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Last Updated on January 11, 2021

How to Use More of Your Brain to Become More Productive and Happy

How to Use More of Your Brain to Become More Productive and Happy

To answer the question how to use more of your brain, I want to share my story about overloading my brain….

I’m not a morning person. I always hoped that when I grew up, I’d become that person who was magically “on” (happy and productive) the second my eyes opened. You know, like the old guy in Jerry McGuire who wakes up, claps his hands and says “Today is going to be a great day!”

Adults are supposed to be morning people, right? We’re supposed to be able to use our brains and be productive members of society right out of the gate, waking with smiles on our faces with hearts full of gratitude.

That’s the pressure I’ve always put on myself anyway–that I should feel excited and grateful in the morning. But if I’m being honest, I’ve never felt that way. And generally, my mornings kind of suck…

I wake up everyday with a three year old pulling on my arm (or if I’m not so lucky she’s pulling up the lid of my eye) telling me it’s time to get out of bed because I’m officially on duty as her personal chef, stylist, and chauffeur. (I mean, I’m basically her glorified celebrity handler). Most days, it’s a battle of wills, struggling to get her to put on pants and get in the car and usually I resort to sugar-laced bribes just to keep my sanity.

Suffice to say, by the time I get home from taking her to school, I feel spent and quite honestly, stupid. As a mom of a preschooler, I feel like my brain is operating in “react” mode so much of the morning that I forget it’s possible for me to be an intentional, productive person in the AM hours.

I thought working from home would be easier in this way, but it turns out it’s actually a lot easier to not be productive without the positive peer pressure of other hyper-focused adults visibly working hard at their computers around me.

So what winds up happening is I get home and find it hard not to get on my computer and let my inbox send me on whatever trip my brain decides it wants to go on in that moment.

No plan, no focus, I’m just…doing stuff…I think? At least I’m fighting the urge to go back to bed, I tell myself. I’m being a grown up.

Most mornings I’ve felt like a failure as an adult because of this chronic morning brain fog. So recently I’ve been trying to figure out why I still feel like a 17-year old recovering from mono who can’t get out of bed for first period.

I’m not depressed. My life is good. I love my work.

So why is it so hard for me to follow through on doing things I want to do at a reasonable, productive “adult” hour? I couldn’t help but wonder…what is wrong with me?

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1. Focus on WHEN: The Forgotten Four-Letter Word

It turns out, I may have been asking the wrong questions. Instead of asking WHAT is wrong with me and WHY can’t I, the question I forgot to ask, and the question we all need to be asking is WHEN.

It all became a little more clear when my husband brought home a book called WHEN: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink.

According to chronobiology experts, it’s very possible that a lot of our brain power, productivity and even happiness doesn’t necessary stem from what we are doing, but WHEN we are doing it.

Imagine you’re on a relaxing vacation for a week. No meetings. No kids or obligations. It’s just you, a cozy bed, and your whims. What time do you go to bed, knowing you can sleep in as late as you want and nap as much as you want the following day? Got it? Great.

Next, what time would you wake up, by choice?

Now take the time you’d ideally go to bed and the time you’d ideally wake up and find the time exactly halfway between the two. That time will tell you if you’re an “early bird” (or Lark), a Night Owl, OR, neither. Turns out 65% of us are what chronobiologists have come to call “Third Birds”—somewhere in the middle.

Once you determine your “type,” you can start planning your day’s activities based on the right time for your brain—or WHEN you’re best cognitively equipped for that type of task, based on science.

According to Pink and the research, knowing WHEN you are going to perform your best on certain tasks can be an absolute game-changer. For example, say you have an important exam that’s full of analytical questions: Larks and Third Birds are going to perform better on those sorts of tasks in the morning, but Owls are going to perform far better on analytical tasks in the late afternoon or evening.

Knowing when you’re in the ideal state to be your most productive self can make the tasks you do easier and relieve unnecessary stress.

Bottom-line is when it comes to using more of your brain and being happier overall, it may be more of a question of knowing your nature, asking WHEN, and leaning into your natural rhythm rather than constantly fighting it.

2. Manage the Impact of Technology on Your Brain

I’d be remiss, in today’s digital age, if I didn’t bring up the impact technology is having on our brains, productivity, and our general sense of well-being. I mean, the one thing I didn’t mention in my description of my morning is that I’m constantly fighting the urge to check my email or do work while I’m feeding, dressing and wrangling my three year old off to school.

It feels like a compulsive thing, like I can’t help myself from looking at my phone even though I know there’s nothing that can’t wait. If I have a “free” second, I feel the need to do SOMETHING (more accurately, HOLD something).

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It would be easy to posit that technology is a dirty, addictive brain-cell killer and I’m sure I’d find plenty of evidence to support that assertion, but the undeniable truth is that technology has enabled us to get so much more done in such a shorter period of time.

We no longer have to drive 30 minutes each way to a brick-and-mortar retailer to buy miscellaneous items, we can order them it in less than a minute with one tap. So when it comes to productivity, I feel like all of the good technology has done is not trumped by the bad.

That being said, there’s a flip side to the world literally being at our fingertips–especially when it comes to our cognitive abilities. The question on my mind is:

Now that our brains are able to get more information, or input, instantaneously because of how readily available it is, are we actually able to process all of this information without overload?

According to the experts, there’s a false belief among consumers that technology is helping us be better multitaskers, but it’s just not true. The fact is we’re not capable of successfully giving our focus to more than one thing at a time.[1]

Multitasking, at least for humans, is a myth.

So what is actually happening is this:

We think we can be more productive by using our phones to multitask but this leads us to spend more and more time on our phones where we usually get distracted by the overwhelming human need for connection.

One of the expert panelists, Larry Rosen, a research psychologist, explained how technology can actually make us feel chronically anxious because:

“we are feeling a lot of pressure that we have to connect, that we feel a responsibility to connect, and that’s the anxiety-provoking part.”

It’s really this innate desire for connection, for feeling a part of the “tribe” if you will, that leads us to what sometimes looks and feels like technology addiction. But according to Rosen “addiction should give us some sort of a good feeling, a pleasurable feeling.”

But since most of us don’t feel a “high” from being glued to our screens, he believes technology is more like an obsession or compulsion, since we feel a constant need to “check in.”

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The experts also agree that all of this “multitasking” and information overload has had consequences on how we learn and retain information because it’s just simply not possible for our brains to focus on so many different things at once.

So we have this desire to be productive, and an even deeper desire for connection, but a lot of the time our devices distract us from doing either very well.

3. Give Your Brain a Rest

I don’t know about you but my brain hurts from all of that tech talk. Luckily, I have the perfect remedy and if you love coffee and sleep as much as I do, you’re about to have a deep desire to hug me through your computer screen (but thank Dan Pink, I’m just passing this gem on).

If you’re feeling like your brain is fried and your productivity is waning, I’d like to introduce you to your new best friend: The Nappuccino:[2]

    According to the latest research, naps are incredibly beneficial for our brains and overall productivity, but only if done “right.”

    The Nappuccino is the recipe for the perfect nap: Since caffeine takes about 25 minutes to kick in, if you drink a cup of your favorite java, then lay down it takes approximately 5 minutes to fall asleep–giving you the optimal 20 minute snooze sesh (long enough to feel refreshed, but not too long to make you drowsy).

    When to do this, you may be wondering? The Mayo Clinic suggests that the best time for a nap is between 2pm-3pm, when we all typically hit our mid-day slump.

    The best part? You wake up with your caffeine kick in full effect, ready to get back to work.

    You’re welcome!

    If you’re not remotely jazzed about the fact that I just gave you permission to drink coffee and take a nap in the afternoon, you may be one of those people who hate naps.

    Maybe napping makes you feel like a lazy, good for nothing bum and you feel like it’s weak? You may even pride yourself in never taking a lunch break and eating at your desk. If this sounds familiar, you may need to hear this more than anyone:

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    According to Pink and all of the studies, taking lunch (more specifically a social lunch where we connect with someone face-to-face) as well as an afternoon nap, helps us work better, faster and more efficiently. It also helps prevent us from making mistakes.

    As Pink puts it “Breaks are not a sign of sloth, but a sign of strength.”

    And if you still need more proof, a student at Stanford noted in her report on trying the Nappuccino:[3]

    “This process has extended my capacity from measly journal entries to full-on drafts of essays. Thus, I have been proven utterly wrong in my castigation of naps as emblems of counterproductivity.”

    In other words, don’t knock it ‘til you try it!

    The Big Takeaways

    If you’re like most hyper-productive adults and you just scrolled to the bottom to get the gist of this article, I get it, no judgement. As I’ve stated above, our brains can only take in so much. So here’s the bottom line:

    If you want to be more happy, productive, and use your brain more efficiently:

    1. Lean into your unique internal clock and work your WHEN. If you’re a morning person, do the hardest stuff in the AM. If you’re a night person, give yourself permission to not think so hard first thing (and be nice to yourself, okay?)
    2. Focus on one task at a time (our brains can’t multitask, even if our phones can)
    3. Get your fix for connection by talking to other humans in real life (and take a lunch break)
    4. Give your brain a break by unplugging from the screen and treating yourself to an afternoon Nappuccino

    The truth is we don’t need to use more of our brains, we simply need to stop distracting our brains and start understanding them. Most importantly, we need to give our brains a rest so our incredible, life-sustaining, built-in supercomputers can function at their highest potential.

    These days, I’m not so hard on my more “Owly” nature. Somehow cutting myself and my brain some slack and giving it permission to not be “on” in the morning…online that is…has made “adulting” in the AM feel much brighter.

    It may take an hour or two, but eventually, after a couple of cups of coffee, I’m able to clap my hands and say “today is going to be a great day.” And mean it.

    More Resources About Boosting Brain Power

    Featured photo credit: Lucrezia Carnelos via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Computer History Museum: Our Mind’s on Tech: How Technology Affects the Human Brain.
    [2] Daniel Pink: When: Napaccino
    [3] The Standard Daily: The nappuccino

    More by this author

    Kristina Voegele

    Author and Success Coach | Founder of Grit & Grace Living | Creator of the Writerpreneur Workshop

    How to Find Motivation When You’re Totally Burnt Out How to Use the 5 Minute Journal to Invest in Your Happiness How to Use More of Your Brain to Become More Productive and Happy

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    Last Updated on January 12, 2021

    Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

    Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

    In 2011, the Finnish Tourist Board ran a campaign that used silence as a marketing ‘product’. They sought to entice people to visit Finland and experience the beauty of this silent land. They released a series of photographs of single figures in the nature and used the slogan “Silence, Please”. A tag line was added by Simon Anholt, an international country branding consultant, “No talking, but action.”

    Eva Kiviranta the manager of the social media for VisitFinland.com said: “We decided, instead of saying that it’s really empty and really quiet and nobody is talking about anything here, let’s embrace it and make it a good thing”.

    Finland may be on to something very big. You could be seeing the very beginnings of using silence as a selling point as silence may be becoming more and more attractive. As the world around becomes increasingly loud and cluttered you may find yourself seeking out the reprieve that silent places and silence have to offer. This may be a wise move as studies are showing that silence is much more important to your brains than you might think.

    Regenerated brain cells may be just a matter of silence.

     A 2013 study on mice published in the journal Brain, Structure and Function used differed types of noise and silence and monitored the effect the sound and silence had on the brains of the mice.[1] The silence was intended to be the control in the study but what they found was surprising. The scientists discovered that when the mice were exposed to two hours of silence per day they developed new cells in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a region of the brain associated with memory, emotion and learning.

    The growth of new cells in the brain does not necessarily translate to tangible health benefits. However, in this instance, researcher Imke Kirste says that the cells appeared to become functioning neurons.

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    “We saw that silence is really helping the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system.”

    In this sense silence can quite literally grow your brain.

    The brain is actively internalizing and evaluating information during silence

    A 2001 study defined a “default mode” of brain function that showed that even when the brain was “resting” it was perpetually active internalizing and evaluating information.

    Follow-up research found that the default mode is also used during the process of self-reflection. In 2013, in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Joseph Moran et al. wrote, the brain’s default mode network “is observed most closely during the psychological task of reflecting on one’s personalities and characteristics (self-reflection), rather than during self-recognition, thinking of the self-concept, or thinking about self-esteem, for example.

    “When the brain rests it is able to integrate internal and external information into “a conscious workspace,” said Moran and colleagues.

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    When you are not distracted by noise or goal-orientated tasks, there appears to be a quiet time that allows your conscious workspace to process things. During these periods of silence, your brain has the freedom it needs to discover its place in your internal and external world.

    The default mode helps you think about profound things in an imaginative way.

    As Herman Melville once wrote,[2]

    “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”

    Silence relieves stress and tension.

    It has been found that noise can have a pronounced physical effect on our brains resulting in elevated levels of stress hormones. The sound waves reach the brain as electrical signals via the ear. The body reacts to these signals even if it is sleeping. It is thought that the amygdalae (located in the temporal lobes of the brain) which is associated with memory formation and emotion is activated and this causes a release of stress hormones. If you live in a consistently noisy environment that you are likely to experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.

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    A study that was published in 2002 in Psychological Science (Vol. 13, No. 9) examined the effects that the relocation of Munich’s airport had on children’s health and cognition. Gary W. Evans, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University notes that children who are exposed to noise develop a stress response that causes them to ignore the noise. What is of interest is that these children not only ignored harmful stimuli they also ignored stimuli that they should be paying attention to such as speech. 

    “This study is among the strongest, probably the most definitive proof that noise – even at levels that do not produce any hearing damage – causes stress and is harmful to humans,” Evans says.[3]

    Silence seems to have the opposite effect of the brain to noise. While noise may cause stress and tension silence releases tension in the brain and body. A study published in the journal Heart discovered that two minutes of silence can prove to be even more relaxing than listening to “relaxing” music. They based these findings of changes they noticed in blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain.[4]

    Silence replenishes our cognitive resources.

    The effect that noise pollution can have on cognitive task performance has been extensively studied. It has been found that noise harms task performance at work and school. It can also be the cause of decreased motivation and an increase in error making.  The cognitive functions most strongly affected by noise are reading attention, memory and problem solving.

    Studies have also concluded that children exposed to households or classrooms near airplane flight paths, railways or highways have lower reading scores and are slower in their development of cognitive and language skills.

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    But it is not all bad news. It is possible for the brain to restore its finite cognitive resources. According to the attention restoration theory when you are in an environment with lower levels of sensory input the brain can ‘recover’ some of its cognitive abilities. In silence the brain is able to let down its sensory guard and restore some of what has been ‘lost’ through excess noise.[5]

    Summation

    Traveling to Finland may just well be on your list of things to do. There you may find the silence you need to help your brain. Or, if Finland is a bit out of reach for now, you could simply take a quiet walk in a peaceful place in your neighborhood. This might prove to do you and your brain a world of good.

    Featured photo credit: Angelina Litvin via unsplash.com

    Reference

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