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What the latest brain science tells us about ‘working smarter’

June 5, 2015, 1:00 PM UTC
CT scan of a brain
Photograph by T-Pool-Stock 4B/Getty Images

Dear Annie: Can you explain the expression “work smarter, not harder”? My boss is constantly telling us to “work smarter” but she gives us no suggestions how to do that. The demands of my job are endless and I’m always juggling way too many things at once to be really effective at any of them, so I’m discouraged on top of being exhausted. If “working smarter” would help, I’m more than willing to try it. But what is it? — Piedmont Pete

Dear Pete: Here’s a question for you. Have you asked your boss what she means? Sorry if that sounds painfully obvious, but you’d be amazed (or then again, maybe you wouldn’t) at how many people try to guess what their bosses want, usually out of fear that asking will make them look dumb. Most of us are lousy at reading minds, however, so we end up seeming clueless anyway.

It could be, for instance, that her definition of “working smarter” means returning client phone calls before you check your email, or rearranging your priorities in some other specific way that she thinks would make you more productive. Maybe she means you need to learn to delegate more or schedule fewer meetings. The point is, you’ll never know unless you ask.

But let’s suppose she’s using “work smarter, not harder” as a kind of general slogan with nothing in particular behind it. “The phrase has become a catchall,” notes Scott Halford, author of a new book you might want to check out, Activate Your Brain: How Understanding Your Brain Can Improve Your Work — and Your Life. “Luckily, we now know so much more than we used to about how our brains function, we can use that information to literally work smarter.”

Alas, much of the latest research suggests that “most of us approach things exactly backwards,” Halford says. It’s essential, for example, to stop “juggling way too many things at once,” as you put it. Working long hours and multi-tasking the whole time doesn’t make anyone more productive. “Studies show that one hour of focused time equals four hours of time spent trying to finish a task while you’re distracted,” notes Halford.

The average person has 70,000 thoughts per day, “so we’re pretty good at distracting ourselves without any outside help,” he adds. But every distraction chips away at the amount of glucose flowing to the brain, depleting the energy it uses to do its best work on the tasks that really matter.

“The office is full of interruptions, and that environment is unlikely to change,” Halford says. “So the most important skill anyone can learn is to focus on one thing at a time and work in concentrated chunks. Control what you choose to attend to, and you’ll automatically ‘work smarter.’”

Another way many people work backwards is by frittering away the morning hours, when most of us are at our sharpest, on “warming up to a big task by doing a lot of little things first,” says Halford. Instead, the latest neuroscience says it’s better to tackle the day’s most important project right away and leave everything else for later in the day — especially if the big task requires a high level of attention to detail, because “our brains get fuzzier and less accurate as we get more tired.”

Sometimes people procrastinate a big project, daunted by the amount of time and effort it will take. In that case, Halford says, it’s important to “start small, but start now.” The reason: Doing even a tiny part of a monster task “gives you a little dopamine bump, the same small surge in the brain’s ‘happiness chemical’ that you get from checking something off a to-do list. It can keep you from feeling overwhelmed and make you want to keep going.”

Working smarter might also require that you take more breaks throughout the day. “The stress hormone cortisol literally makes you dumber. Too much of it disconnects the thinking part of your brain,” explains Halford. “So you need mental erasers in between tasks to keep it in check.”

The latest research shows that people who divert their attention from work every 50 minutes — by “getting up and walking around, playing a computer game, or just gazing out a window,” Halford says — are able to concentrate much better than people who go from one task to another without stopping.

Halford advises executives he coaches to take at least three 10-minute breaks a day, and more if they can. “It usually takes a conscious effort, at first, to remember to do it,” he says. “But then it becomes a habit.” He’s also an advocate of “power napping,” pointing out that Einstein, Edison, and Churchill all took brief afternoon snoozes. They were on to something. The latest neuroscience shows that closing your eyes for a 10-minute catnap once or twice a day, if you can pull it off, improves brain function and sharpens memory.

And speaking of shuteye, says Halford, “when it comes to working smarter, nothing beats a good night’s sleep, which most Americans don’t get. But the research is conclusive on this point. If you sleep for five hours or less for a few nights running, it has the same mental effect as being legally drunk.” Noted.

Talkback: What ways have you found to “work smarter, not harder”? Leave a comment below.

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