What part of the body would Olympic-class sprinters have insured? Their legs.
It was while thinking of an answer to this question that it hit me that just as an athlete has a body part that is critical for top performance, the same goes for those of us in the working game.
So what is your ’MVO’ at work?
Before you get too creative, I’ll throw you a lifeline – it is your brain.
The fact is that the 3 pounds of greyish-white matter that sits inside your skull controls the functions that can determine how successful you are at work.
How you perform at work depends on several factors:
- How well you can think on your feet and remember things;
- How focused and clear you are;
- How calm and rational your responses are in challenging situations; and
- How well you’re able to:
- prioritise activities
- manage tasks and goals
- learn new information and acquire new skills
Since your brain controls how well you carry out all of the above, it’s to your advantage to know what optimises these functions and what doesn’t.
But first, here’s some food for thought:
“In proportion to our body mass, our brain is three times as large as that of our nearest relatives. This huge organ is dangerous and painful to give birth to, expensive to build and, in a resting human, uses about 20 per cent of the body’s energy even though it is just 2 per cent of the body’s weight. There must be some reason for all this evolutionary expense.” Susan Blakemore
Because I suspect that most people aren’t doing as much to take care of their brain as they could, particularly at work, here are some brain-friendly tips for you to optimize your memory, your focus and your overall performance at work – and outside.
For those of you who are wondering where all this data comes from, research spiked in the 90s when US President George Bush declared it the “decade of the brain”. Consequently billions of dollars were invested into developing scanning technology that allowed scientists to look into the brain and get more detail than ever before about this complex organ. Simply put, brain-researchers went crazy with all the funding and produced all kinds of useful brain-related research.
For you at work, here are some of the most relevant findings:
To optimize your memory:
The main thing that you need in order to achieve good memory is to increase the brain’s production of a chemical called serotonin. In other words, mind your chemicals.
Here’s how it works. (Thanks Dr.Giuffre)
Serotonin is responsible for making you ‘feel good’. Because of the connection between the memory centre – your hippocampus – and the emotions centre – your amygdala – when you feel good, memories tend to stick more. So it follows, that if you want to improve your memory, it will help to increase your serotonin levels.
Tip #1: Think positive thoughts
The best food that you can give your brain is positive thoughts because a happy brain remembers more. By the same token, avoiding negative thoughts helps maintain higher serotonin levels. For that reason, I’ve been saying affirmations on a daily basis for the past year. I can guarantee that after a month, I started to experience results. Not only did my memory improve, I started to feel much more alert, calm and focused – the perfect combination for performing optimally at work!
In case that you need some inspiration, Dr. Susan Jeffers (www.susanjeffers.com), author of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, and Louise Hay (www.louisehay.com), author of You Can Heal Your Life, are my favorite sources and the Mothers of affirmations.
Tip #2: Eat well
Aside from positive thoughts, your brain needs healthy food! Eating in a balanced fashion increases serotonin levels in your body. Eating too many sweets has a negative long term impact on memory (sorry sweet tooths abd carbo-loaders). As sugar levels peak in your brain, you initially feel good, which can help improve your memory for a short burst. But that comes at what I feel is too high a price to pay for memory. When sugar levels peak too quickly, insulin levels also spike in order to restore the balance in your body. When this happens, you feel down, deflated and lethargic. This effect is what my sister-in-law very cleverly has coined as a ‘food coma’.
The fact is that eating a well balanced diet optimises your memory. If you put junk into your brain, you are likely to get junk out of it!
Research says that the diet that contributes to strong memory function is a balance between protein and carbohydrates and lots and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. Take it from a vegan who lives mostly on raw foods. (More on that in a future post)
Tip #3: Manage stress
Research has shown that prolonged exposure to stress shrinks the hippocampus – which is the memory centre. But don’t stress about this, because when you stop stressing, the hippocampus returns to its normal state.
Relax…take a deep breath.
Tip #4: Sleep
According to Dr. Kenneth Giuffre sleeping 8 hours every night has shown to improve work performance by 30% because that’s the time when serotonin gets replenished in your body. No wonder I feel so out of it when I haven’t slept.
Maybe it’s time for you to re-think your priorities when you’re planing a night on the town on a ‘school night’ or to stay up late watching a sitcom. Do you really think that Tiger Woods or your favourite celebrity stays up late when they need to perform at their peak the next day? ‘don’t think so..
Tip #5: Exercise
Not only do you get instant gratification from the endorphin rush (endorphins are opiate-like chemicals similar to morphine), but you also get serotonin and oxygen to flow through your system. As the organ that requires the most blood flow and oxygen per weight exercise gets your brain ready to thrive.
Tip #6: Laugh
Scans of people’s brains while they’re laughing have shown that the amygdala – the emotions region of the brain – is activated. When that happens, because of the relationship between the brain’s memory centre and the amygdala, memories tend to stick more. Also, because when we laugh we feel good, we experience a spike in serotonin production, which also results in better retention.
Tip #7: Listen to music
There’s no trustworthy clinical evidence that music does anything for babies in-vitro, but baby books constantly harp on the benefits of music in fetal development Regardless, there is no arguing that music can make you feel good! By now you should know that when you feel good, you can remember more.
To be focused:
You feel focused when blood is flowing to a particular brain region, in other words, when the flow of blood is contained. Think back when you were hanging upside down from a monkey bar, with blood rushing to your brain. How focused did you feel then?
Here’s what you can do on a daily basis to contain the blood flowing through your brain – and not feel like you’re hanging upside down:
Tip #1: Mind the caffeine
Because caffeine constricts the vessels in your brain and body in general, it does in fact help direct blood flow to specific areas in your brain. That’s why you feel focused and alert after your shot of espresso in the morning.
But be careful not to mess up your sleep cycle because if you do, that would defeat the purpose of having caffeine in the first place!
Tip #2: Meditate
This is my favourite tip, because the benefits of meditation are clear. At the University of Pennsylvania researchers recently showed that meditation for just 30 minutes a day for 8 weeks improves clarity and focus.
In a later post I’ll share with you some tips about how to meditate. For now, if you’d like to give it a shot, I suggest that you look online or check into your local community college or Buddhist temple for guidance and information. I personally follow a Zen method which I found online at www.mro.org/zmm/teachings/meditation.php I found it easy to follow because it has pictures (as a visual learner, I love pictures).
Tip #3: Eat in moderation
According to Dr. Giuffre, our brains are most alert in a state of starvation. Of course I’m not advocating or even suggesting that you starve, because while you’d be more focused, it would come at the cost of jeopardising other bodily functions.
What I am saying is that if you are taking your performance at work seriously, you’ll be in better shape if you eat a light meal when you have a meeting during or after lunch, or if you simply want to feel good to be able to give your best.
Keep this in mind: a properly fed mind is a sharp one, an overfed one is a sluggish one.
Tip #4: Stay calm
When we’re calm, we’re less emotional and more rational. The fact is that the region of the brain that produces emotions, the amygdala, is one the most primeval ones. What this means is that emotions are primitive and most often there is a more appropriate response to a situation than say, getting angry or throwing a tantrum.
Like my husband likes to stay when he feels himself getting angry at another driver on the road – “I’m too evolved to honk.” Instead he blinks his lights or does something more appropriate.
To perform well:
Tip #1: Learn something new
With brain function you either use it or you lose it. And by far, the best way to exercise your brain is to learn something new. Learning physically creates pathways in your brain. In the real sense, when you learn, you’re giving your brain a work-out.
Tip #2: Laugh – be here and now. Live in the moment
Aside from boosting your memory, laughter makes you focus in the here and now. And being present improves your performance. Pay attention to how athletes enter in ‘the zone’ when they’re going for gold. They are no where else but on that field. (By the way, they train themselves to do that – and so can you. Meditation is a great starting point.)
Tip #3: Keep your brain booted (so you don’t waste time rebooting it)
Your brain works much like your computer – at least when it comes to being on and off. This means that to give your brain a break after you’ve completed a major task, you’re better off switching to a simpler task than getting up for junk food and a coffee. By switching, you’re putting your brain on sleep mode. But when you get up, you’re actually shutting your brain down. That’s why when you get back to other tasks, instead of feeling that you’ve taken a break, you feel that you have to wait until your brain boots back up.
No, I’m not trying to turn you into a feeling-less, desk bound robot, but am advising you to not unnecessarily interrupt your brain flow!
So what have you done for your brain lately? I’d love to know.