How Understanding Your Brain Helps You Stay Cool Under Pressure – Part One
You’ve probably felt the stress of trying to juggle too many things at once in your head.
Pick up the kids at school.
Your old mother is sick and she wants you to get petunias.
The boss asked you to write up a surprise report for the executives on the latest project – this afternoon.
You’re feeling rotten and you need to exercise.
There are thousands of things screaming for your attention.
And sometimes you just let things slip through the cracks.
Is there a better way of handling the endless to-do list and overload?
Sure there is except you’ve got to understand how your brain works.
How Your Brain is Like a Really Tiny Stage
David Rock, a prominent neuroscientist who wrote Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long describes your brain or working memory as a really tiny stage.
It’s super easy for it to get overcrowded and for someone (or some thing) to fall off.
Those someones are the actors.
When you try to get the play working properly, you’re using a director.
The big challenge is that using your director early and often takes a lot of training and energy.
Willpower is energy and you run out of it really fast.
According to David’s research, at most you can 3-4 ideas on your stage before you forget something.
The more on your stage, the more likely you begin to drop the ball on something.
You can also use “chunking” to keep more similar things in your working memory (i.e. the small stage).
If you’ve ever felt bone dead at the end of the day, unable to do anything except turn on the tube then you know what I mean.
Using memory games you can train yourself to switch actors faster.
David Allen’s Getting Things Done productivity method is all about clearing your mind so it can flow like water.
That means writing or typing all of your projects and action items into a system so you don’t have to remember anything.
You might also be wondering what is the number one way to stop distractions.
Shut off all communication tools you have including email, smart phones, etc.
That’s what the research shows over and over again according to David.
As Tim Ferriss and Monica Leonelle might say, go on an information diet: check email only twice a day, keep your information sources down to 10 and stop being constantly on social media networks.
Stop wasting your attention, stage space and brain energy to focus on what’s important.
Extra Resources: A Review of Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Workweek
How the Language of the Brain Helps You Use Your Director
Being aware of what’s going on in your head is the first step in boosting your control of it.
And for that you need a language to describe it.
David gives you all of that language in Your Brain at Work.
Naming your emotions or “labelling” helps you keep your cool when a situation gets rough.
Even better than that however is changing the way you see your situation.
After all, everything is in the eye of the beholder.
You Don’t Have Free Will – You Have Free Won’t
It turns out you don’t have control of your actions – your unconscious mind does.
What you do have control of is the ability to cancel an action your unconscious mind has set for you.
In fact you start to act 0.3 seconds before you’re even aware and you have 0.2 seconds to stop that action before it actually does happen.
Apparently that’s more than enough time.
Another great book that introduces this idea is Jay Ingram’s Theatre of the Mind.
It’s that 0.3 seconds of being bold when you decide to talk to the attractive gal across the room.
Of course you have 0.2 seconds to decide against it for any number of reasons.
This is why you need a language for knowing your brain and being aware of how and what you’re thinking about.
With practice, discipline and training you can learn to control your primal drives and urges before they cause you to do something that you’ll regret.
The One Thing “Your Brain at Work” Doesn’t Talk About
This is really a small point to be sure – the rest of David’s work in Your Brain at Work is really useful and detailed.
David doesn’t touch diet and exercise and how it affects your brain and willpower.
It’s a small issue in a well researched and focused book like his.
You’d assume that if you’re eating badly you’re less likely to have the energy or desire to keep your brain and thinking under control.
And to be honest if you’ve mastered the idea of “mind over body” and added that to an awareness of your own brain then maybe health isn’t as big of a deal in the short run.
You’ve probably become so good at doing what you do everyday that it’s being run on auto pilot even if you eat terribly.
There is research however that points to things like high omega 6 leading to depression, which would likely make it hard to think straight over the long run.
And omega-6 is a really common problem in North America because we put soy and nut oils in everything.
The brain is made of chemicals and more and what you eat does affect that.
Garbage in, garbage out.
To think better stop overloading yourself with endless 24 hour chatting, ads, TV, news, etc.
Go on an information diet.
Learn the language of your brain and how to be aware of what you’re thinking so you can direct it better.
That way you’ll feel less stressed and more in control.
And who doesn’t want that after all?
Want to skip ahead to the next articles in the series?
Above photo of man with weird cap: University of Maryland Brain Cap Technology Turns Thought into Motion
(Flickr photo via University of Maryland Press Releases)
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