Maximize Your Moments Through Your Neurochemistry
Reflect on how you feel right now. Are you feeling more positive or negative? Is the feeling intense, or are you in a lower arousal state?
What can you do to increase your energy or decrease negative feelings?
When you want to change your state of mind, go back up to the lists of items that induce positive neurochemical reactions and consider how many you’re doing regularly—like laughing, trying new things (novelty), and achieving goals.
Moving from Threat to Thrive
Fairness: Give everyone the same opportunity to have a shot at major things like jobs, projects, or great work trips. If something feels unfair to you, acknowledge it and communicate it. Often, others have no idea when specific things are important to us; the only way they can is to hear them. Also, mete out rewards, awards, and bonuses based on clear guidelines (especially if you’re a boss).
Obviously, this discussion skims the surface of the inner workings of the brain as they pertain to our behavior, but when we come from a place of knowing, we can be more in control of our destiny—living by design, not by default. The neurochemistry of our brain may seem like an arcane set of fluids and electrical transmissions that are difficult to visualize. But we can see them acting out in our social selves every single day, at every moment. Once you’re aware of them, you’ll see them play out in nearly every aspect of our business and personal lives.
Taking Control of Your Life
When we define and understand what success is for us, the likelihood that we can feel more in control increases. One of my favorite parables about how success means something different to each of us is about a simple fisherman who meets a businessman
The fisherman explains his modest life of fishing; napping with his wife; playing with his grandchildren; and meeting his friends for music, food, and fun each night. The businessman is incredulous that the fisherman hasn’t strategically thought about expanding his business into fleets of fishing boats and creating multimillions in profits. The fisherman asks the businessman how long this will take and what the result will be. The businessman tells him that, after he has spent 20 years or so making his fortune, the fisherman will then be able to go fishing; nap with his wife; play with his grandchildren; and meet his friends for music, food, and fun each evening.
Write down your definition of success. What would make a successful year, month, day in your life? The more specific you can be, the better.
For an added twist and a great discussion, ask your significant other to do the same thing separately and then swap what you’ve written. Compare answers.
The Confidence That Comes With Control
Every six months, get on the Internet and research a topic or skill that interests you but in which you have no experience. Start small, but start now, as you look for the steps necessary to begin learning more about that topic or skill. Then go to just one lesson or read one book.
Do something completely novel once every year or so. Learn to ballroom dance or play the guitar or flute. Learn a new language. Go on a dive trip to the North Pole (yes, there are those kind of dive trips). Learn to fly an airplane or sail a boat. Learn to paint. It’s not about mastery. It’s about novelty. Keep your brain growing. Start small, but start now. Do something new.
Go forward with the mindset that it’s all right if you look like a beginner. You are. Enjoy the confidence that comes with letting go of having to look like you’ve already arrived. Don’t put any pressure on yourself to be “right” or perfect. Just have fun, enjoy the brain growth, and remember that the more you practice, the better you’ll get.
Think about and write down the thing you like the least about yourself. Why do you dislike this thing? What have others said about it? How has it limited your life or career? Can you do anything to change it? Are you willing to? If not, are you willing to accept this perceived flaw?
Make a list of the things that you’re feeling unconfident about in your job. Visualize, plan, and practice around these situations.
Reassess your fears. Do you fear these things because they actually happen frequently, or are you just imagining they will?
Jump. Start now.
Part of feeling confident is feeling that we have willpower to exert in a situation, that we are enough, and even that we have enough. That mindset can help bring us peace and control, and is the next topic for discussion.
Willpower and Focus: Controlling Your Own Attention
A distracted mind is a messy mind, and a messy mind, compared to one that focuses and stays absorbed in a task, is likely going to be inferior in many measures, including quality of performance, productivity, and anxiety levels, not to mention the memory problems that might occur because we can’t get our head wrapped around the task deeply enough. It’s like when you read before bedtime and get stuck reading the same paragraph over and over again because you’re too tired to focus on it. On those days when we are pulled in many different directions, it’s challenging, if not impossible, to keep everything straight. The day becomes one big blur. As our anxiety goes up, we become crankier, and dealing with that cranky, negative-amplifying part of us is difficult and not very good for our reputation or our health if it becomes chronic.
On the flip side, with distractions managed well, we have time to focus and listen to our intuition. We can better build and access our heuristic capabilities.
Do one thing at a time.
Turn off pop-up emails and other pop-up notifications that come through your smartphone or computer.
Consider setting a time when you will check email.
Close your door. Open-door policies sound good, but in practice they can make us less effective by permitting constant interruptions. Schedule appointments rather than letting them pop up whenever someone needs to talk to you. Of course there are the necessary exceptions, but try to distinguish between matters that do need your urgent attention now and those that can wait.
Work outside your regular workspace (in a coffee shop, library, etc.).
When you’re finished with a file, put it away.
Do not leave multiple windows open on your computer unless they all have to do with the task at hand.
Everything we do with intention is goal achievement. As far as the brain is concerned, successfully making it to the restroom is a goal achieved. For more intentional goals, like hitting sales targets or completing a project ahead of deadline, the path to successful completion isn’t always as clear or easy as the simpler goals, like getting a cup of coffee.
Use the STTARR model. See the goal; visualize it. Also, write it down. People who write their goals down are more likely to accomplish them.
Touch on something to do with the goal every day.
Think about how the last step toward the goal went.
Adjust what you’re doing if necessary.
Reward yourself in small ways to keep yourself going.
Repeat until you’ve achieved your goal.
Using a system like this one can help us because it keeps us focused on the step immediately in front of us. Research has shown that goals that are too distant in the future are less likely to be accomplished unless we break them down into more bite-sized pieces that we can work on now.
Stamina, Stress, and Your Brain
The research illustrates that we can change our beliefs about stress, and that those beliefs affect our performance. This is a rallying cry for leaders to push a message that reinforces stress as a positive: “When things get difficult around here, that’s when we’re at our best.”
See if you can notice the fine line between these two sides of stress—when you’re learning and energized and when you’re overwhelmed and anxious. When you’re in the negative state, the most useful thing to do is literally walk away and do something completely different for a while to help reset the stress response. Breathe, and try to be in the present.
Being in the executive control state, fully absorbed in the present, has a tendency to calm our body’s alarm system. Integrative neuroscientist Dr. Herbert Benson suggests that it only takes three deep abdominal breaths (the kind where your belly comes out when you breathe in) to calm us down from a state of nasty cortisol alarm and take us back to normal, where we can think and behave more thoughtfully.
Just before you perform a stress-inducing task—receiving a performance appraisal at work, presenting to the executive committee, taking a test, playing a tennis match or golf game, playing the piano at a recital—try taking three slow, deep breaths to calm yourself and put yourself in the moment. During any of those activities just mentioned, it’s easy to fixate on how we might do in the future. Staying present, however, has been shown to produce better results and to lower our stress hormones.
Quality In, Quality Out
Your body manufactures little of the fuel the brain uses to survive. The brain needs glucose and oxygen and a little fat and micronutrients. I like the metaphor of a car: Cars must have fuel, oil, oxygen, and water to operate. The brain, similarly, needs fuel in the form of glucose and some vitamins and minerals, oil in the form of oils and fats, plus oxygen and water. Since the body doesn’t create these resources, and since there are even other bodily systems that compete for these resources, the brain can sometimes run low on them. When that happens, the brain prompts us to feed it by causing confusion, tiredness, irritability, and a number of other flags. Paying attention to how we feel and what our brain may need goes a long way toward our overall health—in particular, the stamina and acuity of the brain.
Nature provides a great number of foods that are great for brain health. The more we steer toward natural foods and away from processed foods, the better off we are. If the food doesn’t occur in nature and its name ends in the letter O, think twice before eating it. This may seem like a no-brainer, but with the processed food industry in full swing, it might be harder than you think to accomplish. Foods that occur in nature are generally more easily metabolized and better for our brain than ones we invented, and we get better long-term energy from natural foods.
Sleep: It’s Not a Choice
We need approximately four rapid eye movement (REM) cycles a night. Each cycle of REM sleep—also known as slow-wave sleep—lasts about ninety minutes. Add about a half hour of getting into sleep and a half hour of getting out and we’re at roughly seven hours, which is close to the amount of sleep the average adult needs: seven to nine hours per night. This is not a weekly average; it’s really best to get those hours consistently every night. A small percentage of people actually accomplish all the REM cycles in four or five hours, but these people are few. There are also a few people on the other end of the spectrum who need ten or more hours, but again that’s uncommon, and can be a sign of depression.
The problem with sleep and stress is that the relationship often feels like that between the proverbial chicken and egg. Are we having a hard time getting to and staying asleep because we’re stressed out, or are we stressed out because we’re not getting enough sleep? It is often difficult to ascertain which one it is. Either way, you need to find a way to solve the root problem; when you do, the other will likely improve, too. I suggest starting with sleep—assuming that if you work first on the quality of your sleep, stress reduction will follow. It rarely makes sense to forgo sleep in order to be a better achiever; you’ll seldom, if ever, do better at a task on less sleep.
Move to Improve Your Stamina and Your Brain
Then there’s physical exercise, which is one of the single greatest predictors of brain health as we age. One of the most substantial benefits of exercise, other than feeling good, is the release of a chemical—brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF—that actually helps our brain to grow, allowing us to slow down the approximate 0.5 percent annual brain shrinkage we experience after the age of forty. Dr. John Ratey, of Harvard, dubbed BDNF “Miracle-Gro for the brain”. And it’s released when we exercise. It literally plumps up the areas of the brain that store memories, helps repair damaged brain cells, and allows the connections in the brain to work better. With BDNF helping it along, the brain doesn’t have to decay as rapidly in old age—but we have to exercise both mentally and physically.
Aerobic exercise for twenty to thirty minutes, five days a week—shoot for 150 minutes weekly. Buy a pedometer and go for a target of 10,000 steps per day. On average the number of steps in a mile is about 2,000. Five miles of walking throughout the day is a hefty target, and wearing a pedometer can help you get closer.
Do things that get you moving but that you also enjoy, like gardening or dancing.
Collaboration: The Ultimate Survival Tool of Humans
No single person on the planet knows how to create something as simple as a pencil. Leonard Read made that seemingly exaggerated assertion more than fifty years ago in his famous essay I, Pencil. No one could make a pencil on their own: not the president of the company, not the pencil salespeople, not the manufacturers of the pencil. No single human knows how to do everything required to make a pencil. Mr. Read opines on the hundreds of operations that go into it, from chainsaws used to chop down the mighty cedars; to the castor beans needed to create the lacquer on the pencil; to the oil industry, which is needed to manufacture the pencil shaft; to the mining of the graphite that goes inside. And, that’s just a pencil. Extrapolate Read’s thinking to the complex products and services offered by your company, and the case for internal cooperation is evident.
Flow is good. Coactive flow is better. And when it comes to group effectiveness, interactive flow is best. Work with your team to learn how to “pass the ball.”
Work on collaborating instead of competing. When you get stuck, ask colleagues, “What am I missing?” Listen to the answer.
ave your team read I, Pencil and then discuss the ideas behind it, including the importance of collaboration.
Ask team members to describe what piece of the pencil they bring to your organization and to the team. This is a particularly helpful exercise at the beginning of a project.