How do you optimise your brain for productivity?
It seems that there are always new ways to be productive.
Whether that is through a new ‘hack’ or simply changing the way we do an everyday task. As someone that loves to dive into how our brains function, I find that these productivity tips provide more surface-level information rather than trying to understand why a specific action can help us be productive.
It’s difficult to stay consistent with a method without understanding why it works.
The brain is amazing at everything it does. Being productive is less about following a certain set of rules and more about understanding how our brain responds to the stimuli we place in front of it.
There are many ways we can optimise our brain for productivity. I have chosen 5 that I believe anyone can pick up and work on whilst focusing on how they actually impact the brain and change the way we think.
Meditation is a practice many people adopt, whether that be for mental health, to find a quiet space, a moment to reflect or something else and is a method of attention training at its core.
Beginner variations will often have you focus on a sound, feeling or bodily motion to get into the habit of focusing your thoughts on one area. The most common focus is breathing. While we are decluttering the mind of our thoughts, we are learning to focus on one thing at a time.
It also decreases perceptual habituation. In short, this means we develop attention to what’s happening in the present, without our mind wandering. When we practice this, we begin to treat each stimulus as fresh and new.
Why is this important?
With consistent practice, we can begin to apply this same principle to other tasks.
It can be difficult to concentrate on one thing for long periods of time. We may begin to question why we are doing it, what we could be doing instead or simply have our mind wander onto different thoughts and topics.
The chances of giving a task our full attention become difficult when our brain wanders off like this. But by focusing on the stimulus in front of us, we can learn to halt these passing thoughts and direct our full attention to the task at hand.
We may often catch our mind drifting whilst we are trying to focus. If you have pulled yourself out of a random thought when reading a book or watching a video, you know what I mean. We then have to go back to the stimulus and re-read/watch to focus.
Smallwood and Schooler (Linked above) called these “mind-wandering episodes”. These episodes and attention are two opposite states of consciousness.
We can increase our productivity by learning how to focus on the present – the stimulus in front of us – and by harnessing our ability to direct our focus, rather than let it drift.
I’m sure we’ve all had days where we had a terrible night’s sleep and it feels 10x harder to get anything productive done.
Well, why is that?
Sleep deprivation can have a wide array of negative consequences, including:
- Lack of motivation
- Lack of concentration
- High blood pressure
As well as many more.
There are many areas of the brain that are responsible for sleep. The Hypothalamus acts as a control centre that affects sleep. Within that is the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN) that receives information about light exposure. The Brain Stem that communicates with the Hypothalamus to determine between awake state and sleep.
The Pineal Gland receives information from the SCN and uses that information to produce melatonin. Which can help you sleep once you are away from a light source.
Despite knowing the impact sleep has on our ability to function as humans, it can be difficult to tell whether or not it truly does impact our productivity. There has always been a debate on the amount of sleep we need.
An interesting study found that when analysing the influence of sleep on productivity in the workplace, those with poor sleep (and thus, loss of productivity) were costing their business $1967 annually in loss of work. Another found that sleep impacted time to exhaustion in athletes by 11%.
Whilst I find studies like these interesting, I think the best way we can understand the impact of sleep on a personal level is to compare our own ability to function when we sleep poorly.
Sometimes the difference can be night and day. If there is a big day ahead of you and/or you are looking to get a lot done, one of the best things you can do is to put a good night’s sleep at the top of your priority list.
Reading has been known to have a multitude of positive effects on our mental ability. Emphasising constant learning and mental growth is always going to be positive.
However, I want to step away from reading about productivity and more about how it impacts our brain.
Reading, similarly to meditation, is consistent attention training. It requires a large amount of attention to sit down and read a book… without getting distracted. We may regularly experience mind-wandering episodes and read a page before realising our brain took nothing in.
There have been results that indicate a strong relationship between reading capability and an improvement in attention span and reactions. Which makes sense.
If we are used to focusing on one task for long periods of time, it’s only natural that we get used to doing so in the future. Building up this habit will enable you to do the same with different tasks in your life.
Whilst that is one way to improve productivity, I want to turn to another point that I think is often overlooked.
That one point is stress.
Stress can drastically impact our ability to be productive. I know from personal experience that I don’t feel like working on the important things when I’m feeling stressed out. It can also be troublesome to try and force yourself to continue when you feel overwhelmed.
Why do I bring up stress when talking about reading?
It has been shown that 30 minutes of reading is equal to 30 minutes of humour and yoga when it comes to relieving stress. Thus, reading can be a great way to unwind whilst improving your attention span.
Minimising the amount of daily stress we encounter can only be a benefit to us in the long run.
From there, we can leverage this reduction and harness our ability to concentrate to work towards getting the tasks we need to get done.
4) Taking breaks
At face value, taking breaks actually seems counterintuitive to productivity.
After all, we are consciously deciding not to work on the things we need to get done…
Where is the logic there?
Surprisingly, taking breaks can have a big impact on our ability to focus on tasks for a prolonged period of time. In one study, 84 subjects were tasked with completing a 50-minute task. The control group had to complete the task without a break.
A switch group were shown digits prior to their task and were told to identify them if they saw them during their task. Finally, another group was told about the digits but to ignore them.
They found that performance decreased significantly over time except for the switch group.
By simply having a few short breaks to identify digits, they were able to maintain a high level of performance.
So why could this have happened?
Of course, this isn’t a situation you are likely to occur for yourself. However, there is an interesting thought to be had which applies to the clothes we wear. We rarely pay attention to how they feel, more so, our brain has become habituated to them.
How often have you worked on a task for long periods of time to realise that you are feeling exceptionally tired? You feel bored and just don’t feel like continuing.
This can be a common occurrence unless you are in a state of flow.
By taking a short break and revisiting the task, we allow our attention to remain focused, rather than becoming accustomed. Which further allows us to work for longer periods of time without our minds wandering and becoming stagnant.
Exercise is crucial if you want to maintain a healthy weight and body. We are taught from a young age that we should get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day. Whilst most of us focus on exercise as a way to stay healthy, sometimes, we forget to look at the impact it has on our brain and mood.
Going out for a run, as the action alone, isn’t going to be what causes you to be productive.
Instead, it’s the influence it has over your brain that will shift you into a productive state. What do I mean by that?
Exercise has the incredible effect of making us happier almost instantly. That’s because exercise increases our endorphins, the hormones responsible for inhibiting pain and giving us a rush. The rush or euphoric feeling doesn’t come from this alone. Your body will also release Dopamine, Serotonin and norepinephrine of which all work together to give that feeling.
Speaking more generally, we often find that we do our best work when we are in a good mood. Exercise also improves our immune system and keep us healthier.
Exercise, as a standalone action, can keep us happier and healthier, potentially minimising the days in which we are ill and boosting our performance through an improvement in our mood and mentality.
Focusing on the long-term
Even though you can get an immediate rush from exercising, treating each of these points as a long-term focus will help you see the biggest impact on your productivity.
Productivity hacks are known for their ‘immediate’ benefit. Yet, to truly improve your productivity in the long-term you have to maintain consistency with tasks that your brain loves. If you are looking to get the most out of your day and optimise your schedule for peak productivity, reach out and let’s have a chat.