapple, and applesauce).

Those sudden thoughts are called insights. Certain activities promote insights to happen, for example, you could take a break and stop thinking about the problem. Meditate or allow your mind to wander. Taking a walk is another great strategy to boost creativity and come to new insights.

Mindfulness can change the structure of your brain

To change our thinking, we first have to become conscious of it through observation. This process is called mindfulness. If you are spending a great time in nature on the weekend with your friend, you could observe your thoughts and become conscious whenever your thoughts slip to the pile of work which awaits you on Monday. Once you become conscious of those undesired thoughts, you can bring your focus back to the present moment.

Practicing mindfulness regularly (and meditation in general) changes the structure of your brain through a property called neuroplasticity.

The process is quite simple and can be performed during nearly any activity, for example when you’re walking, talking to a friend, enjoying a meal, etc. All you have to do is focus on your sensory experiences and gently come back to the present whenever your mind wanders off.

The more you practice, the better you will be able to stay aware of the present moment. Mindfulness practice will strengthen areas of your brain which are responsible for mental control and attention switching.

Reappraisal helps with happiness and mental function

Our brain awards certainty and control as brain scans revealed. We feel happier when we are in control of our life and certain of our circumstances.

Scientists have shown that people feel less stressed when they are confronted with a task over which they have control and autonomy than over one with equal difficulty but without having a sense of control.

We can change our appraisal about a situation

The emotional response to stressful situations is called appraisal. Fortunately, we can change our appraisal deliberately. This process of interpreting a situation differently is called “reappraisal.” Studies have shown that people who reappraise more, experienced a higher life satisfaction than those who choose to inhibit their emotions.

One CEO used a strategy of telling jokes whenever a meeting became tense. He found that doing so made it easier to find solutions. Humor, thus, is an excellent form of reappraisal.

Feeling relatedness to other people is rewarding for the brain

When we feel connected and relate to others, our brains release a neurochemical called oxytocin. Studies have shown that people are less responsive to stress if they have plenty of such rewarding relationships.

Lack of stress frees up mental resources and can even improve our health, preventing heart disease and stroke.

Competing against ourselves produces positive rewards in our brains

Have you ever felt an increase in status, for example, while winning an argument? You probably get a kick out of situations like that. This is because we get a positive emotional response caused by a rise of dopamine and serotonin, (happiness neurochemicals) and a decrease in cortisol levels (an indicator of stress).

But the effects are not only emotionally awarding, but the increase of status also rises our ability to think. That is because higher levels of dopamine and serotonin increase the number of neuronal connections we can make per hour, which makes it easier to process more information.

Competing with others isn’t always the best strategy. Perhaps the best thing is to compete against ourselves. When competing against the person we were yesterday, we’ll always feel superior as long as our skills increase a little bit every day, something easily achievable.

Help other’s discover it for themselves

If you have ever given advice to a person repeatedly without success, or if you’ve ever received advice from someone but ignored it or even got upset, you know that feedback is often not the best way to learn. A real change of a person’s thinking happens when that person sees or discovers the error on his or her own.

A study revealed that telling people how to overcome an impasse, only helps 8% of the time while telling them what not to do only helps 5% of the time.

A much more efficient approach is to guide people so that they can get their own insights. You can induce an elevated status in them so that they can release anxiety and increase positive feelings/autonomy.

Instead of bluntly asking “What was the problem?” you could use more indirect and positive questions like “I’m sure you did the right thing, we’ll find a solution for this.”

Neuroscientist, Matthew Lieberman graded his students on their ability to integrate their own prior criticisms into their writing. That approach helped his students improve continually.

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Also published on Medium.