If you’re motivated to improve, it doesn’t have to be complicated. MAXIM’s resident Clinical Nutritionist, BROOKE BENSON CAMPBELL (BHSC Nut Med), is here with a few simple tips on utilising your brainpower to boost performance and productivity…
RESPECT CHANNEL CAPACITY
There is a concept in cognitive psychology called channel capacity, which refers to the amount of space our brain has for certain types of information. In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes human limits to the amount of information any one individual can absorb at any one time… and one is the magic number when it comes to learning.
To boost levels of performance, we need to respect our hard-wired cognitive limitations; that is, a person should never aim to learn or improve more than one thing at a time. In order for this learning to be transferred to long-term storage (and become habit), it is essential to honour the concept of channel capacity. So, next time you are overwhelmed with new information, employ the strategy of “Ask and Chop” instead.
Firstly, force yourself to ask the question: “What is one thing I want or need to improve?”. Then, break the task or information into manageable parts. Chop the improvement into single steps, and only focus on the first or next necessary step of action to begin the march toward improvement. Focus on modifying ONE thing at a time to upgrade performance and transfer learning to long-term storage. “Ask and Chop” your way to positive change.
Interestingly, studies have also shown that humans have a limited ‘social channel capacity’ of around 150 people. That is, an individual can forge a genuine relationship with no more than 150 people at once. For this reason, many workplaces now cap their size at this number to achieve greater cohesion and success.
YOU CAN’T MULTITASK, SO STOP TRYING
Multiple studies have shown that not only is multitasking inefficient and unproductive, but it reduces cognitive skill ability. Based on over 50 years of brain science, we know that multitaskers are less productive and confuse information. It takes around 15 minutes to re-orient to a primary task after a distraction (such as an email or social media post), causing efficiency to drop by up to 40% (and the average number of times an office worker stops to check their email inbox: 30 times per hour – a scary statistic!).
Specifically, long-term memory and creativity is reduced when we multitask. In fact, researchers tested 300 Michigan State students on their ability to persevere through interruptions while taking a computer test. The interruptions came as pop-ups on the screens that stayed for as little as 2.8 seconds. With a 2.8 second interruption, the students made double the errors when they returned to the test. Furthermore, in a different form of multitasking, University of Utah professor David Strayer confirmed that talking on the phone whilst driving is as dangerous as driving while intoxicated. Reaction and attention decreased by 50% and drivers studied missed seeing half of the things they’d normally see, like billboards… and pedestrians.
The evidence is clear: multitasking just doesn’t work. So why do we continue to try to master the skill? Simply put, most of us suffer from action addiction. Every time we complete a new task (such as checking our inbox), we receive a reward – a naturally-produced neurotransmitter hit of dopamine linked to addiction. We receive instant gratification that makes us feel good, so we do it again, and again under the guise of ‘productivity’.
How to solve the modern problem of multitasking: single task. Single tasking is not having eight browser tabs open at once, it is not checking email every 10 minutes and it is not a chat window open on your desktop. Single tasking is one task at a time, no distractions. How to begin? Strategically handle your distractions: Install Anti-Social or StayFocusd software on your computer to block websites like Facebook for periods of your choosing; silence your phone and turn off notifications from phone and web apps; close your email. Single task to upgrade work performance and boost productivity.
CONTROL YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT
Studies show that office temperature and lighting significantly contribute to performance and productivity. In one research project, scientist Mirjam Muench compared two groups of people, those being exposed to daylight, the other exposed to artificial light over the course of several workdays, and showed that cortisol levels are significantly altered by artificial light. Heightened cortisol levels cause an increased stress response and changes to sleep rhythm, and can also affect fat-storage and memory retention levels, and artificial light is one of the key drivers of this.
Where possible, utilise natural light – work near windows or in open meeting rooms to lower stress levels and boost performance. And keep an eye on the office thermostat. Another amazing study from Cornell University tested different office temperatures at a large Florida insurance company and found that when temperatures were low (20C or below) employees made 44% more mistakes than at optimum room temperature (24C). When we are cold the body uses a large proportion of energy to keep warm, rather than using that energy for cognition, creativity and focus; keeping body temperature at the perfect level is less about comfort and more about concentration.
Interestingly, it is not just temperature and lighting that can alter performance – the office layout is also important. Studies have found that open office layouts can negatively impact employee performance. Environmental noise and interruptions can become distracting, and employees in open offices have been found to have higher levels of stress and emotional exhaustion and lower levels of concentration and motivation than those with private office space.
However, if a personal corner office isn’t on the immediate horizon, don’t despair. Researchers also found that those employees who maintain a sense of control over their space by personalising it maintain a sense of ownership and control that decreases stress levels, and maintains focus and mental cognitive performance. Personal items such as photos, posters, toys and mugs work to balance cortisol levels at a subconscious level, thus maintaining sense of purpose and mental energy. Decorate your space to boost performance.
EMPLOY ULTRADIAN RHYTHMS
When it comes to the average workday, most of us simply attempt to power through (with the help of caffeine) from start to end. However, in the 1950s, sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman discovered that the human body tends to move through 90-120 minute cycles, and for maximum performance, these cycles should be utilised effectively. These cycles, known as Ultradian Rhythms, account for the ebb and flow of energy. Heart rate, hormonal levels, muscle tension and brain-wave activity all increase during the first part of the cycle, and with it, alertness and attention. After an hour or so, these levels begin to fall, and somewhere between 90-120 minutes, the body requires a period of rest and recovery. Focus lacks and memory consolidation decreases. In short, your body was designed for sprints rather than marathons.
Interestingly, scientists think the electrolyte balance between sodium and potassium governs these cycles. Brain cells require sodium and potassium to send signals and when you are working hard and are alert, you eventually disrupt the sodium/potassium balance. The brain notices this and focus and cognition decrease. Once the brain has time to rest, and sodium/potassium levels are restored energy increases and focus returns.
To upgrade work performance, build your day around these rhythms. Instead of plowing through the day at the same speed, you’ll be more effective if you have periods of deep focus followed by short periods of total rest. Work on an important task for 60-90 minutes. When you find your concentration beginning to decrease it’s a sign that you need to take a break from the cognitive, so take a walk, meditate, grab a coffee, have a conversation with a colleague, and let your brain switch off for 20 minutes. It is crucial that you’re really resting your brain during this time and that you are highly focused without distractions during your periods of energy (so shut down all communication channels, social media and email during these times). Focus on pockets of natural energy by employing ultradian rhythms.
TRY NATURAL NOOTROPICS
By definition, a nootropic is a substance that improves mental function and cognitive ability, while doing no harm. Natural nootropics work on many levels to increase circulation and oxygen to the brain, provide precursors to important neurotransmitters, reduce brain inflammation (a byproduct of daily use), stimulate formation of new brain cells, and increase resilience to stress. Natural nootropics can be your secret performance weapon when used correctly and effectively.
For calm focus, use L-Theanine. Found in high concentrations in green tea, L-theanine is also available in supplemental form, and works to increase alpha-brain waves linked to creativity and alert concentration. It easily crosses the blood-brain barrier within 30-40 minutes of consumption, while boosting neurotransmitter levels of serotonin, dopamine and GABA (responsible for regulation of mood, emotion and sleep), and inhibits cortisol activation, to lower levels of stress. Furthermore, a systemic review found that L-theanine has acute effects on cognitive function and mood that are enhanced by combining it with caffeine.
One study found that combining 250mg of L-Theanine and 150g caffeine worked to accelerate working memory reaction time, increased accuracy and boosted alertness; one cup of coffee to every two cups of green tea has a similar function and will boost brain performance throughout the day. For resilience to both physical and emotional stress, try Rhodiola. An adaptogenic herb, studies have found that Rhodiola works to improve mood and decrease feelings of burnout in both anxious and highly-stressed individuals. It increases energy, stamina and can increase attention to detail-oriented tasks by improving concentration over a prolonged period. The herb also helps in neurogenesis by repairing and growing new neurons and brain cells, and protects existing brain cells from oxidative-stress induced cell death, and its effect lasts between four to eight hours from consumption.
A 2012 study of 101 people concluded that ‘Rhodiola extract at a dose of 200mg twice daily for four weeks is safe and effective at improving life-stress symptoms to a clinically relevant degree’, while a Belgian study of young athletes concluded that acute Rhodiola intake can improve exercise capacity in healthy young men”. For a physical and psychological performance pick-me-up, try Rhodiola.
BECOME A CRAFTSMAN
In his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport, an assistant professor at Georgetown University, suggests that people wanting to improve performance and individual ability develop a craftsmen mindset, where the focus is on what value you’re producing in your current job, rather than foster a passion mindset, where the focus is on what your current job offers you. He argues that the best work tends to be rare and valuable, and to secure it you will need exceptional skills or career capital.
Career capital are the skills you have that can be leveraged in defining your career, and basic economic theory tells us that if you want something both rare and valuable, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return. In his words, this is “supply and demand 101”. A craftsman mindset asks you to abandon concerns about whether your current job is ‘perfect’, and instead encourages you to put your head down and work at becoming really damn good at it regardless. In other words, by focusing on building skill through deliberate practice, stretching yourself and constantly improving, you will achieve the dream job. Musicians, athletes and chess players all perform deliberate practice to hone their skills. This is the craftsman approach. When you develop this approach, passion and performance follow.
BREAK BAD HABITS
Nothing sabotages productivity like a series of bad habits. Bad habits decrease accuracy, make you less creative and limit performance, so getting control over these habits is essential, and not just for office success. Clinical studies have also found that people who exercise a high degree of self-control tend to be much happier than those who don’t, both in the short and long-term. And in the words of Shaun Achor, “Happiness inspires productivity”. We’ve come full circle. Consider eliminating these common bad habits to upgrade performance today:
* You are a Perfectionist: Author Jodi Picoult summarised the importance of avoiding perfectionism: “You can edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank page”. Most perfectionists will happily spend hours or days chasing the concept of perfection to the detriment of productivity and time-frames, but this tends to have a snowball effect: start changing one thing and you find a number of other things that need tweaking too. Suddenly, timeframes have been extended, a project is delayed and anxiety sets in. Instead of aiming for perfect, aim to get the project to 90% and then launch, release or present. You can alter and tweak as you go, but a blank page is a waste of vital time and resources. Perfectionism in the workplace leads to infinite delay.
* You put off tough tasks: Each of us has a limited amount of mental energy, and as this energy is exhausted, so is our capacity for productivity and accurate decision-making. This is called decision fatigue. When you put off tough tasks until late in the day, you’re saving them for when you are performing at your worst. To beat decision fatigue, you need to tackle intimidating or complex tasks in the morning when your brain is fresh. As Mark Twain said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning… And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” In other words, first thing in the morning, complete the most unwanted, important and intimidating task you have on your list first (the frog); the rest of your day will be a breeze in comparison, and ‘failure to execute’ will be a thing of the past.
MAKE TECHNOLOGY WORK FOR YOU
The average commute is 38 minutes each way, which adds up to approximately 316 hours per year – time that we could otherwise invest in workplace productivity. However, new academic research suggests that the attitude we adopt to our commutes play a role in how satisfied and productive we are at our jobs. The best way to use our morning commute to our benefit is to strategise. Think about what you have to do, identify your most pressing tasks and mentally structure your day. Studies found that people who display this form of self-control and planning (called ‘goal-directed prospection’) perform at a higher rate during their workday and have lower levels of stress in the evening following their busy day. Thankfully, this is one area where technology has come to the rescue – a large number of apps can make your commute a well-spent time of productivity, rather than an excuse to watch grainy cat videos on repeat.
* Wunderlist: this app syncs between your mobile devices and computers and allows you to drag and drop tasks between days and categories, allowing you to set due dates and reminders. You can also share notes and lists with others: shopping lists with your flatmate, work deadlines with your team, this app makes communication easy.
* Pocket: use this app to save articles in one place for easy reading. Save content directly from your browser, emails or from more than 500 apps like Twitter. Bookmark everything you need and want to read, and get it in one place. This is an essential for work-related travel.
* Hootsuite: a social media management app that allows you to update your company’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn pages from the same screen – without the need to log in to each individual platform. You can reply to posts and schedule every post you plan to make for the next week, month or three months, and then simply monitor your accounts as the software automatically posts content. Easy.
Brooke Benson Campbell (BHSc) is a Clinical Nutritionist and Naturopath, speaker, writer and presenter with a passion for all things health, beauty and wellbeing. A self-proclaimed human test subject, she is constantly trialing the newest products, seeking the latest discoveries and reading the current clinical studies, in order to share her findings with the public through private practice, social media and industry education.
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