7 ways to retrain your brain so you are more productive

February 3, 2015, 11:22 AM UTC
young woman frustrated at desk
Stress businesswoman on phone
Photograph by Helen Ashford—Getty Images

Evolution is a slow process. In the timeline of our species, we’re not far removed from our days of living in small clan groups, hunting and gathering to survive. We would encounter no more than a thousand people in our lifetimes. Our brains were built for that world, not one where incessant interruptions at work and at home fly at us like swarms of angry mosquitos.

No wonder we feel distracted and stressed — particularly professional women who are often managing lives that don’t stay neatly compartmentalized. In my research on high-earning women with families, I’ve found that about 75 percent do work tasks outside of work hours, and an equal proportion do personal tasks during the normal business day. There is always something competing for time and attention.

But while “our genes haven’t fully caught up with the demands of modern civilization, fortunately, human knowledge has,” writes McGill University neuroscientist Daniel Levitin in his bestselling book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. “We now better understand how to overcome evolutionary limitations.”

Highly successful people “have learned to maximize their creativity, and efficiency, by organizing their lives so that they spend less time on the mundane, and more time on the inspiring, comforting, and rewarding things in life.” For true VIPs, this can involve a staff of dozens. For the rest of us, Levitin offers suggestions on how to create the calm that comes from giving our brains less to think about, so we can focus on what matters.

    1. Give things a place. “Place memory evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to keep track of things that didn’t move, such as fruit trees, wells, mountains, lakes,” Levitin writes. We didn’t exactly transport much daily, which is why we’re not wired to keep track of things such as car keys, cell phones, and wallets. We misplace them, then spend much mental energy finding them. The answer? Give these things a home, such as a tray or hook by the door. When possible, buy duplicates so things don’t have to move: reading glasses for work and home, scissors for the kitchen and home office.
    2. Create triggers for what you want to remember. We go through much of life on auto-pilot. It’s one way our brains conserve energy. The problem is that once you start a routine, your brain isn’t going to stop you to remind you of something else you intended to incorporate. But the brain does go on alert when it registers something new. So “use the environment to remind you of what needs to be done,” Levitin writes. “If you’re afraid you’ll forget to buy milk on the way home, put an empty milk carton on the seat next to you in the car or in the backpack you carry to work on the subway.” Your brain will recognize this out-of-context item and interrupt its reverie. This bias toward the new and unexpected is also why emails or text alerts make us so excited. Use this to your advantage, and set up reminders for important things you’d like to take time for: connecting with old friends, scheduling a date with your partner.
    3. Plan for a big network. “Because our ancestors lived in social groups that changed slowly, because they encountered the same people throughout their lives, they could keep almost every social detail they needed to know in their heads,” writes Levitin. Now, you may work and interact with hundreds of people who expect you to remember their names and details about your last conversation. Your brain alone isn’t up for the job. So write down notes about people you meet and what you talked about. Social networking sites (LinkedIn, Facebook) can help with basic details, and with birthday and work anniversary reminders, but for the human brain, out of sight really is out of mind. Plan to review your contacts regularly.
    4. Focus. The human brain can switch between tasks, but it’s metabolically costly. “It takes less energy to focus,” writes Levitin. “People who organize their time in a way that allows them to focus are not only going to get more done, but they’ll be less tired and less neurochemically depleted after doing it.” If you have chores to do, put similar chores together. “If you’ve collected a bunch of bills to pay, just pay the bills — don’t use that time to make big decisions about whether to move to a smaller house or buy a new car.” Defer those decisions to a different designated time slot.
    5. Prep and review. Of course, while it’s best to spend big chunks of time focused on one problem, the workplace is seldom set up for this. Many managers tromp from one meeting to another like high schoolers switching classes. You may think you’ll remember what transpired in each meeting, but you won’t. This is why psychiatrists work a 50-minute hour. “They use that extra ten minutes to write down what happened,” notes Levitin. So rather than scheduling things back to back, give yourself ten minutes to write notes about what needs to be done. Also, “Because attention switching is metabolically costly, it’s good neural hygiene for your brain to give it time to switch into the mind-set of your next meeting gradually and in a relaxed way before the meeting starts.” Ideally, hour-long meetings would really run from ten after to ten before the hour. Give it a shot. It’s the rare meeting that couldn’t be compressed if people tried.
    6. Don’t dither over things that don’t matter. Do you agonize over wardrobe or food choices? If your brain can only make so many decisions in a day, then it’s better to preserve its power for weighty matters. Edit your closet to limited options that all work. At business lunches, just choose the same thing (e.g. the Caesar salad). You’ll eat again, and making fewer decisions means you can make better ones when it counts.
    7. Sleep. It’s the secret weapon of cognitive success. “Across a range of inferences involving not just language but mathematics, logic problems, and spatial reasoning, sleep has been shown to enhance the formation and understanding of abstract relations, so much so that people often wake having solved a problem that was unsolvable the night before,” writes Levitin. Good sleep looks different for different people. Some people do best with naps. Some people sleep straight through the night, and others wake for a while in the middle. Whatever works for you, though, prioritize making it happen — and your happy brain will help you get a lot more done.

Laura Vanderkam is a journalist and the author of the forthcoming book Their Own Sweet Time: How Successful Women Build Lives That Work (Portfolio, June 2015).

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