This week I’m excited to share some amazing insights from Dr. David Rock’s Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long. It’s a guidebook on how to survive – and succeed – in today’s overwhelming work environment while feeling energized and accomplished at the end of the day. I particularly like this book, because it provides very practical, science-based strategies to gain control over your daily life.

Six Key Brain-Disrupting Challenges

Dr. Rock first identifies six key brain-disrupting challenges we can all relate to in today’s workplace:

  1. Email overload
  2. Highly complex problems in need of creative solutions
  3. Competing deadlines for multiple projects
  4. Distractions (and finding ways to shut them off, or say no!)
  5. Pressure to perform
  6. Mental roadblocks (getting stuck, or getting in our own way)

Many of us build up myths around our ability to overcome these challenges, believing that our mental endurance is limitless. We acknowledge that it is impossible for any of us to lift a one-ton weight, yet we falsely believe that we can hold onto tons of different ideas at one time. And while we know it’s physically dangerous to over-exercise, we are blind to the harm we are doing by trying to “push through” our mental limits.

Here are some of the things I hear most frequently from women lawyers:

MYTH 1: I CAN MULTITASK!

The Truth: I have spoken extensively about Cal Newport’s book Deep Work on the scientifically-proven benefits of focus. We all think that we can multi-task. But the truth is that it is the least efficient and most exhausting way to work.

According to Dr. Rock, at most we can hold four ideas in our heads at once – and the reality is more like one or two. Moreover, we are ALWAYS slower when juggling multiple tasks. And switching between tasks significantly increases the probability of making mistakes.

The Solution: Avoid multitasking by prioritizing and delegating. Remember the mantra “do what you are doing.” Be very disciplined about focusing on one thing at time. The only instances where multi-tasking can be effective is when you can pair a more thinking-intensive task (e.g., talking on the phone) with a more automatic, routine task (e.g., emptying the dishwasher).

MYTH 2: I CAN POWER THROUGH!

The Truth: Your best thinking can only be sustained for a short period before your performance drops off. Moreover, when you’re overloaded it’s easy to lose track of your overall intent. Also, when you become overly fixated on a single idea or solution, you may miss key connections that can result in true insights.

The Solution: Make knowing when you need a mental break as natural as recognizing when you need a break from physical activity – and take it.

MYTH 3: STRESS MAKES ME PERFORM BETTER!

The Truth: Yes. . . and no. Optimal performance is fueled by just the right amount of stress. Too little stress, and we are not motivated and can become careless. Too much stress and we become overwhelmed. The happy medium is different from person to person.

We all need some stress to perform. But in high-pressure environments, the adrenaline-rush actually becomes counterproductive.

The Solution: Know your own peak performance balance. Identify times when you feel an uptick in your alertness (a sense of urgency) and interest (a burst of energy/excitement) and experiment with different levels of stress to calibrate your “zone.”

Learn from and encourage what motivates you.  And if you are responsible for managing someone else, understand that their optimal level may be significantly different from yours.

Neuroscientific Best Practices for Maintaining Control of Your Day

I’ve summarized five practices from Your Brain at Work below, and I challenge you to try them for two weeks.

  1. Consider when and where you are at your best for different types of activities or tasks.

    We all have a natural “groove” for different mental processes. Maybe your most creative ideas come in the evening, while your most accurate, detail-oriented work is performed first thing in the morning. Maybe you hit a slump at 2:00 pm, meaning that this is a good time to perform routine activities that require less thought and energy. Plan your days accordingly, and you will be amazed at how much more you can accomplish in less time.

  2. Get things out of your head on a regular basis.

    This is one of the easiest and most effective ways to increase control over your day. Getting things on paper clears valuable space in your head for creativity and problem solving. It also helps quiet that interrupting “What if I forget. . .” voice and is a great way to acknowledge distracting thoughts and ideas without letting them get in your way. Even if you have the world’s best memory, I guarantee it takes far more energy to summon action items from the deepest recesses of your mind than to note them down and later refer to a written list. Take time to try different approaches and find what works for you.

  3. Prioritize, re-prioritize, and prioritize once more.

    This is my personal favorite. Do you often start the day by turning to the most urgent things on your to-do list? Or even worse, the loudest things on your email? If so, you may be missing the most important time of day for accomplishing what matters most.

    According Dr. Rock, the act of prioritizing uses a lot of energy from the prefrontal cortex of our brain (the brain’s C-suite.) While ticking things off a linear to-do list can give us a sense of immediate satisfaction, we often then never get to the things that matter most. We end the day feeling exhausted, wondering if we accomplished anything that actually matters. Every morning, make prioritizing your priority. When your brain is at its best, decide what matters most to you, and prioritize these items according to importance, urgency and relevance. Then commit real time to accomplishing those tasks – maybe even first thing (if this is your peak brain time). Use your calendar as a central tool for proactively living your life according to your priorities.

  4. Simplify!

    Simplify complex new ideas by focusing on just one or two salient points until you become more familiar with them, and group information into chunks of similar items. This not only helps to reduce overwhelm, but just as importantly, it keeps you from becoming bogged down in details and getting stuck.

  5. Minimize Distractions.

    Research shows that up to 30% of our time is expended on distractions! We distract ourselves with flyaway thoughts. We allow ourselves to be distracted by others, who bombard us with ringing phones, blinking emails, “just stopping by with a ‘quick’ question. . .” and more.

    Train yourself to focus by turning off distractions and doing what matters most when you are at your best. And those pesky emails? Schedule (and try to stick to) specific times to respond to emails so that you can stop worrying about them. Remember, even 10 minutes of distraction-free time is better than none.

If you are curious to learn more (we’ve barely scratched the surface here!), I highly recommend Dr. Rock’s book.

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