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Productivity depends on how you manage energy in your brain

We know that we don’t think well when we’re tired or stressed, so what is happening to cause that?  The human brain is the most developed of all animals and shares the same basic structures.

In simplified terms:

  1. The brain stem handles the autonomic functions of the body – stimuli enter the brain via the brain stem and it functions on very low energy requirements.
  2. The limbic system is constantly on automatic alert checking whether the stimulus is ‘friend’ or ‘foe’ and the first response to every stimulus is emotion.  This system is where habits are formed and we often refer to this as ‘working on automatic pilot’, which uses little energy and is the easiest path for the brain to follow.
  3. The cortex makes cognitive sense of the stimulus with attached emotion, sending a signal back to the limbic system to confirm or moderate the emotion.  The pre-frontal cortex was the last part of the brain to develop and is the part that does the hard thinking. It deals with problem-solving, making sense out of new information and making decisions.

Brain uses lots of energy

The brain uses 25% of the energy you take in and the pre-frontal cortex uses the most energy – about 10 times the energy used by the rest of the brain. This explains Henry Ford’s quote, “Thinking is the hardest work there is, that’s why so few people engage in it.”

So in getting the best out of ourselves we need to think about:-    i) our eating habits,    ii) our work habits,   iii) stressors,      iv)downtime/playtime.

Tips for managing your energy:

1. Do thinking tasks when full of energy

Manage your workload to do the ‘hard thinking’ tasks when you are fully charged with energy.  For many that will be first thing in the day – avoid turning the computer on and going through emails as that will drain your energy for little productivity.  Get down to that ‘big’ task first, then take a break and do the emails.

2. Stop multi-tasking

Attention and focus make efficient use of the brain, but our roles have multiple facets and we are constantly bombarded with stimuli.  If you let those stimuli distract you, you will work inefficiently.  Constant switching between activities can lose up to 25% of your productive time as you re-engage with the task.  Turn the email off, tell colleagues you don’t want to be disturbed for an hour and focus on the task.

3. Eat properly

If you want to maintain energy levels at a more constant level throughout the day, you will need to eat smaller amounts regularly.  Don’t skip breakfast and eat on-the-go at lunch as that will reduce your brain’s capacity to concentrate and you will find you make mistakes or take longer to do things. Avoid sugary snacks, eat more fruit with slow-release energy and drink more water to keep you hydrated.

4. The brain needs to rest

We know that the brain needs downtime (ideally sleep) to process and file the learning of the day. This is when it makes connections and identifies solutions. Try taking short time-outs during the day to allow the brain to do its work.  If you can take a few minutes to relax, shut out all distractions, let your mind go quiet.

Researchers tell us we need 7-8 hours’ sleep at night, are you getting that?  Try going to bed a bit earlier each week until you are achieving quality sleep.

5. Reduce stress

We think and learn best when we are not stressed and enjoy what we do. Consider how you can create those conditions in your work.  Can you ask for flexible working and avoid the long commute some days in the week?  Discuss with your manager what tasks use your strengths, and negotiate more of these tasks and less of those that drain your energy.

6. Personality differences

We know that introverts find working in a social way demanding on their energy reserves, while extraverts are stimulated by the social aspects. How do you organise your work to match your preference?

Try these techniques to manage your energy and notice the difference it makes to your performance.  If you have any comments or other tips you could share, please comment below.  If you would like to discuss this further please contact Amanda.



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