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Three things a skeptic should know about neuroscience

Three things a skeptic should know about neuroscience

Below is the reaction between octane and oxygen that takes place in the internal combustion engine.  Will that help you repair a car?  Will it help you win a Grand Prix?  Perhaps not. Systems can be analyzed a number of levels from the quantum to the cosmic.  Does knowing that your cortisol is elevated help you deal with stress?  Does knowing your amygdala is activated when afraid make it easier to cope? Does knowing the “love hormone,” called oxytocin, exists make you a nicer person?

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    Reading today’s neurohype, you might conclude that the true path to a great life is a course in neuroanatomy, or biochemistry.  And unlike much pop leadership pseudo-science, lots of what is written in the neuroscience world is reasonably accurate scientifically.  But although “true,” is it really useful?

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    Among all the ten syllable words and grandiose promises, some neuroscience is very useful. Below are three simple things I think business people should know that derive their validity from findings in neuroscience.

    1. Mindfulness rocks

    Mindfulness conjures up images of saffron robes, or new-age hippiedom. Yet, in the world of self-help aphorisms, and things gurus advise, mindfulness stands way, way above the crowd.  In contrast with its woo-woo image, there is more hard scientific evidence for its effectiveness than just about anything else in the self-help world.  

    What do I mean by effectiveness? It has been shown to improve depression, ADD, anxiety, and stress.  But maybe you are not mentally ill, so what does it do for healthy people?  It improves attention, focus, and emotion control.  More abstractly, mindfulness strengthens our metacognitive, or executive functions.  It makes you much better at observing yourself in action, and much better at self-correcting deficits in thinking, feeling and acting.

    We are all mindful some of the time.  Recall those moments of maximum clarity, focus and engagement.  If you are like me, borderline ADD, those moments are too few, rare even.

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    My brain needs training and that training is meditation.  Meditation is to mindfulness as practicing free-throws is to basketball.  To return from distraction, lack of focus, and not being present, first you have to notice, then you have to come back.  If you are like me, however, you can spend an entire morning distracted.  The faster I notice, the faster I can return to my zen-like focus and being present.  Sure, it will quickly disappear: “I wonder what is happening on Facebook.” But because I’ve practiced my free throws, I might notice more quickly, and come back more quickly.  Or, perhaps not even go there.

    Wise leaders cultivate perspective, can handle stress, react less and create more, and are generally in control of their moods.  People have often said that when you talked to Nelson Mandela, so great was his focus and attention on the moment that it felt as if you were the only person in the room.  That kind of presence is part of the mindfulness package.

    If you worry that it will take 10 years of an hour a day to “get there,” think again.  In a recent study, some mood management and focus benefits were realized after just 5 days of 20 minutes of meditation per day.

    Back in the day, we used to have smoke breaks.  Perhaps, in the 21st Century, it will become commonplace for people in workplaces to say “I’m just gonna go sit for ten minutes.”  Some companies are taking it seriously: Google runs a program, called Search Inside Yourself, that has mindfulness at its core.  It has been a small part of the dozens of leadership programs I’ve run during the last decade, most of which have been for very senior investment bankers, but based on current research, I’m giving serious thought to making it more central, perhaps even the core of the leadership work I do.

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    2. Inauthenticity stinks

    Ever listen to someone saying something enthusiastic or positive, and it just feels wrong? While we are listening to words, our brain is processing micro gestures, posture, tone, inflection, cadence and other non-verbal cues.  We now know of a structure called mirror neurons that fire in synchrony when people do things as if we were doing them ourselves.  That means that humans understand each other and relate at a deeper level than just information (word) processing.

    To communicate powerfully, to inspire and persuade, all of that must be aligned. That means you have to believe, at the deepest possible level, all you are saying. Pretending (that you are excited when dejected, or confident when afraid) works poorly. To boot, it can be hard work, under pressure, to keep the game face on.

    This finding speaks strongly to another leadership buzzword: authenticity. Although the word is misunderstood and overused, there is fundamental truth at the heart of it.  Inauthenticity smells, and the leader needs to do the internal work to align thoughts, feelings, and actions to produce an authentic presence.

    3. A tip and a tool to make you smarter

    The human brain is superb at processing, but poor at juggling numerous items in “working memory.” The more juggling you do, the less present, focused, attentive and sharp you will be when you need to be. Working memory can get clogged by to-do lists, calls, worries, and creative ideas. Tip: create the practice (or habit) of clearing out working memory and dumping all that into a safe place. Just doing this “mindsweep” thoroughly once a week can yield improvements in concentration and clarity of thought.

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    We call this “distributed cognition” and in today’s distraction-fest world, having tools at your disposal that enhance cognitive function, in this case easing the strains on working memory, is critical.

    There are two information-overload problems solved by one incredibly powerful free app: Evernote.   The first problem Evernote solves is multiple information sources: meetings, phone calls, websites, email, post-its, voice-mail, and social media.  You want an app that with one-click will save and intuitively categorize it all in a snap no matter what it is.  One click, wherever you are and it is saved, and indexed. Onto the next one.

    The second problem is that we cannot afford multiple storage systems.  If you make a note on your tablet, you don’t want to go hunting for it a few hours later when you are in a cab with just your phone.  Evernote syncs your “dumps” and all those other inputs across tablet, PC, laptop and smart phone instantly. You now can safely park that great new product idea, knowing it won’t be forgotten, and attend 100% to the moment.  You can insta-clip that website you bumped into (when you ought to be doing something else) and get back to what you were doing.

    Neuroscience is in its infancy, but a deeper understanding of the brain can help leaders in daily situations such as these without having to learn arcane neurotransmitters and the names of cortical structures.  These are just a few examples, so I am curious what students of Neuroscience and behavior would add to this list and what managers make of the usefulness of these concepts. Let us know in the comments!

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    Last Updated on September 20, 2018

    How to Be Happy at Work and Find Fulfillment in Your Career

    How to Be Happy at Work and Find Fulfillment in Your Career

    If you’re going to spend 1/3 of our life at work, you should enjoy it, right?

    Trust me, I know that’s easier said than done. Difficult coworkers, less-than-desirable tasks, or even just being in the wrong position can all lead to a lack of enjoyment and fulfillment in your work.

    But what if I told you it doesn’t have to be this way? Or better yet, if you struggle with all of the above (and then some), what if I told you that enjoying your work and finding fulfillment regardless of those obstacles is possible?

    Don’t believe me? I don’t blame you because I was there too. Before implementing the tips below, I struggled to get through each day, much less find real fulfillment, in the office. Now, even after the toughest days on the job, I still come away with feelings of pride, accomplishment, and fulfillment. The best news is, so can you.

    If you’re ready to make those hours count and find happiness and fulfillment in the office, then read on to find out how to be happy at work and find fulfillment in your career:

    1. Discover the root(s) of the problem

    For this first step, we’ll need to think back to 8th-grade physics (humor me). We all know Newton’s 3rd law, “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” When you think about it, the same can be said outside of physics, and we see this law play out in our daily lives, day after day.

    Simply put, all the issues we deal with in the office (and life in general) affect us in a noticeable way.

    If you’re appreciated at work, like the work you do and receive frequent praise, promotions, or raises, then this will probably have an altogether positive effect on your life in the office.

    But what if we reverse this? What if you feel under appreciated, get passed up for promotions, or get denied raises? This is sure to affect the way you feel at work on a negative level.

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    So, before you can implement the steps of feeling happy and fulfilled at work, we first have to discover the reasons why you don’t feel that way already.

    Think about it, write a list, or make a mental note. Run through all the reasons you’re dissatisfied in the office, and don’t hold back. Knowing the exact obstacles you’re facing will make overcoming them that much easier.

    In fact, as a side-challenge to this article, I recommend picking the top three reasons contributing to your dissatisfaction at work and using the following tips to tackle them.

    2. Practice gratitude for an instant uplift

    Did you know the simple act of feeling grateful can increase your happiness and make you more fulfilled at work?[1]

    Well, it’s true, and it’s scientifically proven.

    Dr. Lisa Firestone notes that practicing gratitude “reminds us of what we lacked in the past.” Meaning, it serves as both a boost to happiness and a bit of a wake-up call that things have been or could be, much worse.

    Trying to conjure up feelings of gratitude can seem almost impossible when your work situation seems bleak, but hear me out: There are incredibly easy ways to get started and it doesn’t involve trying to “force” yourself to feel grateful about things that stress you out.

    For an instant pick-me-up, try this:

    Find a loose piece of paper, a blank sticky note, or anything you can write on, be it physical or digital. List just three things that you are absolutely without-a-doubt thankful for in your life.

    Now here’s the trick: Don’t just list what you’re grateful for, you have to list why you’re grateful for them, too.

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    For example, simply saying “I’m grateful for my kids” will probably make you feel good, sure, but what if we could amplify the warm, fuzzy feeling into real, lasting motivation?

    Instead, write the reason you’re so thankful for your children. Is it because they make you laugh and forget about other stressors? Or maybe they help to remind you of why you go to work every day in the first place?

    Whatever your reasons may be, jot them down and keep your list somewhere you can see it while you work. A quick glance at your gratitude list throughout the day can provide powerful, positive motivation to keep going.

    Bonus:

    If you can find just three things to be thankful for that specifically relate to your job, and list why those things make you grateful, your list can also help you find fulfillment in your work itself which can give you an even bigger boost of positivity throughout the day.

    3. Take meaningful time for yourself

    We all know creating a strong work-life balance can be crucial to feeling satisfied in our jobs, but rarely do we ever address how we’re spending our time outside of work.

    Many of us survive a 9-hour work day and commute home only to find ourselves busy with our personal to-do lists, running a household, and taking care of a child (or 2 or 3, and so on).

    If you spend all your time working, whether in the office or within your household, you’re going to feel drained at some point. This is why setting meaningful time for yourself every day is highly important.

    Look, I get it: I don’t know anyone in the working world who can shun all responsibility for a 3-movie marathon or happy hour with friends whenever they feel like it. But finding time for yourself, be it just 30 minutes to an hour, can really make a difference in how you feel at work.

    This works because you’ll have time to actually relax and let the day’s stress melt away while you enjoy something just for you. The to-do lists and stressors will still be there after you’re refreshed and ready to tackle them.

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    No time for me-time? Try this:

    If you have a busy household, you’ll need to capitalize on a block of time you know will be completely uninterrupted. The easiest way to do this: try waking up 30 minutes to an hour earlier than usual (or push bedtime back an hour if you’re a night owl, like me) and take time to do something you enjoy.

    This could be reading with a cup of tea, catching up on Facebook, spending time on a passion project—anything! As long as it’s meaningful to you, it works!

    Bonus:

    Starting your day with meaningful time for yourself can set you up to have a positive mood that lasts well into office hours, and having your me-time in the evening can give you something positive to look forward to during the day.

    4. Get productive and feel accomplished

    Don’t you just love the feeling of checking the last item off of a hefty to-do list? That’s because self-motivation can be a huge driver of positivity and success.

    When we accomplish something, no matter how small, it makes us feel good, plain and simple. Applying this tactic to your daily work can be the motivator you need to find fulfillment during the daily office grind.

    While there are tons of steps to get more done at work, I’ll share my personal favorite: Prioritizing.

    Now, many people handle prioritizing differently. Some like to tackle the little tasks first so they can spend focused time on the big to-dos. Others like to knock out the big items first and get to the smaller ones when they can.

    No matter which camp you’re in, you may be missing one crucial step: Time management.

    So how’s this work? When you factor in the amount of time your priorities will take, it can transform your productivity ten-fold.

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    Say you have three top priorities for the day. You might jump into the smaller ones or the bigger ones depending on your preferred method, and then find yourself out of time and bringing work home with you at the end of the day.

    This is prevented when you factor in time. Knowing how long each item will take, or deliberately setting specific blocks of time for your priorities can help you accomplish more in the same 8-9 (or 12) hours that you typically spend at work.

    Try this:

    Take a look at your priorities and consider how long they should take. Pop into your Google calendar (or Filofax, whatever works for you) and schedule time to work on your priority items around any important meetings or events of the day.

    The most important thing to remember is to stick to your dedicated time.

    Often, when we know exactly how long we have to work on something (and honor this time limit), we’re motivated to get more done on time to avoid taking work home at the end of the day.

    The bottom line

    There’s no need to waste 1/3 of our lives feeling unsatisfied at work. Luckily, you now have the tools to get started, take back your time, and become happy and fulfilled at work again.

    The only question is — which tip will you try first?

    Featured photo credit: Ellyot via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1]Psychology Today: The Healing Power of Gratitude

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