It may appear contradictory but it seems the harder we work, the less productive we become. Of course, it makes sense that when we are over-tired we are less able to perform optimally but it seems the problem is more than straightforward fatigue. Recent advances in neuroscience suggest that our constantly active and alert minds are, paradoxically, reducing our ability to problem-solve effectively.
Research by neuroscientists such as Mark Beeman in the US suggests our working habits limit our ability to perform complex mental tasks. The tendency to work longer hours and cram our days with meetings, conversations, emails and tasks means less quiet time when solutions to problems are more likely to, quite simply, come to mind.
Neuroscientists know that in order to solve complex problems, we draw upon multiple resources from memory. Those might include similar situations or experiences we have previously encountered, or something we have read, heard or seen somewhere. These random thoughts might connect to form solutions, however creating those connections is not something we can do at will. Rather, these insights or “Aha” moments tend to come when we are not consciously thinking about the problem. If the mind is relaxed and allowed to wander, it is more likely to generate creative insights. That’s why “Eureka!” moments tend to happen in the middle of the night…or bathtub.
Simple changes to our daily routines can increase the likelihood of these “aha!” moments occurring:
- Include some Mindless Tasks in Your Day – Most neuroscientists now agree that knowledge is made up of patterns of association in the neural network. The stronger the association, the more easily something will come to mind. In a situation such as problem solving, the associations are weak. We can only strengthen and become aware of those associations if the brain is not overactive. Mindless tasks, activities, that don’t require conscious effort but rather draw upon implicit memory such as knitting, cycling or even washing up make insights more likely to come to the fore. That’s why you’ll often find a ping-pong table in a highly creative workplace.
- Seek out Solitude – Open plan workspaces are fantastic for communication but can make it difficult for your brain to perform at its best. Insights generally occur when we allow our mind to wander and our attention is focussed internally rather than externally. Take ten minutes in a quiet area of the office or walk around the block to give yourself some mental space.
- Don’t Overwork the Problem – If you obsess about a problem, you are not allowing your brain to generate novel solutions. In fact, as you go over and over the problem in your mind, thinking about possible solutions, you are actually inhibiting your brain’s ability to come up with novel insights. This is what psychologist Stellan Ohlsson calls “inhibition theory.” We need to inhibit our old patterns of thinking if we are to come up with fresh approaches.
- Control Communications – On a practical level, managing your work processes can facilitate brain performance. Habits such as constantly checking emails, taking phone calls and allowing interruptions do not help focus the mind. Instead, our attention is hopping from one thing to the next. Researchers Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy recommend starting the day with the most pressing task, then checking and responding to emails in two blocks, say at 10.15am and 2.30pm. You can let it be known that you can be called if the matter is urgent. Taking control of your day and establishing routines will literally help clear your head.
- Mindfulness – the latest research is pointing to the fact that “mindfulness” is one of the key factors to a productive and content society. Mindfulness is about controlling our mind so that we are living and “being in the moment.” One of my favourite sayings is, “wherever you are, that’s where you are.” If you’re having a conversation with a staff member or colleague then be there, if you’re having coffee with a friend, be with your friend. Put your phone away, be present and look them in the eye and listen generously to what they’re saying. Don’t think about where you’re going next and what you are doing tonight. To be mindful, you need to go where the present takes you, even it that’s difficult or not fun or hard work.
- Reduce Anxiety – Finally, a stressed-out mind is too pre-occupied and fretful to function effectively. Studies have repeatedly shown that problem-solving ability is greatly reduced when stress levels are increased. Walking, exercise and meditation can all help reduce anxiety, as can restricting alcohol and improving quality of sleep.
Science may not be telling us anything we didn’t instinctively know – that we perform best when we are calm, energised and clear-headed. Yet our modern work practices have become so entrenched that it can be difficult to see the value of taking a lunch break, going for a mid-morning walk or leaving on time. However, evidence that these steps can boost mental performance is growing. Several high profile case-studies in the US have reported that implementing such practices can significantly improve the quality of both professional and personal life.
That in itself is an insight worth having.