Wellbeing – The art & science of working with your brain

There are lots of wellbeing tips being produced at the moment – and that’s for good reason. We’ve devoted so much time and energy to just getting through the past year, that we all need a wellbeing boost as we start 2021.

We’re going to look at some practical tips that create a positive brain state and take the cognitive load off your brain so it, and you, can breathe a little easier. A happy brain is the first step towards feeling your best.

What is going on in our brains?

Let’s start by understanding what our brains are designed to do:

  • Our brain is a survival prediction machine which spends its days continually subconsciously scanning our environment to collect new data to run survival risk analysis.
  • Our brain likes to work in the most energy efficient manner. Existing habits are energy efficient. Forming new habits are not.
  • Like your phone, our brain also has a limited amount of mental energy available during the day before it needs to recharge. Everything you do, even the quickest email, uses up some of your precious mental energy.

What is the pandemic doing to our brain?

Well, a pandemic is just about the worst thing for a brain to have to deal with. Uncertain and threatening times like these means our brain does not have the data it needs to accurately predict the best survival course, thus activating its high-alert setting - better known as “fight or flight”. This brain state reduces our ability to think rationally and creatively; as well as making us less able to regulate our emotions. Our brain is also being forced out of its default energy-efficient mode to use more energy than usual in trying to resolve uncertainties and form new habits.

From our brain’s point of view, it is:

  • Facing an ongoing, invisible, uncontrollable and real threat to survival - its worst-case scenario.
  • Constantly living with increased uncertainty of when things will be resolved and how best to survive in the meantime. In short, it doesn’t have what it needs to do its job properly.
  • Being forced out of energy-efficient mode to create new habits and ways of working. It is running down its energy extra fast each day.
  • Dealing with reality now the novelty factor that kept it engaged and interested in solutioning last year has worn off. We need to move from the adrenaline sprint of last year to the stamina of a marathon this year - but our brain is bored, as well as stressed, now.

Taking into account the above points, your brain deserves to a catch break wherever it can. Structuring your working day to be as brain friendly as possible is a tangible and immediate place to start.

Brain friendly days = Higher levels of wellbeing

There are a number of brain practices we can use to help us apply our mental energy where it will be most impactful and work with how our brains function, rather than against.

Below are three of brain practices you can apply today.

1. Increase the levels of certainty in your day by focusing on the things you can control and organising them.

By doing this you’re reminding your brain there are areas of your life that are within your control (soothing for the brain) whilst decreasing the conflict in your brain of deciding what to do, when, during your day.

Example: Prioritise your to-do list the night before or at the start of your day. An action so simple can have a big effect on your mental energy. If you find yourself getting demotivated as the day goes on, remember to celebrate every achievement you make, no matter how small. By consciously recognising an achievement, you activate a positive chemical state in the brain that inspires you to continue the good work.

2. Just like a computer, your brain works best when it has got fewer tabs open at once.

Limit the number of open tasks and ideas you have running in your brain so that you reduce the cognitive load and free up energy to be used for other things.

Example:Write down all the things running through your mind – this removes them from your working memory and immediately frees up the brain to focus on other things.

You can also use mindfulness to help quieten your mind and reset the brain’s focus. Mindfulness, at its heart, is focusing your brain on sensory inputs. Whether that’s slowing and deepening your breathing, or taking the same care in drinking your coffee as you would wine at a wine tasting event. Consciously engaging all your primary senses (sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing) on any daily task will automatically help quieten and reset your brain.

3. Multitasking is a myth. And it could cost your brain’s health in the long term.

Our brains can’t multitask - they simply switch their focus between different things. Studies show the more we multitask, the worse we get at being able to focus attention on one thing; and the more easily we become distracted. Considering a core component of memory is the ability for your brain to sustain focused attention on something new, the more you undermine your ability to focus, the more your memory will suffer in the long term.

Example: Pick one day in the week to consciously track how many times you multitask. Was each time you multitasked crucial to your work or home survival? If not, try avoiding multitasking for that action in the future.

One classic distractor in modern life is our phones. If you find that your phone is the thing that most often causes you to try and multitask, place it in another room during any periods when you want to increase your productivity. Studies show simply turning your phone on silent, putting it face down, or having it in your bag aren’t enough to stop your brain subconsciously wondering if you should check it. You need to place it in another room for your brain to feel released from subconscious monitoring.

Well done on reading this far! You’ve applied your mental energy to good effect.

If you want to discover more brain best practice suggestions, you can find more suggestions here. You can also read more on how the pandemic is affecting our brains here.

Remember, your mental energy is as precious as you are. Use it wisely and you will be on the best track to increasing your wellbeing.

If you have any questions, or want to talk more about using the power of neuroscience to raise engagement and productivity in your organisation, please do get in touch with Dominique Ashby on Dominique.ashby@neuroatwork.com.