Brain-savvy HR: a neuroscience evidence base
September 1, 2016
Multitasking. What’s the productivity cost?
September 6, 2016

Need to work smarter? Check how your work habits may be hindering your brain

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We have habits that fry our brain rather than use it in a way that is brain-savvy.


The brain’s capacity

Do you find yourself creative, focused and speeding ahead in the morning and sluggish, making mistakes and flitting from one thing to the next later in the day? It could be your brain has run out of working capacity. The conscious, thinking, analytical part of your brain is the prefrontal cortex (PFC). It’s immediately behind your forehead.  We totally over-estimate the capacity of this part of the brain to concentrate and work for an extended amount of time. The PFC processes something like 2,000 pieces of information per second, this is amazing, but its capacity is quite limited in terms of the amount of time it can effectively do that for.

One analogy I came across is this. Think of the prefrontal cortex like your brain’s bank account with a credit limit of £10,000. You start each day with the full credit in place (assuming you have had a good night’s sleep). The moment you wake up, you start to spend your credit.  Now you would run out of credit very quickly but the brain knew about this as it developed (well maybe not credit but the limits of its capacity) so that much of what you do each day is run in the automatic habit system and by-passes the prefrontal cortex. (See our book Brain-savvy HR, the chapter on habits for more details). Things you do routinely in the morning for example like having a shower, brushing your teeth, eating your breakfast and even getting to work are largely run out of the automatic habit system. You only engage the prefrontal cortex when something goes wrong and you have to think about what needs to happen, like when you head off to work but really you should be taking a different direction because you have a meeting with a client and you have to concentrate on the new route.

The prefrontal cortex’s capacity, your credit, begins to run when you start reading and responding to emails (£500), attending three or four meetings (£4,000), dealing with employee issues (£3,000), more emails and a difficult phone call (£600) and suddenly you have used three quarters of your credit.

Now if you then have to do something which is taxing for your brain like  making a complex decision with lots of data (£5,000), planning or forecasting (£4,000), brainstorming or problem solving (£6,000) you are in the red. And that means you’re mentally exhausted. The symptoms will be a lack of concentration, flitting from one thing to another, reading something or listening and then realising you have no idea what you read or what was said, zoning out and thinking about nothing, starting to do mindless things like filing emails when you should be doing that urgent report or an urge to get up and move around.

Of course the bank credit analogy and figures are just an illustration to make the point. But your prefrontal cortex does operate within limits. These facts about the brain’s capacity, or at least a lack of understanding of them, lead us to work in ways that are not conductive to maximising our brain. We have habits that fry our brain rather than use it in a way that is brain-savvy.


This rhythmic pattern, switching between focus and down time, between effort and renewal has been found to be the most effective way to work.


Habit 1: Focus on time not energy

Different people work in different ways but most work norms value attention, concentration and focus. People who take a break, sit back and think or take an afternoon nap are typically seen as lazy. Companies like Google that provide facilities for this type of activity are seen by established companies as quirky, and the implicit message is they will ‘grow out of it.’ But could it be they understand the brain better than most? Take these two examples of very different work habits and let’s look at them through the lens of productivity.

Helen works for 10 hours pretty much without stopping, she is at her desk, head down most of the day when she isn’t running to and from meetings and she eats lunch at her desk. She begins work at about 80% of her capacity, instinctively pacing herself because she knows she’s got a long day ahead. By lunch time she’s dropped to 60% of her capacity and is feeling fatigued.  After 4pm she’s averaging about 40% capacity. As a result her thinking is uncreative, she makes errors and has to rework them and her enjoyment of the work is low.

Nick works entirely differently.  He works intensely for around an hour to 90 minutes, and then takes a 15-minute break before working again. At lunchtime he goes out either for a walk, the gym or to have lunch with friends. At around 3 p.m., he closes his eyes at his desk and takes a rest. Sometimes he just lets his mind wander; sometimes he has a 15-20-minute nap. Finally, between 4:30 p.m. and 5 p.m., Nick takes a 15-minute walk outside. At the end of the day he sits back for 15 minutes and reflects on his day and makes a list of what he has learnt and what he will do tomorrow. He knows that in research people who do this increase productivity by as much as 23%.

Who would you say was most productive? If we look at the numbers for Helen and Nick it is interesting.  Nick takes off a total of 2 hours during his 10 hours at work, during that time he’s working at an average of 80% of his capacity, so he’s delivering just under 6 ½ hours of work. Helen’s average work capacity over 10 hours is 60% which means she effectively delivers 6 hours of work. Nick is actually more productive than Helen because the breaks enable him to work at 90% of his capacity. Because Nick is more focused and alert than Helen, he also makes fewer mistakes, is more creative and enjoys the work. And at the end of the day he still has energy for his own interests.

This rhythmic pattern, switching between focus and down time, between effort and renewal has been found to be the most effective way to work. Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson  who studies expert performers found they work hard but also take planned rest periods. This contributes to the learning and helps skills to be embedded, making them accessible for longer and their abilities deeper. Our brain requires breaks to work productively.  Most people tell us there are no more hours in a day they can work. They need to be able to work smarter. Counterintuitively doing less may be the answer. Companies who adopt this work style include names like Google, Apple, Facebook, Coca-Cola, and Genentech.  There is also evidence that levels of employee engagement are a positive by-product of the approach. People like their job and are willing to go above and beyond their basic duties—a trait that many studies have correlated with higher performance and productivity.


Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to achieve high levels of performance and form stable memories.


Habit 2: Too busy to think

There is a more important reason for working like Nick, at least in my view, and that is the science we are seeing about the benefits of down time. These breaks that Nick takes which most people see as ‘not working’ may actually be when the brain is doing its most productive work. What research shows is that when we are relaxing or daydreaming, going for a walk or taking a reflective break, the brain does not really slow down or stop working.  Many important mental processes require what we call downtime and other forms of rest during the day. Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to achieve high levels of performance and form stable memories. It also helps us learn from the past and plan for the future. It is also linked to better self awareness and understanding of others as well as higher quality ethical decisions.

The areas of the brain doing all of this are called the default system. In a thought-provoking review  Mary Helen Immordino-Yang says that when we are resting the brain is not idle or unproductive. It is carrying out essential mental processes that affirm our identities, develop our understanding of others’ behaviour and instilling an internal code of ethics. It is also making sense of what we have recently learned, sorting through our thinking and resolving contradictions and reflecting on our actions and motives.  This list may be more extensive than what we are doing when the brain is ‘working.’

You know this is true when you step back (take some down time). For example you know that whilst your mind is wandering, you are replaying conversations and rewriting mistakes as a way of learning. You’re mentally rehearsing the presentation you are making soon, or having that difficult conversation with the boss, in your head, or replaying the satisfaction of the praise you got for helping a senior manager. You are sorting through all those mental to do lists and ruminating about how you can run your life better. You may find yourself recalling scenes from childhood and then jump into how you want to be in the future. And you give yourself to a kind of personal performance review, questioning how you have treated others; what you could do better and where you made a difference. This reflection or introspection is one way you form a sense of self; a story you continually tell yourself about who you are. People who take time to reflect are surer about their own point of view, tend to be more confident, understand others’ motives and goals and are better at making complex decisions and solving complex problems.

How the brain works when you are not

Mark Beeman has found that although we may appear idle while reflecting or mind wandering, the brain is actually working hard, tapping unconscious mental resources which are greater than are used during more analytical or conscious thinking.  Being in this unfocused “default mode,” allows us to make new connections in the brain and to see an old problem anew; the insight moment.

This is why you get your best ideas in the shower, walking, at the gym or some other time when you are unfocused. But the really powerful idea behind this science is that this apparent unfocused time is not wasted time. Rather it is when the unconscious parts of the mind are solving your most challenging problems. In other research David Cresswell has found that when people process complex information, giving them time to reflect, if only a few minutes, makes their use of the information more effective and their decisions much better.

Maybe the next trend in business will be using your unconscious mind more; after all it is much more powerful than your conscious resources. Another reason for that afternoon break.


Creating flow for yourself means creating a balance between your perceived challenge and your perception of your ability.


Habit 3: Most work is boring

Most of us think having an interest in our work as a luxury. It would be nice to have but cannot be achieved most of the time. It’s almost a treat we get occasionally during the week or maybe the year. Research shows that finding what you do interesting and meaningful; believing it has inherent value is one of the best ways to stay motivated despite difficulties, setbacks, and unexpected upsets. Additionally, interest in your work doesn’t just keep you going despite fatigue; it actually replenishes your energy.

In studies, psychologists Dustin Thoman and colleagues gave participants a task to work on that was particularly draining, and then varied whether the next task was difficult-but-interesting or relatively easy-but-dull. They found that people who worked on the interesting task put in more effort and performed much better (despite being tired) than those who worked on the boring task, even though it was actually harder than the boring task. In another study, the researchers found that working on something interesting resulted in better performance on a subsequent task as well. The replenished energy flows into whatever you do next.

An environment where people are immersed in their work, and enjoy a deep and sustained focus on it, bringing all their skills and motivation to a task, is referred to as a state of “flow.” Creating flow for yourself means creating a balance between your perceived challenge and your perception of your ability. Too much challenge results in panic; too easy a task for your skills results in boredom. Achieving the optimum balance leads to a deeply satisfying experience at work: the activity itself becomes its own reward. What’s more, those who are highly engaged and able to sustain their performance over time not only show stronger commitment and have more job satisfaction but enjoy better health. You can manipulate how you feel about work by changing the balance between perceived challenge and perceived ability. If something is too easy, doing it in a different way so you extend your skills ups the challenge. If too hard chunk it into smaller activities which you can achieve.


Multi-tasking is something modern businesses assumes we can do but it turns out multi-tasking when we are using prefrontal cortex brain systems is impossible to do and maintain your productivity.


Habit 4: Multi-tasking

The reality is we can multi-task but only if the things we are doing are using different parts of the brain or one of them is already deeply embedded in our automatic habit system. So you might be able to walk down the street or navigate to a conference room when you know the way well whilst talking on the phone about an important matter, but the chances are if you haven’t been to the room before, you will get lost or lose the thread of the conversation.

Multi-tasking is something modern businesses assumes we can do but it turns out multi-tasking when we are using prefrontal cortex brain systems is impossible to do and maintain your productivity. When we think we’re multi-tasking, we’re actually quickly switching back-and-forth between different tasks, rather than doing them at the same time. Research shows your error rate goes up and it takes you twice as long to do things.

 Test your multi-tasking

If you don’t believe me try this quick test: with a stopwatch measure how long it takes you to count quickly from 1 to 10. Now do the same thing except saying the alphabet from A to J. Now measure how long it takes when you put the two tasks together: alternately saying a letter and a number (A1, B2… etc).

I can guarantee it will take more than twice as long to do the combined task as you took for each single task, because the brain slows down when it has to keep switching between numbers and letters. (For most people the first two tasks take a couple of seconds each. The mixed, switching task typically takes 15 to 20 seconds. On top of the slow-down, your working memory gets fatigued. Depending on how stressed you are, or how much you’ve been using your brain, you may also keep forgetting where you are in the task. Scientist Katherine Moore at Michigan has found that irrelevant cues introduced when a person was concentrating hijack the attention system and impair cognitive performance.  Glenn Wilson of Kings College has demonstrated that switching between different technologies, like emailing and answering the phone constantly, reduced IQ scores by 10 points.

We keep trying to multi-task because of a cognitive illusion generated in part by dopamine-adrenalin activity so you feel like you are doing well. Part of the problem is that workplaces encourage you to multi-task. Stanford professor Clifford Nass notes that many companies have rules such as “You must answer emails within 15 minutes” or “You must keep a chat window open,” but this means you’re continually checking email and the chat box and fragmenting concentration.

Also, in case you are still not convinced, research has found that the people who multi-task the most tend to be the worst at it! In a study David Sanbonmatsu and David Strayer had undergrads complete a series of tests to measure multi-tasking ability. The people in the research had an inflated view of how good they were; 70% classified themselves as pro multi-taskers.  The study also found people engaged in multi-tasking not because they felt they were accomplishing more, but because they were not able to block out distractions and focus on a single task. And there is evidence that indicates some people multi-task because it is more stimulating, interesting and challenging, and less boring. Ironically, the 25% that scored highest on the multi-tasking test tended not to multi-task at all which allowed them to lend greater focus.  The message is if you want to be good at multi-tasking, don’t do it very often.


Some habits that may surprise you; research on the effects of caffeine, alcohol, and exercise on the brain can now help you work smarter by taking the right stimulant at the right time.


Some good habits that may surprise

Finally some habits that may surprise you; research on the effects of caffeine, alcohol, and exercise on the brain can now help you work smarter by taking the right stimulant at the right time.

If you need to come up with creative ways to solve a problem  a moderate amount of alcohol increases creative capacity, probably because you relax and are in a happy mood, both findings that link to more insight.   Alcohol affects the cerebral cortex of the brain, the region associated with conscious thought and language. You feel less focused, but alcohol makes it easier to tune out distractions that compete for your attention. It actually quiets the brain and allows for more creative insights to occur.

Once you know the solution to the problem you then of course have to make it happen. This is where the coffee comes in!  Coffee can increase output and quality when what you need to do is straightforward. It helps you focus and complete motor tasks. However be careful, you get used to the effect and need more and more to get the benefits. Caffeine is best for quick focused tasks but don’t get into a habit. Use it sparingly.

And if your new year’s resolution was to cut out coffee and alcohol, people who exercise during their workday are 23% more productive according to a study. Exercise helps you make new connections and increases processing power in the brain as well as memory.

Summary: What to do

+   Top up the brain capacity credits: often people suggest sugar because the brain needs massive amounts of energy but the research that glucose helps is in question. A better option is to make sure you have had sufficient nourishment; maybe eat a healthy snack. And also check you have been drinking sufficient water.

+   Stop spending brain credits:  work on something that is routine and requires minimal mental effort.

+   Take a break:  a short walk will really restore your brain credits and because the unconscious parts of the brain are working, you may have the added benefit of a new solution to the problem you were stuck on (see our video on the science of insight).

+   Do the important thinking and decision-making early in the day and save things like email until later.

+   Establish the habit of quality thinking time and down time; when difficult problems can be processed out of conscious awareness.


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