Since my early days as a professional, I have always wanted to understand how to use my brain more effectively when dealing with complex work matters.
There is no doubt that our brain is a beautiful yet incredibly complex machine.
With so much brain activity taking place in an average workday, I thought that a more strategic use of it could go a long way and impact my overall levels of energy, productivity, and well-being.
After much research and practice (I was particularly inspired by David Rock’s Brain At Work), I thought I’d share with you some of the most challenging work activities we all experience in our day and suggest evidence-based and “brain-friendly” approaches to deal with them more effectively.
Here are the top six methods that have helped me work smarter:
1. The death zone of multitasking
I am sure you are aware of startling evidence that shows how multitasking is not the ultimate solution for optimum productivity. Multitasking, in fact, often results from our poor time management and prioritisation abilities. The consequence? All those “must-dos” piling up make us feel like jugglers out of balance.
Practicing mindfulness here is key. If you find yourself working on multiple tasks simultaneously, pull back and focus your efforts on one task at a time.
I know it can feel like a “loss of time,” but our probabilities for making mistakes skyrocket when we multitask between complex tasks.
If we find ourselves in a situation where we have no other option other than multitasking, the best thing we can do is to pair a task that is highly demanding with one that is so easy that we can do it on autopilot.
2. Distractions, distractions, distractions
An email notification, a phone alarm, an entertaining video, or a captivating ad: this is all it takes for our attention to go away.
Research shows that, on average, when we lose our attention, it takes approximately 25 minutes to regain it. In a culture of having to be always on, practicing what Cal Newport calls deep work is one of the most precious skills to possess.
What I believe we need here is some discipline and what I call “smart environment settings” to avoid falling into temptation. When going into complex work, we might want to silence our phone, or even better, put it on airplane mode if possible, limit the number of browser tabs open, put our volume settings on mute, and why not block those websites that hinder our productivity.
I personally try to avoid any phone or computer contact in the first 90 minutes of my day, as I want my brain to wake up naturally without any induced stress. What I can tell you is that this simple hack has done wonders to my productivity and willpower abilities.
3. The prioritisation dilemma
Whether it’s sorting out our to-do list or deciding which email to tackle first, prioritising is no easy task. In fact, according to research, it’s considered to be one of the most energy-sapping activities for our brain.
Prioritising is hard because we can only hold three to four things at a time in our brain, and so when we are presented with a much bigger list, things inevitably get tricky.
A good recipe for success is to practice a mix of good time management and strategic thinking. Take your list of activities, figure out which one will require the most energy, generate the highest reward, and work your way down from there. As the day goes by, we are more likely to drop our concentration levels, as our attention is finite, making prioritisation essential both for our effectiveness and well-being.
The other element that is important to highlight when prioritising or dealing with demanding activities is ensuring that we have an alert and fresh mind. For most people, the optimum time to tackle their most demanding work is first thing in the morning. However, if you are not a morning person, make sure to tackle it when your attention is at its highest (hence the importance of developing self awareness).
If we are not able to postpone an activity and need to do it there and then, the best thing we can do is to take a small break beforehand to make sure our mind is clear. These small breaks may seem insignificant at first, but if compounded over time, they can have a massive impact on our levels of productivity and overall wellness.
4. Solving complex problems
This is one of the most classic examples when we might experience the sensation of having our brain work against us. This sense of inner friction that prevents us from moving forward in our reasoning is often caused by the fact that we are trying to hold too many elements in our brain. As a result, we create an overall sense of confusion.
To better tackle complex problems, it’s important that we break them down into smaller parts. As I mentioned earlier, no matter how brilliant we think we may be, our brain does its best work when it focuses on one or two points at a time. Putting too much complexity or stress on our brain can hinder its abilities, as the anxiety generated can create negative emotions that limit our cognitive abilities.
Another useful approach to take—if the task or problem is particularly big—is to divide it into chunks of similar items. This is a great way to train our brain to improve its pattern recognition abilities while easing up its processing requirements.
5. Letting go of mental blocks
Just like the issue of solving complex problems, mental blocks are the result of temporary stagnation in our perceived ability to move forward. One of the main problems we experience with mental blocks is the emotional reaction of tension and frustration that is triggered inside us.
The first thing to do is to actually do nothing and relax for a while. The goal is to create some distance between us and the mental block so light activities—such as going for a short walk, putting some nice music, taking some deep meditative breaths, or simply letting our mind wander—can all prove powerful.
A valuable alternative is to approach the activity we are working on from a “lighter perspective.” What I mean by this is to move from a super detailed approach to something more abstract and high-level.
By doing so, we allow our brains to become less rigid and more open, thus unlocking potential new insights. Moreover, breaking things down or even starting small and working our way up in terms of complexity can be a good way to build confidence and momentum in our thinking abilities.
6. Feeling the pressure to do well
It’s understandable that, as professionals, we care about the quality of the work we put out. However, we end up identifying with our work so much that it becomes hard to divide our personal and professional lives.
Then when the pressure becomes unbearable, we realize it’s because we project ourselves in the future with a sense of fear. This lack of presence can be detrimental both to our well-being and effectiveness, as too much stress on our brain can hinder its thinking abilities.
On the other hand, if we don’t experience any stress at all, this can also create a negative effect on us, as we lack the needed alertness to focus and take action. Studies show that we do our best work when we find ourselves right in the middle between the zone of exhalation and depressions.
The best way to find our optimum levels of stress is to practice self-awareness. By taking the time to actively monitor our levels of arousal throughout the day, we can uncover powerful insights, which can help us better understand how we operate.
It’s important to mention that there is no one-size-fits-all, as we are all wired to handle stress differently. The important thing is to experiment and test our stress levels to see what amount of “urgency” we need to do our best work.
When it comes to increasing our daily effectiveness, these are just some of the small tricks that help us put our brain in the right direction.
What we ultimately need is care, attention, and self-love.
Work smarter and live fully.