Managing our brain to make the most of our time

21 of September of 2016

Today we are no longer employed to carry out routine tasks which can be done, at minimum cost, by powerful computers or delocalised persons in less centralised areas of the planet. The novelty today is that we are increasingly PAID TO THINK!

However, taking complex decisions or solving new problems can become a difficult and tiring task, given the biological limits of our brain. One of the best ways of improving our performance on this level is by being aware of these limits, so let’s have a look at how our brain works and what those limits are, so that we can use our resources more efficiently.

How does our brain work?

The cerebral cortex is the grey creased matter covering our brain. The neocortex (or ‘new cover’) is the name given to the evolutionary more modern areas of the cortex which cover the frontal lobe, and more specifically the prefrontal lobe in mammals. Humans have only had a neocortex for the last million years, approximately.

While the neocortex is smooth in rats and some other small mammals, in primates it has very marked furrows and creases. These creases serve to increase the surface area of the neocortex: if this part of the human brain were to be laid out flat, it would be the size of an open napkin (about 0.25m2). And this thin layer is what provides us with all our memories, knowledge, skills and experience, thanks to its 30 billion neurons (the whole of the brain has some 100 billion neurons).

Although this part of the brain represents only about 4 to 5% of our whole brain, it really is where all that makes us human happens: perception, imagination, thought, conscience, judgement, decision. But make no mistake: our powers are much more limited than we would like to imagine!

5 basic functions of our prefrontal cortex

According to David Rock, founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute and specialised in coaching, leadership and neuroscience, our prefrontal cortex (PFC) carries out five basic functions:

  1. Understanding: means creating new maps in the PFC representing new information, and connecting those maps with other existing maps in the rest of the brain.
  2. Deciding: means activating certain maps within the PFC and choosing between them. This decision is a part of our creative process.
  3. Recalling: means searching amongst the millions of maps stored away in our memory and bringing to the PFC those required at a given time.
  4. Memorising: means keeping your attention on the new maps of the PFC long enough for them to be recorded in long term memory.
  5. Inhibiting: means stopping certain maps from being activated, such as hunger, anger, aggressiveness, etc.

These five functions of the PFC, all apparently simple, are what make ALL the difference in our performance as human beings!. Every day, since we were children, we make our poor PFC work hard, without realising that this newest part of our brain has severe limitations.

Prefrontal cortex limitations

The first and most important is energy consumption. Our PFC, though it occupies only about 4 to 5% of our brain, is responsible for 25% of its total energy use, i.e. lots more metabolic fuel such as glucose and oxygen than other parts of our brain which carry out more routine functions, such as keeping our heart beating, something that happens unconsciously. Try doing some strenuous physical effort, and then observe what happens if, at the same time, you try to perform some mental calculation, albeit a simple one. You will see that any mental effort reduces our physical strength by up to 50%.

As David Rock says in his book Your Brain At Work” (Ed. HarperCollins/Business, 2009), this phenomenon explains why we get exhausted so quickly when using our PFC, or why we are so easily distracted when we are tired or hungry. Just one hour of active work by our PFC can use up all our glucose reserves! Our resources for generating qualitative thinking, for taking decisions or for controlling our impulses are truly limited, and if we waste them we will have no energy left for the next task.

The second limitation is that our poor PFC has a much smaller capacity for managing information than we think. And the amount and complexity of all the information reaching our brain at any given time would be enough to block any super-computer. And there’s our poor PFC, constantly swamped with thousands of emails, mobile calls, SMSs, WhatsApps, all accompanied by sound alarms… If to this we add financial instability, continuous changes at work, etc., our poor brain simply cannot cope. And the results are chronic stress, burnout syndrome, sickness leave, and so on.

Let’s have a look at an example of all the information that our poor PFC needs to keep active in a simple meeting. Our short-term memory springs into action to keep together all the information which is relevant for the meeting. We also have to recall the names of the other people, inhibit certain behaviours (or ideas, or hunger). And on top of this we have to take a decision regarding the projector which doesn’t work, while thinking through the arguments we will use in our negotiation! Our Prefrontal Cortex is overstretched, and thus using up loads of energy. Add to this a helping of stress which also makes other areas of the brain active and puts our defensive system at the ready, the consequences will no doubt be exhaustion within a relatively short space of time, in addition to a probably mediocre performance.

So, at this point of the story, many of you will be thinking: “So what are we to do? That’s exactly what my daily routine is like! It doesn’t look as though there’s any solution to be had!”

Well… there is!. And the only thing we need to do is EXERCISE STRICT CONTROL OVER OUR RESOURCES.

How can you manage your brain?

Once we are aware that our thinking part of the brain, our PFC, is like a new-born baby in comparison to other areas of the brain, we can either complain of its lack-lustre performance (no wonder, it’s only a beginner!), or treat it as the jewel in the crown, so that it will reward us with its scarce but amazing resources, by assigning to it only those REALLY IMPORTANT tasks.

David Rock provides some very useful tips:

  1. First of all, be aware that however much we try, we cannot spend all day sitting and taking brilliant decisions, like a lorry driver who drives long hours without much wear. So it is essential to carefully select each of the tasks assigned to the PFC.
  2. Next, it is important to learn how to prioritise prioritising: some PFC functions use more energy than others, such as for example remembering older elements or visualising things we haven’t yet seen. That’s what makes it difficult to set innovative aims. According to David Rock, prioritising is one the activities of the brain which uses the most energy. When we write a list of things that we need to do and put them in a particular order, we are using practically all of the PFC’s functions: understanding new ideas, deciding, recalling and inhibiting, all at once. It’s like a triathlon of mental tasks, so it’s a task we must prioritise.
  3. Organising our day into blocks: It is important to organise our tasks into blocks associated to the type of brain activity required to carry them out: a block for deep and creative thinking / a block for meetings / a block for interacting with people / and a block for more routine tasks, such as replying to emails, calls, etc. For example, all activity relating to deep or creative thinking must be organised in your diary by taking advantage of those times of the day when you have more mental energy, say in the morning, just after arriving at the office, or at the end of the day, when things are quieter. Remember that a difficult decision can take about 30 seconds when we are fresh, but can become an impossible task if we are not.
  4. Free up our PFC as much as possible so that it can concentrate on a single task. My dear friends, multitasking is a myth! If we don’t want our performance levels to drop, there is nothing for it but to concentrate on a single task. Harold Pashler, a scientist at the University of California in San Diego, showed that when people perform two tasks requiring conscious thought at one time, their cognitive capacity can go from a performance corresponding to a Harvard business school graduate level, to that of an 8 year-old child. Linda Stone, former vice chair of Microsoft, talks in her numerous articles of “continuous partial attention”, which occurs when people’s attention is constantly split. The effect is constant and intense mental exhaustion. To fight against this malaise in our society, we must:
    1. Make lists of all the things that are milling about in our head and use up energy and mental space. Putting on paper whatever it is that “takes up mental space” to free up our PFC from all noise or saturation.
    2. Use techniques such as visual maps to regroup numerous concepts in a reduced visual space. The capacity to process images in our brain is much older and more powerful than the capacity to process language. Studies have shown that in the face of a logical problem requiring a solution, people will find a solution much earlier if it is presented by way of interaction with other people, rather than if presented by means of unconnected, conceptual ideas.
    3. Remember to organise our day in blocks and limit interruptions as much as possible. It has been shown that external distractions in the office take up an average of 2.1 hours per day. Another study, published in 2005, showed that employees spend an average of 11 minutes on an issue before being interrupted. After an interruption, they take an average of 25 minutes to return to the task, if they do in fact return. These involuntary break periods take up time and mental energy, and it is essential that they are managed in the best possible way.
    4. Create routines and standardise tasks as much as possible: it is important to repeat certain activities time and time again until they become “routines” which are stored in other parts of the brain (the basal ganglia) and use up much less energy, thus freeing up the PFC. Routines are actions structured as: “.. Then…”… The more routines we generate in our work, the more elements we can standardise and therefore not use up mental space thinking about how to manage them (scheduling time, filing documents, organising our work desk, etc.), the more energy we will have for the really relevant and creative issues.
  5. Exercising and learning to rest: According to John Medina, professor of bioengineering at the Washington University School of Medicine and well-known author of “Brain Rules, 12 Principles for surviving and thriving” (Pear Press; Updated and Expanded edition (8 May 2014)), exercise is essential for stimulating brain capacity. Physical exercise boosts blood flow, facilitating neuron access to particular groups of foods. Exercise also stimulates nuerogenesis (the formation of new cells in the brain) and connections through BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). In his book, Medina also quotes the conclusions of Mark Rosekind, a NASA scientist who showed that a 26-minute nap improved pilots’ performance by over 34 percent. As Medina says: “sleep loss hurts attention, executive function, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning ability, and even motor control”.


Take a nap and improve your performance

A project still to be implemented in businesses! However, if we pick up on these little tricks, we will be able to massively improve our time and resources management.


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