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“Your Brain at Work” – 7 key takeaways

I just finished reading – ok, fine, listening to – David Rock’s book “Your Brain at Work.” It is full of fascinating and helpful information about how the human brain works and how to tweak it to increase our performance in the workplace and at home. Here are my key takeaways.

“We all often think about what’s easy to think about, rather than what’s right to think about.”

David Rock, Your Brain at Work

1. Our thinking and decision-making abilities are limited resources

Conserve these resources as much as possible by limiting multitasking and unnecessary choices. Our willpower will decrease with every decision we have to make.

Schedule the day and prioritize tasks to do the hard work and the things that require more willpower first. I find making a rough plan and choosing my 3 highest-priority tasks the night before helpful for hitting the ground running in the morning.

Reduce distractions before they happen because every distraction we resist decreases our limited amount of willpower for the day. Whenever possible, designate times away from emails, calls, texts, social media, news alerts. My Android phone has a Focus Mode setting. When I turn it on, all distracting apps that I don’t need for work are unavailable, including their notifications. That allows me to still get phone calls, texts and email. If I need to go completely offline, I set my phone to Do Not Disturb.

Turn the most important tasks into habits to avoid having to make decisions or use up precious willpower. Eventually, they will run on autopilot and help conserve more mental energy. (More on habits after I’ve read “Atomic Habits” by James Clear.)

2. The right amount of arousal of our brain is required for optimal performance

Simplified: Norepinephrine is for focus. Dopamine is for interest. In order to achieve maximum focus and attention, these two have to be in the sweet spot. Too low causes low performance. Too high causes stress. Interestingly, we can control these levels to a certain extent.

If we lack focus due to low norepinephrine levels, remind ourselves of the negative consequences of not doing the task, e.g. missing a deadline or losing a client.

If we lack interest due to low dopamine, remind ourselves of the positive consequences of finishing the task, e.g. taking a well-deserved break or getting paid. Having an unpleasant task done and dealt with might be a reward in and of itself, but we likely have to remind ourselves of that to overcome the natural resistance to dealing with unpleasant things.

3. Insights often come from unconscious thinking

Not all solutions are found by logical reasoning. Some require serious unconscious out-of-the-box thinking. Sometimes, an insight just pops into our head. Fortunately, insights can be encouraged by certain activities. When we’re stuck, we can take a break from thinking about the problem. Meditate or let our mind wander. Do a physical activity. Do something that brings you joy. Anything that would boost creativity also increases our chance of coming to an insight.

4. We can change our thinking

Practicing mindfulness makes it easier to spot negative or unhelpful thoughts and returning our focus to the task at hand. To practice, focus on our sensory experiences when going for a walk, having a friendly conversation, enjoying a good meal. If the mind wanders off, gently come back to the present experience. This will increase our ability to control our thinking and switch attention to where it is needed most.

We can deliberately use reappraisal to interpret a negative situation differently. Studies have shown that reappraisal leads to a higher life satisfaction than inhibiting emotions. Try to find the silver lining in difficult situations or tell a joke when things get tense.

We can learn to regulate expectations. If a situation exceeds our expectations, dopamine increases, generating interest and desire. Unexpected rewards, like a surprise bonus, have a far more positive impact than expected rewards, like receiving exactly the raise we expected. Disappointed expectations, like not getting the raise we expected, decrease our dopamine and cause a feeling similar to pain. Learn to manage expectations by paying attention to them and adjusting them so that they are more likely to be exceeded. I have found this to be a very helpful strategy, without being pessimistic about the future.

5. Foster SCARF whenever possible

Status: Higher status leads to higher dopamine and serotonin (happiness hormones) and lower cortisol (stress hormone) and may increase information processing performance. Avoid giving feedback that could be interpreted as a status threat. Give regular praise. Allow for skill development. When receiving feedback, learn to reappraise the positive aspects of a talented team or strong partner as a benefit to the team – and with it, to you –, not a threat.

Certainty: We feel better when we are certain of our circumstances and in control of our life. Break down complex goals into smaller, achievable tasks. Develop flexibility and resilience. Express your expectations of others clearly to avoid uncertainty.

Autonomy: Don’t micro-manage. Include your team in decision-making processes, allow them to take on more responsibilities and encourage them to take initiative.

Relatedness: People are hardwired for connection and belonging. These feelings release oxytocin, make people less subjective to stress, free up mental resources, and may have physical health benefits. Use buddy systems or mentors and make plenty of time for one-on-ones with your team. Spend quality time with friends and family.

Fairness: Being treated unfairly activates the insular cortext and creates a very powerful threat response, such as disgust. Try to treat everyone fairly, don’t play favorites and encourage mutual acceptance. Set clear rules, expectations, goals and clarify team hierarchies. Better yet, work together to do so.

6. Compete against ourselves

We are naturally competitive and looking to increase our status. While retail therapy, picking arguments or good old Schadenfreude might leave you feeling a guilty or empty, competing with “yesterday’s self” satisfies our need for status and competition and feels better. Pursue a personal record, track positive habits, anything that you can improve on compared to yesterday. Be conscious of and count your little successes as much as your big ones.

7. Help others find the solution on their own

Feedback is often tough to swallow and rarely creates the desired results. Plus, it is much easier to truly understand and implement a solution or insight when we’ve reached it yourself. That’s why the best coaches use “guided discovery” rather than explaining or showing a skill.

Next time you want to help someone on your team, channel your favorite coach and guide them towards their own insights. Ask questions, elevate their status, acknowledge their skills, create a positive attitude and make them feel in control. They will come to see the solution in time.

It was hard to choose just 7 takeaways from “Your Brain at Work”. But being a natural process optimizer, I found #1 most interesting and helpful. What was most surprising to you? What will you try first?

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