As compared to a few decades ago, the human brain gets bombarded with a considerably large amount of information today. Occupations, roles, and work profiles are more creative and thought-oriented. At the same time, with the increase in communication methods and entertainment options, the brain also gets distracted more often.

We need to use our brains optimally, especially while working, and ensure that the brain focuses on the task at hand. Your Brain At Work (2009) by David Rock looks at a number of neuropsychological studies to analyze how the brain functions in day to day life, and how we can make it focus and work well under pressure to succeed in any endeavor we take up.

The author suggests 10 tricks to keep the brain functioning at its optimal best :-

1. Conserving Its Thinking Ability

The brain’s capacity for thinking actively is limited. This is evident in the fact that we feel exhausted and fatigued by the end of the day. At the same time, multi-tasking can exhaust the brain too. Therefore it is essential to conserve the thinking ability of our brain.

This can be done by prioritizing tasks and converting them into routines so that the brain does not have to re-use thinking ability for a task it has done before, and we can save its thinking for other tasks.

Your Brain At Work  by David Rock

2. Minimise Distractions To Keep Focus

While technology has made our lives easier, it has also increased the number of distractions we have. Once distracted, the brain puts in a lot of effort to refocus the attention on the task at hand. Apart from these external distractions, the brain also has an internal constant stream of distracting thoughts.

Like our thinking ability, self-control is also a limited resource and gets used up when the brain tries to pay attention and not get distracted. We, therefore, need to conserve our self-control as well. An effective way of doing that is to simply remove or ignore distractions. This essentially translates to developing a habit of not paying attention to distractions when we need to focus actively on a task.

3. Just The Right Amount of Brain Alertness

To be able to focus on a task, we need to be interested in it as well as alert. The chemicals norepinephrine and dopamine get triggered when we need to be alert (or in fear of something) and when our interest in something is aroused respectively. 

For the brain to focus and function at its peak, the level of both these chemicals needs to be just right in the brain. Lower levels lead to poor performance and higher levels lead to overstressing. However, at the optimum levels, these chemicals help the brain to focus and be attentive and generate a positive level of stress.

However, we can influence the levels of these two chemicals on our own depending on how we feel during a task. If one finds that they are not very interested in a task, they can think of the outcome if the deadlines are not met. This will increase the level of norepinephrine due to fear, and thinking about the rewards if the task is done well could raise the levels of dopamine. Similar examples can be used to reduce the higher levels of these chemicals in the brain.

4. Take Breaks To Allow Insights And Aha Moments

There are times when the brain hits a mental impasse – a point where they hit a block. At these times, insight – a sudden stroke of genius or a perfect solution – breaks the impasse.

This happens due to the unconscious mind. The unconscious delves on certain ideas and concepts and perceives or deciphers the information in a manner that the established logical thought process cannot. Therefore, insights are most common when a person is taking a break and not using the conscious mind.

While insights happen on their own, we can trigger them too. This can be done by 

  • Not consciously thinking of the problem at hand.
  • Meditating and allowing the mind to wander
  • Speaking the problem out loud to oneself and think objectively
  • Taking a break and doing something else

5. Mindfulness Helps Improve Memory And Brain Structure

Mindfulness has many definitions – right from observing one’s own thinking, being aware of one’s experiences in the present, having an understanding of the word ‘is’ or living in the present, etc. To truly increase one’s focus, and be able to control what they pay attention to, mindfulness can be a helpful practice.

Practicing mindfulness involves regularly focussing attention on physical senses and stimuli – like the feeling of the blanket on your feet as you read, or the roughness of the tongue against the roof of the mouth, etc. It is seen that a person’s attention keeps drifting away to other things. Bringing one’s thoughts back into focus is key.

Doing this regularly will help to strengthen the parts of the brain that are responsible for memory, attention control, and context-switching, thus altering the brain structure for the better too. 

6. Use Humor To Gain Back Control And Reduce Uncertainty

We get triggered negatively when we experience uncertainty and feel out of control. Moreover, studies have shown that we tend to feel more stressed if we need to manage a stressful task without a sense of control. This happens because our brains are wired to experience a sense of reward when the need for control (autonomy) and certainty are fulfilled or satisfied.

Our emotional response to a lack of control and certainty reflects on how we appraise ourselves. Reappraisal or revaluation of the situation (the uncertainty and lack of control) can help one-change perspectives about the situation and then in turn manage the strong emotions felt. One way to reappraise the situation, gain back control, and remove uncertainty is to add humor to one’s evaluation of the situation.

7. Letting Go Of Expectations For A Happier Brain

We all have certain expectations in our life. When things go as we expect, we feel satisfied and happy, whereas when they do not we feel disappointment, pain, and even anger at times. At the same time, the levels of happiness we feel when we experience a positive outcome unexpectedly is much higher.

These feelings of happiness can be attributed to dopamine. Simply managing our expectations can regulate these levels of dopamine in the body, and the resulting positive emotional response. We need to get accustomed to paying less attention to expectations so as to have our results exceeding expectations.

8. Our Brains Like Social Relations and Fair Treatment

Our brains are wired to be social. It needs to be socially connected and be able to relate to others. According to research, the brain, when rewarded with necessary social needs, activates the neural networks of the body that are needed for basic survival. 

This happens because the brain releases oxytocin – a neurochemical that induces feelings of pleasure – when it makes social connections. Studies have revealed that people who have stronger friendships can deal with stress better.

Similarly, the sense of fairness is important for the health of the brain. This need overpowers the need for money or financial gains. An experiment showed that unfairness could make a person turn away from a financial reward as well. The brain defends the response to unfairness due to its need for fairness in any situation. This need has evolved over time due to the survival instincts of humans as a hunter-gatherer species in ancient times, to identify cheaters whose behavior could affect trade.

9. Our Brains Like Any Increase In Status or Importance

Whenever we find ourselves in a situation that shows our status as higher than someone else or experience a feeling of our status going up, the brain gets triggered with a sense of reward. This trigger is nothing but the release of dopamine and serotonin in the brain and the reduction of the stress-causing chemical cortisol.

Our sense of improved status is therefore beneficial to the brain, keeping it happy and satisfied. The trick that works to keep the brain happy is to find a niche that makes the brain feel superior at all times. Even tricking the brain into believing that it is superior to its previous self, works.

10. Feedback Doesn’t Work

A study has revealed that giving feedback by telling a person what not to do works only 5% of the time and telling a person what to do works only 8% of the time. Feedback makes people anxious and therefore does not work as the brain is already stressed.

For any form of feedback to work, the person receiving the feedback needs to be calm and in a reflective frame with an increased sense of insight and autonomy. Rather than saying, ‘why did this go wrong?’ saying ‘let’s work out together to find why this didn’t work.’ will work better. Such a positive perspective can raise a person’s status, thereby increasing levels of dopamine and serotonin, and propelling the person’s brain positively.

Final Summary

Despite the number of distractions the brain has to encounter daily, the brain can be conditioned to focus successfully. It needs to trigger the right neurochemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, etc. at the right time and in the right amounts for the brain to work optimally. Certainty, control, improvement in the perception of status, fairness, mindfulness, moments of insight, and conserving our thinking ability are just some of the ways David Rock has written about in the book to increase the brain’s capacity to succeed.