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Boost your brain power by working smarter, not harder
The brain is a wonderful part of your body that works hard for you each day. But did you know it can be an even more powerful ally in your life?
How you work, rest and even eat, matters more to your grey matter than you realise. In fact, if one of these elements is ‘off’, your focus, energy and even your moods can be affected. That’s why tweaking your daily routine can do wonders for your productivity, emotions and yes, even that never-ending to-do list! You’ll be in better mental shape to conquer the overwhelm that so many of us experience between working, running a household, exercising, caring for our families and - ourselves.
You’re only human
Recognising – and appreciating – that you are human (and not a robot) is the first step to boosting your brain power so you can:
- tick off more tasks
- stress less
- enjoy life more.
Your body works in rhythms that regulate energy, mood, cognitive function, hormones and much more. So when you’re pushing yourself to do, do, do in spite of feeling tired, hungry, bored or stressed – you’re damaging how productive you can really be. It’s actually impossible to work at 100% capacity because of a phenomenon called, the ultradian trough.
What is the ultradian trough?
We’re about to get a little science-y – and with good reason. You’ve probably already heard of the circadian rhythm – the 24-hour internal clock that runs in the background of your brain and regulates your sleep / wake cycle. It’s also responsible for that dreaded 3pm brain fog that has you reaching for the chocolate!
So, while we all know the circadian rhythm can affect how alert or sleepy we are, the ultradian trough is the rhythm that impacts your brain power while you’re awake.
Every day for around 90 minutes, your brain is in a peak state of productive capability. This is when you feel the most alert, creative and emotionally resilient. Your mental stamina is also firing on all cylinders. But after about one and a half to two hours, your brain accumulates ‘metabolic waste products’ from working so intensely. This can build up and cause stress. Your productivity and performance start to decline and your body enters an ultradian trough – which is basically an energetic low point. So you may you start to feel fatigued, groggy, distracted or fidgety. You might also crave sugar.
Listen to your brain
When your focus starts to slip, it’s your brain telling you it needs a break to process information and even, stress. So you need to stop, regroup, breathe, go for a walk, or do anything that allows you to step away from the task at hand. Once you’ve done this, you’re ready to enter a new productive peak and continue the cycle.
But what if you want to push ahead and meet that deadline? Well, you can force yourself through the troughs, we all do this. And yes, eventually you’ll get back into that productive peak again, but here’s the issue… it won’t be anywhere near as high as it could’ve been if you’d taken a breather. In fact, your stress hormones will increase as the day goes on and your productivity will decrease.
“When you figure out your most productive hours, you can schedule in the trickier tasks during this window and get things done!”
Three ways to get in-flow – and stay there
1. Work smart
Make the most of your brain’s productive hours and your built-in motivation systems.
Note how ‘on’ or ‘off’ you feel during the day and then use these times to work – or rest.
Reward yourself with a feelgood activity and use that dopamine hit to stay motivated.
2. Rest smart
Recharge in those 20-minute troughs so you can be ready for another peak.
Choose low mental effort activities like emails, basic admin, filing etc.
Meditate, stretch or take a few long deep breaths at your desk if you have to.
3. Eat smart
Plan your meal and snack breaks during the day, don’t wait until you’re starving.
Drink plenty of water. Use this handy online calculator to work out what your body needs.
Prepare high-protein meals and low-sugar snacks to optimise your energy and mood.
“To feel refreshed and really increase your productivity, your break must be at least five minutes long.”
Too busy to take a break?
You’re not alone. Unfortunately, this mindset is far too popular in the 21st Century. Twenty minutes may seem indulgent. But research has shown that prolonged attention to a task actually hinders performance and even short, intentional breaks can improve focus. You’d be surprised how much 30 or more seconds can impact your cognition, mood and concentration.
Feelgood strategies to keep you motivated while you work
Make a healthy to-do list
It feels great when you’re striking things off your list every day. But if it just keeps growing and you never reach the end of it, you’ll feel more stressed than accomplished. Sound familiar?
- Categorise your to-do list based on priority
- Highlight just three things and aim to do those
- When you do them, you’ll get a motivating hit of dopamine
- Then pick another three things – and start the process again.
Create a stimulating work environment
Add music, sunshine, healthy snacks, coffee, air conditioning on a hot day – anything that will keep the boredom of your task at bay. The key is to be strategic about lifting your mood.
Minimise distractions, set boundaries with yourself and others
The trick here is to make ‘not working and procrastinating’ less accessible or rewarding than working. As much as dopamine can keep you on-task, it can also veer you off course i.e. social media scrolls!
- Turn off your email and phone alerts
- Learn to say ‘no’ more often, don’t spread yourself thin
- Practice saying, ‘not right now’ to yourself when you’re tempted by a distraction
- Stop multi-tasking; have a note pad beside you to jot down ideas, to-dos for later.
Schedule time for play
It’s much easier to get distracted if you feel like you aren’t getting a break or reward any time soon. Knowing you have four long hours ahead of you before you get some down time isn’t very inspiring.
- Have lunch with a friend
- Walk to your local café for a treat
- Watch a comedy video
- Enjoy a power nap.
Incorporate fun dopamine rewards throughout your day as often as you can so you have something tangible to look forward to.
Create false time pressure
This is called ‘time blocking’ where you set out time blocks in your day to work on specific tasks on your to-do list – without interruptions. This widely used strategy will help you to:
- prioritise your work
- minimise task switching
- identify any unrealistic expectations.
You can achieve more, by doing less
It may sound like a paradox, but it’s true. To genuinely make the most of your brain’s natural power, it really is all about working smarter, not harder. ‘Burn out’ is a real phenomenon where no one wins.
- Make to-do lists that have an end in sight
- Recognise your productive hours and use them!
- Make the most of your in-built motivation system
- Take meaningful breaks often to give your brain time to recharge
- Enjoy balanced meals to optimise energy, mood and focus.
Ultimately, you are in control of your own work flow. So you can choose to be a hard task master and achieve under duress and stress. Or, you can tune in to your brain and accomplish even more with a smile on your face.
All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified healthcare professional.
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