As the spokesperson for the FBI in Northern California, there were long stretches of the day when eating became hard to fit in, as were bathroom breaks. Each day was a full onslaught of updates on important cases, calls to return, emails to read and interviews to schedule.
If you face busy days and tight deadlines, there are several ways neuroscience can help you to improve your day.
Humans have an amazing capacity to process complex information. Our brain can bring order out of chaos. It can place people, words, and behavior into patterns that make sense to us. Below is a paragraph that raced across the Internet a few years back:
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.
Brains have an attention filter that helps us find patterns in the information we see and hear. This helps us know what to pay attention to and what we can safely ignore. In the caveman days, it helped us be alert to predators. In the information age, it helps us identify data that impacts the way we live our life.
Several studies suggest that we now receive five times as much information as we did in 1986. Every day the average person processes six newspapers worth of information compared with just two and a half pages 24 years ago—a 200% increase.
All of this information is competing for resources in your brain. Here are 6 simple ways you can use neuroscience to improve your day:
1. Your Brain Wants You To Value What You Do
Dopamine is a chemical produced by the brain that can affect our performance because it shows up both when we anticipate a reward and when we’re motivated to perform. As a result, dopamine levels can be linked to motivation and our willingness to work.
A team of Vanderbilt scientists used brain-mapping technology to analyze the brain patterns of “go-getters” who were willing to work hard for their rewards and the “slackers” who weren’t as motivated to work.
The team found that the go-getters had higher levels of dopamine in the reward and motivation part of the brain. The slackers had higher levels of dopamine in the emotion and risk part of the brain.
It’s not only a matter of raising dopamine levels. Instead, what’s essential is to raise dopamine levels in the right areas of the brain. To get through your day, you need to balance your willingness to work alongside your willpower, because willpower is your ability to get things done.
How To Make It Work For You: Nothing will motivate you to be a go-getter if you don’t truly desire the reward that comes with the work. If a paycheck is the only thing that motivates you to get out of bed, don’t expect your brain to get too excited about it, either. On the other hand, if you’ve hitched your performance to something that contains value and meaning for you, you’ll be on the go-getter side of dopamine production.
2. Your Brain Wants You To Start Your Day With The Hard Stuff
The American Psychological Association’s annual stress in America survey asked participants to assess their ability to make healthy lifestyle changes. Survey participants regularly cited lack of willpower as the #1 reason they don’t follow through with the changes.
Many people believe their lives would improve if they could boost their willpower—more control over what they eat, when they saved for retirement, and how to achieve noble goals.
There’s been considerable research into willpower and one of the pioneers in this area is Roy Baumeister. Baumeister discovered that willpower actually operates like a muscle: it can be strengthened with practice and fatigued by overuse. Willpower in the brain is fueled by glucose and it needs to replenished in order for it to perform optimally.
How To Make It Work For You: Willpower and self-control is at its peak first thing in the morning, so this is the best time to make yourself take on the hardest tasks of the day. When you write your list, make certain that the toughest projects are the first ones you tackle.
3. You Brain Wants You To Use Lists
Our brains love lists. In fact, it’s the most effective way for the brain to receive and organize information. Recent research suggests that the key to a more organized mind and productive brain is to make to-do lists.
Neuroscience tells us that the brain’s working memory stores information on a short-term basis. According to Dr. Daniel Levitin, most people can hold about four things in their mind at one time. When we ask our brain to store more than is optimal, it causes our performance to suffer.
How To Make It Work For You: Go ahead and make an old-fashioned to-do list. A to-do list will free up space in your brain for other more important tasks that need to be accomplished during your day. Since our brain has an attention filter, urgent matters will be at the forefront. At the same time, our brain doesn’t forget those less important matters either, and won’t hesitate to remind you of them somewhere around 3:00am. If you have a to-do list, your brain can rest because it knows you’re on it.
4. Your Brain Wants You To Use Bullet Points
According to a New Yorker article, our brain processes information spatially. It’s easier for us to remember if we write the information down line by line, in bulleted or numbered points rather than in paragraph form.
Numbered or bulleted lists facilitate both immediate understanding and later recall. Because we can process information more easily when it’s in a list, our brain feels comfortable about how and when the information will be retrieved.
How To Make It Work For You: Bullet points create succinct and actionable messages, whether it’s a grocery list, your to-do list, or a corporate presentation. When you reduce a thought to a bullet point, you’ve boiled it down to one, salient sentence.
5. Your Brain Wants You To Write It Down
In a recent study by Mueller and Oppenheimer, they found that people remember lectures better when they’ve taken handwritten notes rather than types ones. Mueller and Oppenheimer’s research appears to confirm that plain old pen and paper is one of our best learning tools.
Whether you’re a student or a busy executive, if you write down your priorities, your brain processes the information as you write it. That initial selectivity tells the brain the information is important and leads to long-term comprehension.
How To Make It Work For You: Start your paper list with the day’s top priorities and keep it with you. Write in pencil so you can erase them or re-order them as your day changes. Again, this list frees up your brain to think of other important tasks in your day.
6. Your Brain Wants You To Move
Research into neurogenesis, the ability of certain areas of the brain areas to grow new cells, indicates that we can foster new brain cell growth through exercise. Our brain has the amazing ability to rebuild and rewire every day.
The area of the brain linked to learning and memory is called the hippocampus. Research shows that endurance exercise sparks new neuron growth in the hippocampus as a protein (called FNDC5) is released into the bloodstream when we sweat.
How To Make It Work For You: There are many well-established benefits to exercise, such as improved heart heath. An additional benefit is that even a 20-30 minute walk can help grow new brain cells.
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