Businesses are always looking for the next big thing, investing millions of dollars to implement continuous improvement programs and technologies, centers of excellence, and other programs to create a competitive advantage. But as we focus on technology and process improvements, we are missing out on the last great frontier for improvement – the human brain.
Rapid advancements in neuroscience and psychology over the last 20 years have provided valuable insights into how the brain works, but companies have been slow to apply these lessons about the brain, learning, and human behavior to their business practices.
Brain Science – the Research
Scientific research in neuroscience and psychology have identified numerous “truths” that we as organizations should consider. The application of these “truths” put us in a better position to innovate. We wanted to share a few of these and then discuss how they can be applied.
1. Brain energy decreases over the course of the day. Complex thinking should be done in the morning.
Our ability to think creatively, reason clearly, and process information efficiently is best done in the morning. Think of a gas gauge. Science has shown that our brain’s gas tank is full in the morning after a night’s sleep. Over the course of the day, we expend energy, resulting in a lower brain-energy gas tank. This means we have less energy and less ability to think creatively and effectively as the day progresses.
2. We only have optimal focus for around 20 minutes, so our days should be broken into focus and rest cycles.
Our brains have a limited timeframe for optimal thinking and focus. After about 20 minutes, we are more easily distracted. To combat this, you should structure your day with focus and rest cycles. The rest cycle can be as simple as taking a 5- to 10-minute break when you tackle a more trivial mental activity. Research is available that discusses different techniques that use this concept, like the “Pomodoro technique.” Think about how this is applied to a normal meeting. I am sure most of us are scheduling 60-minute meetings.
3. Constraints heighten our focus and clarity. Build constraints into all activities.
Fear and anxiety elicit a similar neurological response. When we are fearful or anxious, blood rushes to the frontal lobe and our body releases adrenaline. This heightens our senses puts our bodies into a state of alert. Our brains are primed for optimal performance when we are in this state. Creating an environment where you introduce appropriate constraints will foster increased focus and attention.
4. The brain is always capable of change – if you establish the right learning culture.
Our brains are capable of change. This concept is known as neuroplasticity. When we learn new things, explore new areas, and change behaviors, the brain actuals “re-wires” itself and changes. This aligns directly to growth-mindset thinking. By establishing and nurturing the right culture and learning behaviors, leaders prime their teams for better innovation and thinking.
5. The brain is incapable of multitasking. Eliminate distractions for optimal performance.
It is a scientific fact the brain is incapable of multitasking. When people are doing different things, the brain processes information linearly and uses a lot of energy, so we tire more quickly and are less effective in our thinking. Our work days are riddled with distractions – email notifications pop up, our text notifications buzz, our coworker swings by, or we take a quick call. All of these are major brain energy drains, resulting in poor attention, learning, and creativity. We need to completely silence all these when setting aside time to innovate, think, and problem-solve. These distractions, while often justified, can be better managed if we set up our work environments to optimize our thinking.
The list above is nowhere close to exhaustive, and research is conducted daily to explore how we can improve how we think, learn, and behave. Science has also shown that mindfulness and mediation enhance brain performance. The role of exercise and diet are also relevant.
Brain Science in Action
Advancements in neuroscience and psychology have provided great insights into how the brain works, how we learn, and how we behave. Try these tactics to enhance focus:
- Major initiatives and/or activities should be performed in the morning.
- Include constraints to major tasks, like time and/or resources.
- Prioritize visual content over narrative content. However, you want to leverage all forms of content.
- Schedule focused and non-focused time blocks for work. Consider the Pomodoro technique as an example
- Purposefully vary tasks and responsibilities across team members. Expose your team to new experiences.
- Set up a distraction free time in your day where all notifications are turned off.
- Schedule 20- to 25-minute meetings to allow for a transition period of 5- to 10 minutes before the next meeting.
- If you have multiple topics to cover, break these into 20-minute blocks with a break.
- Eliminate “talking”-only meetings and encourage a “show and tell” format.
- Avoid a traditional “brainstorming” session. Instead, encourage individual thinking first and bring together individual activities in an autonomous manner for group review and discussion.
- If you have a remote workforce, conduct your meetings with video if possible.
Just as we apply the benefits of technology to optimize our businesses, neuroscience can optimize our performance.