Dr Jenny Brockis introduces monotasking; a way of working with your brain to maximise its energy and potential
Adapting to planet busy has, in some instances, resulted in the adoption of some less than healthy thinking habits. In our rush to keep on top of everything, we sometimes fail to stop and check first whether what we are asking our brain to do is something it was designed for.
Choosing to give your brain the attention it deserves makes it easier to develop those thinking skills that allow you to be more efficient, effective and productive. Our new understanding that the human brain is massively plastic - that is, it can form new synaptic connections between existing neurons in response to changes in our environment throughout our life - means not only are we lifelong learners but we can always up-skill our thinking processes to adapt and thrive.
Being in charge of your own unique brain helps you to change your mind, embed new habits and boost mental performance. This is your cognitive advantage.
Because this is a neurobiological process, it will take a little time and effort, so what matters is putting in the practice.
What can you do to boost your healthy thinking habits?
1. Use your focus appropriately
With our ever lengthening to-do lists, focusing and working hard all day long would seem to be the best way to get our work done, except that it isn't.
When it comes to focus, our brain is a 100-metre sprinter, not a marathon runner.
While we have to pay attention to learn anything, the type of focus we apply and how we use it is crucial. We are not designed for long-term focus. Attempting to drive our focus too hard for too long exhausts the brain, which then inserts its own mental-energy-conserving mechanism of mind wandering. Worse still, in our fatigued state, our mental processes slow down and we start to make more mistakes.
The solution is to use our ultradian rhythm, natural peaks and troughs of energy that pulse throughout our day in a 90-minute cycle. Chunking your high-intensity, focused work into 90-minute blocks helps you to:
- Produce high-quality work
- In a shorter period of time
- With fewer mistakes
- Using less energy.
What comes next is equally important. Take a well-earned brain break of 15-20 minutes. While not an official invitation to watch cat videos on YouTube, what you do during your brain break is up to you, as long as it doesn't involve any thinking about the task you have just been working on. You could:
- Get up and have a stretch (your brain will really thank you for that)
- Go for a wander around the office or get outside into the fresh air for a couple of minutes
- Practice a short meditation
- Have a conversation with a colleague
- Make a few phone calls
- Catch up on a couple of emails.
What your brain does during this time at a subconscious level is to consolidate those thoughts you were previously working with; determine which thoughts are to be kept for long-term storage in your memory banks; and refresh your cognitive energy levels so you are ready to be more effective in your next chunk of focused work.
2. Choose to monotask
While we love the idea of multitasking, because we believe it will save us time and energy and allow us to get more done, sadly, it is but an illusion we have bought into. While we can fragment our attention very well and hence can have one ear on a conversation while posting on Instagram and walking down the corridor holding a cup of coffee without spilling it, what we are not doing is focusing on any one of those items.
Our brain has what many consider to be a design flaw, the area used for focus, while highly developed, is small, extremely energy-hungry and has limited parking for one vehicle at any one time. In other words, we can only apply our full focus to one thing.
Multitasking doesn't work. At all. Monotasking is the new black, because it provides the brain with what it loves - one item to devote its entire focus to.
How do you monotask? At the beginning of your work day, write down your list of top three priorities, those things that HAVE to be done, and list those in order of priority. Then start on number one and treat your list like a game of Monopoly®. Do not pass GO! Do not collect your £200 until you have fully completed your first task and then proceed onto the next.
This might mean choosing your monotasking environment carefully. Switch off all 'techno-distractions' (mobile phones, laptops and tablets), put up a 'do not disturb' sign on the back of the office door, or don some noise-cancelling headphones (if that's your thing).
Simple really. And just in case you need a bit more evidence to support the fact that it's not such a crash-hot idea to multitask - multitasking diminishes memory, makes it harder to pay good attention to anything and is the one brain function we get worse at with practice.
3. Be more mindful
One of the most elusive items on our better thinking skills list can be having the time to think. The trouble is, denying our brain the thinking space required for deeper thought and understanding constrains us to the 'B seats' of our mind.
Mindfulness has been enjoying a huge surge in popularity and is increasingly embraced by the business world as a useful tool to sharpen our attention, clarify our thinking and reduce stress. It takes us off autopilot to build conscious awareness of what's going on in our environment and our thoughts.
Learning to be more mindful is a mental discipline. It takes practice and it's not for everyone. For those who find it useful, a 10-15 minute attempt is all that is needed to quieten down our mind chatter and keep us in the present.
Research has revealed countless cognitive and health-related benefits of mindfulness. Studies have shown that just eight weeks of practising it is sufficient to produce a physiological change in the brain, an increase in the cortical density of our grey matter in the pre-frontal cortex and hippocampus that can be demonstrated on fMRI brain scans. These are the two areas concerned with our executive thinking processes, and learning and memory respectively.
Reduced stress, enhanced attention, increased creativity, better decision-making, better sleep patterns and sense of wellbeing are some of the better-known benefits that have been ascribed to the practice of mindfulness.
Noticing your thoughts and feelings can be useful for times such as:
- Preparing for an important meeting
- Delivering a presentation
- Meeting a new client
- Stepping into a difficult conversation.
Taking a mindful moment allows you to quickly check in with your thoughts; what is going on here, do I have all the facts, what else is needed?
Of course, there are other equally useful ways of finding your thinking space. For some, this will be at 35,000 feet, in the shower, on the drive home, while exercising, listening to some beautiful music, or even chatting with others. Wherever your thinking space, what matters is checking in daily for your 15 minutes of 'still' time.
Whatever your choice of healthy thinking habits, boosting your mental efficiency and productivity is what leads to a greater sense of achievement, fulfilment and happiness.
Dr Jenny Brockis is the Brain Fitness Doctor and director of Brain Fit. She is also the author of Future Brain: The 12 Keys To Create Your High Performance Brain (Wiley)