Managing your Brain on Busy

Posted by on Jul 25, 2017 in learning, neuroscience, productivity | No Comments


8 year old brain or Harvard MBA brain: the choice is yours (yes, there’s a difference).What today’s busyness is really doing to your brain and how to take back control.

The distractions of every day life

Our brains are busy places. There’s a lot going on around us that can pull us in different directions just like a playful kitten.

A 2015 study by Microsoft showed that our attention span is just 8 seconds. Not great.

Even worse is that in 2000 our attention span was 12 seconds.  So our attention span is getting shorter.

You might have looked at these kittens a moment ago and thought you had it all sorted compared to these little bundles of cute. Now you might want to think again.

What’s more, when we interrupt a task, on average it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back into that task at the same level of concentration.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Imagine if you have, say, just 6 interruptions a day (you’re probably thinking, “6? If only!”).

So, 6 x 23.15 minutes.

This makes 2 hours and 19 minutes.

That’s 2 hours and 19 minutes that it takes you to get back to pre-interruption concentration levels.

It’s not the time needed to complete your task. You need to add that on top of the 2 hours and 19 minutes.

Alarming, isn’t it?

As for multi-tasking, whilst we may think it lets us get a lot done we know that it lowers our cognitive and emotional control and empathy levels.

And as for the saying that no-one can take your education away from you, well, yes they can.

By getting you to multi-task.

Research demonstrates that when people simply do two tasks at the same time, involving either sight or sound, their cognitive capacity can fall from a Harvard MBA to an eight year old.

Mono-tasking and the modern male

What about the effects of constant emailing and text messaging?

It can be easy to be lured by the shiny things that catch your eye and create novelty because of something unexpected: a text from a friend, or an email from Netflix telling you the new season of your favourite show is out now. Just click here for more information.

You know you want to…

We’ve all been there.

These distractions can be fun, but they have drawbacks, especially for men who are twice as easily distracted as women.

The University of London showed that constant emailing and text messaging messed with performance in subsequent IQ tests: women dropped 5 points and men dropped a whopping 15 points.

Links have also been found between paying close attention and being able to form short and long term memories. And whilst you might feel you can juggle a number of tasks, if retaining information is important you, this kind of juggling is a false friend.

How to strengthen your 4%

In addition to all the distractions happening around us, we also have to deal with internal distractions.

In his excellent book, Your Brain at Work, neuroscience writer David Rock explains how we experience internal interruptions because of the structure of our brains processing and making trillions of connections.

He refers to a story from Eastern wisdom about the leader and the elephant: the leader represents the conscious will trying to control the elephant which represents the uncontrollable, unconscious mind.

What’s important here is that our leader, the pre-fontal cortex, our decision making centre, makes up 4% of total brain volume. Which is quite small, isn’t it?

This 4% is busy. And it can have a tough time trying to control the other 96%.

So, what’s the answer?

In short, strong pathways. The stronger your pathways are between your pre-frontal cortex and the rest of your brain the better you’ll be at limiting distractions.

Here are some ways than you can strengthen these pathways.

These are:

1.      Inhibiting your urge to be distracted

2.      Harnessing your imagination to get you into the sweet spot of productivity

3.      Creating chuckles and a cheery outcome to drive your concentration

1.      Inhibiting your urge to be distracted

This is all about time. In particular the time between deciding to do something and actually doing it. This lasts about 0.3 seconds.

However, research shows we can use these 0.3 seconds to our advantage.


By becoming aware of an urge and resisting it. David Rock describes this as having “veto power“ and choosing not to act on an impulse.

How can we become good at resisting impulses?

Practising meditation, even for five minutes a day, develops our awareness of our emotions and when our buttons are being pushed and we are tempted by distractions. Meditation strengthens our ability to resist those impulses.

Sleep is also critical. Getting enough sleep, means we can make better, more thoughtful decisions.

Also, avoid plummeting glucose levels as this causes you to focus on rewards now rather than in the future.

2.      Harnessing your imagination to get you into the sweet spot of productivity

This technique is perfect for you if you’ve an active imagination and you’re up for playing about a little with the chemistry of fear. But don´t worry, it’s not going to induce nightmares.

Norepinephrine, or noradrenaline as it’s commonly referred to, is a chemical that acts as a hormone and neurotransmitter. It binds together circuits in your prefrontal cortex and it’s also produced by your body when you’re nervous or scared.

The good news is that you can use this chemical to your benefit and generate it through the power of visualization.

Let’s say you’re working on a report to present at a meeting but you’re finding it tough to get focused.

Think about the room where this meeting is to happen.

Imagine your colleagues seated around the table in front of you. Hear the clink of their glasses of water as they put them down. Now visualise yourself standing up in front of them. You’ve nothing to say, and a host of eyes settle on you.

Everyone is silent.

This will raise your levels of norepinephrine and sharpen your focus.

Do remember that the trick with this technique is to not catastrophize the situation, just introduce the necessary imagery to create momentum and raise your state of alertness. This will get you on task.

3.      Creating chuckles and a cheery outcome to drive your concentration

The third technique is the opposite of the previous technique: this time you’re going to imagine a terrific outcome.

Okay, so we’re back to the room that you’ll be presenting in. Visualise what you see in front of you: a table full of smiling faces, the shadows of the afternoon cast across the table and there’s the smell of fresh coffee. Your colleagues are totally engrossed in what you’re presenting. It’s a resounding success.

Visualising this scene has just increased your levels of another neurotransmitter, dopamine.

Research has shown that expecting a positive event generates the release of dopamine.

Your brain rewards you with dopamine for such things as food, money, sex and supportive social interactions. The visualization you just did created a scenario of you experiencing a positive social gathering.

Simply by imagining a rewarding outcome you can elevate your interest in doing a certain task.

Another way to release dopamine is to seek out novelty or humour. So find something quirky to make you smile or chuckle.

Yes, this could mean venturing onto YouTube. Briefly. But be careful not to fall down the rabbit hole and lose 2 days.

I highly recommend the 22 seconds below. Hedgehog 2 needs to get an agent. He could make a lot of money with that timing.

Remember, your objective is to galvanise you back into action: watching a clip of your favourite comedian or calling the friend who makes you laugh is used as a force for good to reset you, giving you a dopamine boost to get you back on track.

In short, your brain will wander off task from time to time. The challenge is to use creative ways to manage your brain, and gently guide it back to focus and concentration.

The great news is that these powerful techniques aren’t difficult to master. The trick is to remember them and use them to manage your brain and create more balance in a world that does busy 24 x 7.

Leave a Reply