First Friday Book Synopsis

"…like CliffNotes on steroids…"

Your Brain at Work: What to Do When There’s Too Much to Do

Herb Schaffner

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Herb Schaffner for BNET, The CBS Interactive Business Network. To check out the article and an abundance of other resources as swell as obtain a free subscription to one or more of the BNET newsletters, please click here.

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Years ago, when I was editing a manuscript by David Rock, the acclaimed leadership coach, neuroscience guru, and author, I learned that David did most of his writing on transoceanic flights. At the time, I assumed it was because he was simply too busy to find any other time to write.

Now I wonder if it is because David was applying his understanding of neuroscience: productive deep thinking thrives when we can eliminate distractions, focus on one high-order task at a time, isolate from technology and interruptions, and have the opportunity to take quick enjoyable breaks. A first-class seat on a long flight is just this kind of environment (assuming you’re not sitting next to your boss or a chatterbox.)

Recently, I took another look at Rock’s 2009 book, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, and was impressed with what an amazingly useful guide this is for anyone who wants to better manage task flow under the pressure of daily deadlines and competing tasks.

Exercising Your Prefrontal Cortex

Using neuroscientific research, Rock explains how to work more effectively by better managing your brain–specifically, the prefrontal cortex, the operating system for our brain that works on immediate tasks. Rock uses the metaphor of a stage: the prefrontal cortex is best at handling just a few actors and ideas at a time. When the stage gets too crowded, performance suffers and we can’t follow the story. The more we pay attention to at one time, the more mental energy we burn.

If you’re asking your prefrontal cortex to pay attention to Twitter, a podcast, and the music in your earbuds while you’re trying to write a big presentation, you’ll have less energy to do the most important job—and you’ll be less effective. The most precious resource for managing the daily overload at work is your attention and where you focus it.

How do you decide what and when to attend to during the daily deluge of deadlines?  Here are some keys to Rock’s program:

1. Do the most complex work when you have the most energy: don’t do routine work such as reading old email in the morning. The brain finds it harder to think about solutions (which happen in the future and haven’t happened), as opposed to problems (which you’ve already experienced), so focus on solutions and to-dos when you are fresh. Writing down your priorities literally releases more energy for your brain to think!

2. Break down complex tasks into simpler ones. Because the prefrontal cortex (your mind’s stage) works best on one or two ideas at a time, simplify the information you’re working on by breaking it down into lists and chunks.  Separate harder ideas and learn them independently.

3. If you have to multitask, combine active thinking with automatic, embedded routine or transactional routines. That’s why I can iron a shirt or empty the dishwasher during a conference call and still perform relatively well; or, another manager can sign contracts while she’s thinking about her next sales meeting. Become aware of your mental energy needs and schedule accordingly.

4. Ruthlessly screen out distractions, such as social media. People are wired to be easily distracted.  Over millions of years, our brains have learned to notice and respond to changes in environment as protection from danger. Today, we don’t have to worry about getting jumped by a predator, but our brain is still on alert–and that makes us prone to following our impulses.   Nothing is more draining to your prefrontal cortex than drinking from the “fire hose” of daily information overload. So learn to switch off your devices, limit social media to certain periods of the day, and clear your mind before taking on complex tasks.  As neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwartz famously wrote, “we may not have free will, but we have free won’t.”  As I wrote in an earlier post, impulses are a big factor in procrastination.

5. Avoid emotionally charged issues when you’re doing critical work. If listening to politics, or certain music, or talking to that particular jerk down the hall stir up your emotions, you’ll have fewer resources for the work at hand. On the other hand, if you’re tired or experiencing writer’s block, a small dose of stress can bring up your dopamine level just enough to energize you.

Do you have any tips for maximizing productivity and tuning out distractions? What would you add to this list?

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Herb Schaffner is president of Schaffner Media Partners,  a consultancy specializing in business, finance, and public affairs publishing expertise, and is found on Facebook.  He has been a publisher and editor-in-chief at McGraw-Hill, and a senior editor at HarperCollins.   Follow him on Twitter (but only when it’s not distracting).

Monday, April 11, 2011 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Management Rewired

Management RewiredManagement Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science
Charles S. Jacobs
Portfolio/The Penguin Group (2009)

In recent years, a number of books have discussed recent research in neurological science and its relevance to traditional theories about knowledge and how we process it. Among the many revelations, Charles Jacobs notes in the Introduction to this book, “perhaps the most surprising discovery has come from mapping the path information travels from our sense organs to our awareness of the world we live in. Not only are the perceptual areas of the brain involved, so are the areas responsible for our memories, our feelings, our beliefs, and our aspirations. Our minds aren’t objectively recording our experience of the world; they’re creating it, and the creation is influenced by everything elder going on in the brain. Each of us lives in a mental state of our own making…Rather than sharing the same world, we all inhabit a world that is uniquely our own.”

Jacobs asserts that “much of what is taken for granted as the right way to manage is actually the opposite of what we want to do,” that the world we experience exists only in our heads, our thinking is never objective, and our emotions lead to better decisions than our logic. Given that, what specifically does he recommend to his reader?

1. Leverage the mind to stop doing what doesn’t work (and never will) so that it can concentrate on doing what does work. There should be continuous improvement of what is most important.

2. Stop offering feedback to direct reports. It is usually ignored and often resented. Instead, ask questions, listen intently to responses, and then repeat them back in your own words.

3. Workers appreciate recognition much more than they do rewards. In fact, rewards frequently diminish rather than increase their motivation.

4. Eliminate preoccupation with short-term goals because they are distractions; focus on achieving long-term objectives.

5. Anticipate the future by identifying — and preparing for – the most likely contingencies. That will help to make better decisions, and to influence other people to do what must be done in preparation for a future that is never predictable but nonetheless. The lessons of brain science have far reaching ramifications, but with immediate practical applications.

6. Consciously use natural selection as a “lens” through which to view your experience. “All of a sudden, you’ll see things differently. You’ll start to realize how much of what you do is a function of your relationships with others and how much of what they do is a function of their relationships with you.” Using it as a lens will also serve as an alert to how much we’re a product of our environment and how wee can shape it to our advantage.

Jacobs makes a compelling argument that humans cannot possibly have the direct knowledge of the physical world they think they do. All that can be known is the representation of it in the brain in the form of ideas, “so the world we experience is mental, not physical.” We all see it differently. Therefore, the challenge for transformational leaders is to change how others think, to rewire their minds, and one of the most effective ways to do that is “to package the right kind of ideas into a story and to effectively communicate it to the organization.”

Tuesday, August 18, 2009 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment



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