Know your brain power

Maelstrom is the word that comes to mind when some of my clients describe their busy lives. As a noun it means a whirlpool; figuratively it describes a state of turbulence or confusion.

Nonceba arrived at my coaching office. She wanted to talk through how she might organise her working day differently to be more productive. She described a daily programme of back-to-back meetings, often in different buildings (without factoring in walking time between them), a struggle to keep abreast of the onslaught of emails and the frustration of not finding creative thinking time.

Another client, Graham, talked about regularly arriving at his office with a clear two hours diarised to write a document, such as the monthly business update. But his decision to check emails first often cripples his best intention. There’s the mail that demands an urgent response. There’s the other mail that has an unwelcome tone to it that unsettles him. The creative thinking space gets knocked out in round one.

David Rock’s Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus and Working Smarter All Day Long is a must-read. Rock writes not only about how different parts of the brain are responsible for different kinds of activities but also describes the different kinds of energy these activities require.

Creative thinking, decision-making and impulse control get done in the prefrontal cortex. It’s a precious and precarious asset. This 5% of the brain works very well only when your energy levels are good and when you create the right conditions. Use it wisely; it drains your batteries and needs regular recharging.

The basal ganglia are the part of the brain dealing with activities that we do over and over again, that don’t need much conscious thinking and are highly efficient in terms of brain power. We can drive for hours (with pit stops) as we go into “basal ganglia autopilot”, which allows another part of our brain to think about other stuff at the same time. So, yes, we can have fabulous car conversations or generate new ideas while driving.

To illustrate how we might more consciously use different parts of our brains to our best advantage, Rock invents Emily, a conference organiser, who stars in two sequential performances. I’ve given his Emily two names: Emily Frazzled and Emily Brain-smart.

Emily has just been promoted. In “Scene 1. The Morning Email Overwhelm”, Rock describes the beginning of her first day in the new job.

Emily Frazzled’s performance is a disaster. She drives to work. En route she has a good idea for a new conference but it’s hard to hold on to the idea while navigating the traffic. She arrives at her office. She downloads 100 emails and a “wave of anxiety washes over her”. She has one hour before an important meeting. She starts responding to mail, typing as fast as she can. Time’s up. She’s dealt with only 40 of 100 emails. She realises that she has not captured her new idea, is not ready for another meeting later in the day and has not made progress on hiring a new assistant. She’s flustered. She gets lost on the way to the meeting room, arrives five minutes late and makes a poor impression.

Emily Brain-smart drives to work listening to relaxing music. As a good idea crosses her mind, she captures this thought on a recorder she keeps in the car for that purpose. She gets into her office. She knows she has just 60 minutes. The emails start to download and “a wave of anxiety washes over her”. She turns off the computer and her phone. She knows she needs to prioritise.

On her white board she writes four things: conference, hire assistant, writing and email catch-up. The most important thing, she decides, is to hire the assistant. She spends 40 minutes reviewing the applications, chooses her preferred candidate and schedules time for the final interview. She decides to spend the last 10 minutes of her hour responding to the most urgent emails. She leaves for her meeting feeling composed and buoyant.

This is a skinny version of what Rock writes up substantially describing what’s happening in the brain at different points in Emily’s story. He then draws out the following lessons for us:

  • Know your best energy time and protect it fiercely as time for your most creative thinking;
  • Prioritise prioritising;
  • Create chunks of time for your different activities, knowing that they use up different brain power and schedule accordingly;
  • Create visuals, so you can look at and compare your thoughts, rather than using energy trying to hold many complex thoughts in your head; and
  • Record good ideas that cross your mind while doing other “auto­pilot” activities.

Early on Monday morning I sat quietly, thinking about the outline of this article. The phone rang. I needed to answer it as it could be a family emergency. Once I knew it wasn’t, I asked if I could call back in 10 minutes. Then I quickly wrote down my notes.

Consciously choosing to pause, to create that 10 minutes, made all the difference. I felt “I shape my day” instead of “my day shapes me”.

Contact Helena Dolny at [email protected]

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