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Why Resting Your Brain is the Best Way to Boost Your Productivity

Why Resting Your Brain is the Best Way to Boost Your Productivity

No matter what method you try, or what advice you take, if your brain is worn out, you’re going to struggle with productivity.

Many believe that stress is good – you have to get that adrenaline flowing to get anything done. But stress keeps your brain on red alert, firing neurons like pistons on the Space Shuttle and releasing all kinds of stress-related hormones and making you a really tired person. When your mind is tired, you’re not functioning at full capacity, and you’re sure to get behind. It’s ironic really, the harder you try to be productive when your brain’s worn out, the worse it gets.

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Why Stress Management Doesn’t Work

Let’s be honest – stress is fear. If you reflect upon the things you’re stressing about, you’ll quickly understand that there are all kinds of things flying around that are scaring you. “What if so-and-so outperforms me?” “What if I don’t meet my deadline?” “Who am I if I can’t rise above my peers?”  We like to call this “stress” because it feels bad to admit that we’re scared – really scared.  Telling our friends “I’m so scared of failing” will get some awkward responses in our culture, so we say “oh, I’m so stressed out about ____.  Pass me that martini.”  And we all chuckle and talk about something else. Fear is weakness, so we call it stress.

Then we try to “manage” our stress, which is impossible – fear cannot be managed, it has to be dealt with directly.  If you have fears about where your career is headed, you have to deal directly with those fears. If you have to be “the best” to feel good about yourself, you have some fear about other people’s opinions about you – you’ve got to deal with that one too.  Stress management deals with symptoms, not the real problem.

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The opposite of stress/fear is peace. If you want to be productive, you’ll have to learn to manage your peace, not your stress.

5 Fundamentals of Peace Management

1. Get some sleep.  Cut down on the coffee, take a break from booze, turn the TV off, and crash. You’ll quickly find out that if you live with a lot of “stress,” sleeping won’t be easy – our fears love to crawl into bed with us.

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2. Get organized.  One of the things we stress about most is taking care of what my old boss used to refer to as “Your Rats,” those little things that gnaw on you, that can chew your leg off if you don’t deal with them. The best curriculum for this is David Allen’s “Getting Things Done.”  I tried this and it saved a lot of peace.  He’s got books, seminars, free advice, and it’s all very simple.

3.  Learn to let go.  There are things you can control, and things you can’t. Get a piece of paper and make two columns.  Title the first column “Things I’m worried about that I can control,” and the second, “Things I’m worried about that I can’t control.”  Use the system in Step 2 to take care of the things you can control.  With column 2, you have to realize that worrying about things you can’t control doesn’t change anything, it only steals your peace, puts your brain on red alert, and makes you more inept at taking care of the things you can control.

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4.  Let people off the hook.  When someone makes us angry, we tend to wander around like a zombie thinking of ways we can win an argument, or get even.  Nothing will eat your brain’s reserves faster.  To keep anger from sapping your productivity, you’ll have to get good at confronting, and when confronting’s not an option, try forgiveness. With regards to confrontation, check out the book “Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior,” and do everything they tell you.  You’ll be surprised at how well it works, and how good your brain will feel when you learn to speak up in a way that’s honest and peaceful.

Courage Required

Not many people live like this. Facing our fears and organizing our lives in a way that’s best for our brains is no small undertaking.  But it’s not nearly as hard as walking around day after day with a thousand monkeys on your back while trying to think creatively, boost your business, make money, and have fun.

But anyone can succeed at peace management.  As long as you’re willing to read, talk to people who are good at it, and be persistent, you can step into a life that’s more peaceful, and infinitely more productive.

Featured photo credit: Matthew Kane via unsplash.com

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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