By Colleen Jordan Hallinan, Qii Consulting
Today we focus on some neuro-anatomical systems that drive whether our thinking is sharp and focused or fluid and elevated, according to Dr. Andrew Huberman, a neurobiologist who runs Huberman Labs at the Stanford School of Medicine.
Like the recommendations coming out of Pang’s book, Dr. Huberman also teaches us that doing things that are good for our bodies is happily just as good for our work. We know you know working harder isn’t the answer – we just thought you might need a little scientific reinforcement.
To recap the previous installments of this series, we began with a review of Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s book, Rest, in which we learn that walking away from our work when feeling most challenged helps us get more done in less work-time.
The Default Mode Network
In Part 1, The Intersection of Self-Care and Achievement, we covered the “second brain,” or the Default Mode Network (DMN), a set of connected brain components that is more active when we are not intentionally working on a cognitive task. The DMN allows you to walk away from intense mental work and go play while it continues to work on that project in your sub-conscious. Being kind to yourself and taking a break may actually accelerate your progress over sticking to it and grinding through to the end.
The Four-Hour Work Limit
In Part 2, Rest More to Achieve More, we learned how Pang proves out a theory that creative breakthroughs are preceded by an incubation stage in the unconscious mind that is only assimilated when you experience real mental relaxation. Through exhaustive studies of work routines of the most prolific, creative people in history, the pattern of success seems to be a limit of four hours of focused work, spending the rest of the day hiking in the woods or attending ball games! Darwin, Churchill, and more current creatives like Daniel Kahneman, Stephen King and others, “weren’t accomplished despite their leisure; they were accomplished because of it.”
How Our Brain Physiology Can Help Us Work Smarter
The Nerdy Connection
We have a ton of hormones and neurotransmitters operating at any one time in our body, activating all kinds of physiological processes. The focus here is on those that activate levels of either alertness, arousal, focus and attention, or levels of calm, relaxation and sleepiness. You’re familiar with some of these neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine, epinephrine, and cortisol, which we know better as the reward, adrenaline, and “fight or flight” hormones, respectively. In general, over the course of 24 hours, the increased or decreased flow of these and other agents are waking you up in the morning, helping you fall asleep at night, waking you up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, or giving you the reactions necessary to escape a hungry lion.
Our body also gives us the chemicals we need to optimize our capacity and competence for either detailed, focused analytical work, or expansive, abstract, creative thinking work. Here are basic, practically binary, physiological ways this happens and three simple tools to exploit these physiological processes.
1. Where Our Gaze is Fixed
The muscles and neurons that control our eye movements are intimately related with areas of the brain that release neurotransmitters that either activate areas of the brain inducing alertness, or calm and sleepiness. When we turn our eyes upward, we trigger alertness, and when we look down, below the level of our nose, we reduce alertness.
Tool #1. Position your monitor in front of you so that you are looking up at it, rather than straight at it. To keep your neck in a more ergonomic neutral position, tilt the top of the monitor down to help you achieve the “up-gaze” without compromising your neck.
2. Your Posture
If your feet are above your head, you’ll be primed for rest or sleep, and the opposite is true: the more erect you are, from laying down to sitting to standing, the more epinephrine is released, and the more alert and focused you are as a result.
Tool #2. Increase your ability to hammer out analytical, focused work by using a standing desk, or better, one that allows you to alternate sitting and standing easily to avoid long periods in any one position.
3. Your Environmental Light
In the first 0-9 hours after waking, your body is producing the most alertness chemicals of the day. In addition, there is a specific set of cells in the lower half of our eyes that also activate those chemicals, and they are positioned perfectly to be activated by bright light from overhead. This is prime time for your most analytical and detailed, focused work. The next 9-16 hours after waking, your body starts to get ready for rest, turning down the dial on alertness chemicals and priming you to do your best, most expansive, broad, creative thinking.
Tool #3. Within 30-60 minutes of waking, light your environment as much as you can. Even better, get outside in the morning sun. And when you’re back indoors, turn on the brightest overhead lights. In the afternoon, start dimming the light, especially turning off overhead lights.
The fascinating Dr. Huberman generously delivers a podcast to help us stay on top of the latest and most practical research and applications. Check it out to dive deeper into some of the tools we covered today. Connect with me on LinkedIn and let me know how your trials are going with any of the tools we covered here and in previous installments.