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Guidelines for Optimally Using Your Brain at Work

September 19, 2014
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Before I  got immersed into consulting to businesses and ultimately ManagePro, I was a clinical psychologist for 20 years .  During that two decade stint I consulted with brain injury patients at the Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in the middle of a lot of private practice hours spent doing therapy, and became very interested in the brain and how it works.  I want to take a moment to share 4 things about how your brain works when it comes to processing information at work in this blog.  Why?  Well I could say it will help you at work, but let’s imagine that it could actually radically change some of how you operate daily… for the better.  Think of these as guidelines for how to operate your brain, or feed it the stuff it is best set up to handle.  I’ve pulled this in part from an excellent book on the topic, Brain Rules by John Medina.  So here goes, four concrete guidelines to understand about how our brain works best, and the resulting work implications for you and me.

First Guideline – Keep it Visual:
1. First of all, fully 50% of your brain’s resources are committed to supporting processing visual input.  This means your brain is prepared to handle processing visual stuff, like reading, very efficiently and effectively.  It’s what it is wired to do.  Processing auditory input, well there’s just much less resources in your brain set aside for that function, and although there are significant resources committed to handling language, nothing comes close to our mental capabilities and facility at handling visual input.

Work Implication:  Talk less, write more, it’s easier on the brain.  Write even simple stuff down (to-dos, updates, etc), it frees up resources that would otherwise be tied up keeping that information in memory (you and I want as much brain resources available as possible).   We can consume information much faster visually, than we can by listening.  Talking is simply over-rated when it comes to how our brain processes things.  So why in the world are we spending so much time in meetings… talking?

Second Guideline – Leverage Patterns:
2. Our brain looks for and establishes patterns every chance it gets.  It’s the manner in which it efficiently handles all of the visual information coming in.  That’s why we recognize the shape and color of a stop sign yards away and don’t have to drive up next to it to read the letters to know what it means. Patterns allow our brain to know what to expect and help us process information much faster and with less effort, than if we couldn’t establish a pattern.  To the extent something doesn’t fit into a pattern, our brain either ignores or has to stop and figure out why and what’s the meaning.  To the extent we can use patterns (best practices) in our work process, and not make it up as we go, our brain can move through information and tasks much easier.

Work Implication:  Use a consistent format, a consistent practice for handling information that’s super efficient (no that’s not email or post-it notes).  Knowing exactly where to go to get the information you need, because everyone handles it the same way, makes it much easier for the brain to quickly grasp and anticipate.  And particularly use a consistent pattern of input for updating follow-through on projects and tasks. 

Third Guideline – Memory is Variable – Help it Out:
3. We don’t retain everything thing we hear or learn.  In fact how much we forget, even in one day, varies widely (0-73%) across individuals and the learning method invoked.  We attach pieces of data to construct short term memory in a variety of locations across our brain.  It’s relatively fragile, and takes another entire process to convert to long term memory.  That’s part of the reason as you’re thinking of what to say next to the person you just met, that you’ve lost their name.  Bottom line, trusting that other’s will remember and follow through tomorrow on what you said today… is a gamble.  E.g. you’re over-rating other’s ability to remember what you said to or asked of them.

Work Implication:  Write stuff down, especially when it comes to managing to-dos, whether for your self or to others.  We use ManagePro and you might be surprised how much easier it is for your brain and consistent detail management across the office to just click in that ManagePro calendar and key it in there… not write it on a post-it note, or short term memory cells.  You don’t want to take up brain cells trying to remember, and to remember to notify yourself to remember stuff a program can do for you.

Fourth Guideline – Multitasking Not:
4. We don’t actually multi-task (even though it feels like we do), instead we do time splitting with our brain, focus momentarily on this task, now shift to something else, now shift again, and argh, just when we start to focus, shift again.  Multi-tasking for our brain really is multi-shifting and it’s not efficient, and actually can make you feel pretty frustrated if you’re trying to focus.  It’s litterally impossible for our brain to multi-task on tasks we are attending to!  Read that sentence again or simply think about why that is important.  Well, you see when we split resources instead of staying focused to completion, our error rate goes up by 50% and we take twice as long to complete tasks.  Yikes, are you OK with that?

Work Implication:  Protect your focus.  Interruptions cost us, making the brain function much less effectively than it can when uninterrupted.  Most of us invite interruptions with non-stop access to phone calls, emails, texting, “open-door” policy, and not to mention what we keep running on the pc.  If you want to be really effective, stop multi-tasking every chance you get and focus and finish on what you start, before you turn to “next.”  You’ll get better at follow through and so will everyone else on your team. 

Bottom Line:
Our brains work best, and we’ll be our best at work if we adjust our work style to fit our brain’s preference for managing information.  Informally you might frame those guidelines as:
1. Write more, talk less when communication with others
2. Be consistent in how you manage information, get others to follow the same set of rules
3. Write what think you will just remember and be consistent about where  you store what you’ve written
4. Protect your focus and switch to non-multi-tasking as often as you can


1 Comment. Leave new

Doris Gauthier
November 27, 2014 7:23 am

This is an excellent article mirroring my beliefs exactly concerning my inability to manage my life. .

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