Your Brain at Work, Revised and Updated
eBook - ePub

Your Brain at Work, Revised and Updated

Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long

David Rock

  1. 304 pagine
  2. English
  3. ePUB (disponibile sull'app)
  4. Disponibile su iOS e Android
eBook - ePub

Your Brain at Work, Revised and Updated

Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long

David Rock

Dettagli del libro
Anteprima del libro
Indice dei contenuti

Informazioni sul libro

A researcher and consultant burrows deep inside the heads of one modern two-career couple to examine how each partner processes the workday—revealing how a more nuanced understanding of the brain can allow us to better organize, prioritize, recall, and sort our daily lives.

Emily and Paul are the parents of two young children, and professionals with different careers. Emily is the newly promoted vice president of marketing at a large corporation; Paul works from home or from clients' offices as an independent IT consultant. Their days are filled with a bewildering blizzard of emails, phone calls, more emails, meetings, projects, proposals, and plans. Just staying ahead of the storm has become a seemingly insurmountable task.

In Your Brain at Work, Dr. David Rock goes inside Emily and Paul's brains to see how they function as each attempts to sort, prioritize, organize, and act on the vast quantities of information they receive in one typical day. Dr. Rock is an expert on how the brain functions in a work setting. By analyzing what is going on in their heads, he offers solutions Emily and Paul (and all of us) can use to survive and thrive in today's hyperbusy work environment—and still feel energized and accomplished at the end of the day.

In Your Brain at Work, Dr. Rock explores issues such as:

  • why our brains feel so taxed, and how to maximize our mental resources
  • why it's so hard to focus, and how to better manage distractions
  • how to maximize the chance of finding insights to solve seemingly insurmountable problems
  • how to keep your cool in any situation, so that you can make the best decisions possible
  • how to collaborate more effectively with others
  • why providing feedback is so difficult, and how to make it easier
  • how to be more effective at changing other people's behavior
  • and much more.

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Act I
Problems and Decisions
More people than ever are being paid to think, instead of just doing routine tasks. Yet making complex decisions and solving new problems is difficult for any stretch of time because of some real biological limits on your brain. Surprisingly, one of the best ways to improve mental performance is to understand these limits.
In act 1, Emily discovers why thinking requires so much energy, and develops new techniques for dealing with having too much to do. Paul learns about the space limits of his brain, and works out how to deal with information overload. Emily finds out why it’s so hard to do two things at once, and rethinks how she organizes her work. Paul discovers why he is so easily distracted, and works on how to stay more focused. Then he finds out how to stay in his brain’s “sweet spot.” In the last scene, Emily discovers that her problem-solving techniques need improving, and learns how to have breakthroughs when she needs them most.
Scene 1
The Morning Information Overwhelm
It’s 7:30, Monday morning. Emily gets up from the breakfast table, kisses Paul and her children goodbye, closes the front door, and heads to her car. After sorting out sibling squabbles all weekend, she is looking forward to focusing on her new job. As she heads toward the freeway, she thinks about her week ahead and how she wants to get off to a good start. About halfway to work, she gets an idea for a new conference, and has to concentrate hard to keep the idea in mind as she drives.
Emily is at her desk by eight o’clock. She turns on her computer, ready to flesh out this new conference idea. Then, she spies the awful truth: two hundred emails start to download. She has over fifty messages from her company chat, plus dozens of alerts from two other programs. A wave of anxiety washes over her. Answering the emails alone could take all day, but she also has hours of meetings booked and three projects due by six o’clock. Her excitement about the promotion is already beginning to fade. She loves the idea of the extra money and responsibility, but she isn’t sure how she’s going to cope with the increased workload.
Thirty minutes later, Emily realizes she has responded to only twenty emails, and hasn’t touched the chats people sent her, which could be urgent. She needs to speed up. She tries to read emails while listening to her voice mail. Her attention shifts for a moment to how her longer hours might impact her kids. She remembers how she snapped at them in the past when she was too busy at work. Then she remembers a promise she made to herself—to be a good role model by staying true to her career ambitions. Lost in thought, she accidentally deletes a voice mail from her boss.
The burst of adrenaline triggered by the lost message snaps her focus to the present. She stops typing and tries to think about the projects due today: writing a new conference proposal, crafting some marketing copy, and deciding which assistant to hire. Then there are all those emails, with dozens of different issues to follow up on. She spends several seconds trying to imagine how to prioritize everything, but nothing comes to mind. She tries to remember the guidelines she learned in a time-management course she took long ago, but despite a few seconds of focus, she can’t find the thread of the memory. She goes back to the emails and tries to type faster.
By the end of the hour, Emily has replied to forty emails and juggled the critical instant messages, but with the workday starting, there are now 120 emails waiting. She’s had no time to work on her new conference idea, either. Despite her good intentions, it’s not a great start to the day, the week, or her new position.
Emily is not alone. Workers everywhere are experiencing an epidemic of overwhelm. For some people, it’s the pressure of a promotion; for many others, a downsizing or reorganization; but for many, every day involves a constant, massive, and overwhelming volume of work. As the world digitizes, globalizes, unplugs, and reorganizes, having too much to do has become our biggest complaint.
For Emily to be effective in her new job, without destroying her health or her family, she needs to change how her brain works. She needs new neural circuitry for managing a significantly larger and more complex to-do list.
The trouble is, when it comes to making decisions and solving problems, as Emily is trying to do this morning, the brain has some surprising performance limitations. While the brain is exquisitely powerful, even the brain of a Harvard graduate can be turned into that of an eight-year-old simply by being made to do two things at once. In this scene, and in the next few to come, Emily and Paul are going to discover the biological limits that underlie mental performance, and in the process develop more brain-smart approaches to everyday challenges. As they change their brains, you will have the opportunity to change yours, too.
Making decisions and solving problems relies heavily on a region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. The cortex is the outer covering of the brain, the curly gray stuff you see in pictures of brains. It’s a tenth of an inch thick and covers the brain like a sheet. The prefrontal cortex, which sits behind the forehead, is just one part of the overall cortex. The last major brain region to develop during human evolutionary history, it is a measly 4 to 5 percent of the volume of the rest of the brain.
Don’t be fooled, though. As with diamonds and espressos, sometimes good things come in small packages. Without a prefrontal cortex you wouldn’t be able to set any type of goal. Thinking “Get some milk at the store” would be impossible. You also wouldn’t be able to plan. You wouldn’t be able to say to yourself, “Walk up the hill, go into the store, and purchase the milk, then walk back down.” You wouldn’t be able to control impulses, so if you felt an urge to lie on a sun-warmed road on a cold day, you’d be in trouble. And you wouldn’t be able to solve problems, such as working out how to get to a hospital after a car has run you over. You would also have trouble visualizing a situation you’d never seen before, so you’d have no idea what to take to the hospital. And, finally, you wouldn’t be able to think creatively, so you wouldn’t be able to make up a good story to tell your wife when you finally got home from the hospital.
Your prefrontal cortex is the biological seat of your conscious interactions with the world. It’s the part of your brain central to thinking things through, instead of being on “autopilot” as you go about your life. In the last few decades, neuroscientists have made important discoveries about this region of the brain, in particular a team led by Amy Arnsten. Arnsten is a professor of neurobiology at Yale Medical School. Like her mentor, the late Patricia Goldman-Rakic, Arnsten has devoted her career to unlocking the mysteries of the prefrontal cortex. “Your prefrontal cortex holds the contents of your mind at any one point,” Arnsten explains. “It’s where we hold thoughts that are not being generated from external sources or from the senses. We ourselves are generating them.”
While the prefrontal cortex is handy, it also has big limitations. To put these limitations in perspective, imagine that the processing resources for holding thoughts in mind were equivalent to the value of the coins in your pocket right now. If this were so, the processing power of the rest of your brain would be roughly equivalent to the entire U.S. economy (perhaps before the financial crisis of 2008). Or, as Arnsten explains, “the prefrontal cortex is like the Goldilocks of the brain. It has to have everything just right or it doesn’t function well.” Getting everything “just right” for the prefrontal cortex is what Emily needs to learn to do, to get on top of the extra information she is juggling in her new job.
I am going to introduce a metaphor for the prefrontal cortex that will be used throughout the book. Think of the prefrontal cortex as a stage in a small theater, where actors all play a specific part. The actors in this case represent information that you hold in your attention. Sometimes these actors enter the stage as a normal actor would, from the side of the stage. This is the case when information from the outside world comes to your attention, such as when Emily watches her computer download hundreds of emails.
However, this stage is not exactly like the stage in an ordinary theater. Sometimes the actors might also be audience members who get onstage to perform. The audience represents information from your inner world: your own thoughts, memories, and imaginings. The stage is what you focus on at any one time, and it can hold information from the outside world, information from your inner world, or any combination of the two.
Once actors get on the stage of your attention there are lots of interesting things you can do with them. To understand a new idea, you put new actors on the stage and hold them there long enough to see how they connect to audience members—that is, to information already in your brain. Emily does this when she reads each email to understand its contents, and hopefully you are doing this right now with this book. To make a decision, you hold actors onstage and compare them to one another, making value judgments. Emily does this as she reads each email and decides how to respond.
To recall information, meaning to bring a memory from the past back to mind, you bring an audience member up on the stage. If that memory is old, it might be at the back of the audience, in the dark. It can take time and effort to find this audience member, and you might get distracted along the way. Emily struggles with trying to remember rules for managing emails from a training course, but the information is too far back in the audience, so she gives up. To memorize information, you need to get actors off the stage and into the audience. Emily tries to memorize an idea for a new conference while driving, but finds this effort tiring.
Sometimes it’s important not to focus on an actor, to keep him off the stage. For example, you might have a tight deadline at lunchtime and are trying to focus on a project, but you find the thought of lunch keeps jumping into your awareness, distracting you for half a minute each time. The process of inhibition, of keeping certain actors off the stage, requires a lot of effort. It’s also central to effective functioning in life. Emily, distracted as she ruminates on how she is going to cope in her new job, accidentally deletes a voice mail as a result.
These five functions, understanding, deciding, recalling, memorizing, and inhibiting, make up the majority of conscious thought and are recombined to plan, problem-solve, communicate, and other tasks. Each function uses the prefrontal cortex intensively and requires significant resources to operate, far more resources than Emily realizes.
Recently my wife and I walked up the hill to the local shops—for some milk, funnily enough—and my wife asked me a question that I had to stop walking to answer. Everyone knows that walking up a hill takes energy. It turns out that conscious mental activities do, too, and I didn’t have enough energy to do both.
Conscious mental activities chew up metabolic resources, the fuel in your blood, significantly faster than automatic brain functions such as how your brain helps keep your heart beating or your lungs breathing. The stage requires a lot of energy to function. It’s as if the lights are a long way back from the stage, so you need a lot of them, all on full, to see the actors. To make matters worse, the power to light the stage is a limited resource, decreasing as you use it, a bit like a set of batteries that constantly need recharging.
The first clinical evidence for this limitation came way back in 1898. The scientist J. C. Welsh measured people’s ability to do physical tasks while thinking. She had subjects start a mental task and then asked them to impose as much force as they could, at the same time, on a dynamometer, a machine for measuring force. Her measurements showed that almost all mental tasks reduced maximum force, often by as much as 50 percent.
Doing energy-hungry tasks with your stage, such as scheduling meetings, might exhaust you after just an hour. In comparison, a truck driver can drive all day and night, his or her other ability to keep going limited only by his or her need for sleep. Driving a truck doesn’t require much use of the prefrontal cortex (unless you are a new driver, in a new truck, or on a new route). It involves another part of the brain called the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia are four masses in the brain driving routine activities that don’t require a lot of active mental attention. From an evolutionary perspective, the basal ganglia are an older part of the brain. They are also highly energy efficient, with fewer overall limitations than the prefrontal cortex. As soon as you repeat an activity even just a few times, the basal ganglia start to take over. The basal ganglia, and many other brain regions, function beneath conscious awareness, which explains why Emily can drive and think about a conference at the same time.
The prefrontal cortex chews up metabolic fuel, such as glucose and oxygen, faster than people realize. “We have a limited bucket of resources for activities like decision making and impulse control,” Dr. Roy Baumeister from Florida University explains, “and when we use these up, we don’t have as much for the next activity.” Make one difficult decision, and the next is more difficult. This effect can be fixed by drinking a glucose drink. Baumeister tested this hypothesis using lemonade sweetened with either glucose or a sugar substitute, and the impact on performance was marked.
Baumeister’s insight is a significant discovery about the machinery of the brain. Your ability to operate the stage has real limits because the stage needs a lot of fuel. It requires a lot of power to run, and this power drains as you use it. This explains many everyday phenomena such as why it’s easy to get distracted when you’re tired or hungry. When you get to two o’clock in the morning and can’t seem to think, it’s not you—it’s your brain. Your best-quality thinking lasts for a limited time. The answer is not always just to “try harder.”
Why does the mental stage require so much energy to function? Some scientists think the prefrontal cortex is energy hungry because it is still new in evolutionary terms and needs to evolve further to meet today’s information demands. Here’s a different perspective. When you understand the brain processes involved in an activity such as decision-making, you might be amazed at the capacity you do have. You might respect your limitations rather than fight them. Let’s explore this idea by going back bri...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Dedication
  4. Contents
  5. Foreword by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.
  6. Introduction
  7. Act I: Problems and Decisions
  8. Act II: Stay Cool Under Pressure
  9. Act III: Collaborate With Others
  10. Act IV: Facilitate Change
  11. Encore
  12. Further Resources
  13. Acknowledgments
  14. Glossary
  15. Notes
  16. Index
  17. About the Author
  18. Praise
  19. Also by Dr. David Rock
  20. Copyright
  21. About the Publisher
Stili delle citazioni per Your Brain at Work, Revised and Updated

APA 6 Citation

Rock, D. (2020). Your Brain at Work, Revised and Updated ([edition unavailable]). HarperCollins. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)

Chicago Citation

Rock, David. (2020) 2020. Your Brain at Work, Revised and Updated. [Edition unavailable]. HarperCollins.

Harvard Citation

Rock, D. (2020) Your Brain at Work, Revised and Updated. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Rock, David. Your Brain at Work, Revised and Updated. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins, 2020. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.