Can you train the brain to be more productive at work?

This article originally appeared in In The Black

A new book looks at the latest science on the workings of the brain and comes up with some clear instructions on how we should mind our minds.

We exercise our body to improve its physical performance, so is it also possible to get a similar result if we apply the same approach to our brain?

And if it could work for one person, could an organisation that encouraged its workers to look after their brains also reap the rewards of improved financial performance?

The link between brain health and both individual and organisational performance is explored in detail in the book Future Brain (John Wiley & Sons, 2016) by medical practitioner
Dr Jenny Brockis. She says that recent advances in neurology, neuroscience, psychiatry and other related fields give us a much better picture of the workings of our minds.

“If a brain can be made healthier, it will perform better at work.” Dr Jenny Brockis

Future Brain aims to summarise what we can do to boost our mental powers and improve the way our brains perform, in terms of our ability to focus, learn quickly and achieve insights. The actions we can take range from what we eat and how we sleep to the way in which we structure our working environment.

Much of Brockis’ work relates to the concept of neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to form new connections between existing neurons), which is what enables us to learn new skills, such as a musical instrument or foreign language. She details how harnessing neuroplasticity can be used to expand knowledge and understanding, as well as improve memory.

If a brain can be made healthier, argues Brockis, it will perform better at work. A team of better-performing brains translates to a higher-performing organisation.

7 tips for a healthy brain from Future Brain


Feed it well

Food choices can influence memory, cognitive skills, mood and overall mental health, as well as our ability to perform in the workplace. Dr Jenny Brockis recommends a diet of fresh unprocessed food, including leafy greens, lean protein (particularly oily carnivorous cold-water fish, such as salmon), dark chocolate, seeds, nuts and whole grains. Caffeine is good in moderation, while trans fats are universally bad.

Get physical

Working out increases blood flow to the brain, which strengthens existing neural networks and assists the generation of new neurons, leading to greater neuroplasticity.

It also decreases the risk of cognitive impairment and neurodegenerative disease. Brockis recommends 150 minutes of aerobic activity or 75 minutes of high-intensity interval training each week. She warns that sitting for lengthy periods is detrimental to brain and overall body health.

Sleep well

Not surprisingly, Brockis argues that sleep is essential for a healthy brain. Despite what many people think, everyone performs better with a minimum of seven hours’ sleep each night, as consistent lack of sleep leads to an outcome akin to being slightly drunk. Sleep is not just the time when the brain repairs itself; it also enables long-term memories to strengthen, while improving mood and the ability to focus.

Exercise the brain

Brockis is also an advocate for brain-training exercises, starting with simple exercises such as cryptic crossword puzzles or learning new words and their meanings. But these only work when practised consistently (just like physical exercise). A key factor for exercising our brains is curiosity, which stretches our minds towards new ideas and discoveries and makes us more open to learning and remembering.

Manage cognitive energy

The brain has a finite energy supply but can be recharged quickly. Scheduling 20-minute breaks between 90-minute work periods can lead to greater focus and productivity.

Mono-task, don’t multi-task

Multi-tasking is a myth for all but 2 per cent of the population, and our ability to process multiple ideas at once is no different depending on gender or age. Focusing on one task at a time is a better way of ensuring each task is done well.

Focus on the moment

Brockis is also an advocate for mindfulness – focusing attention on the present moment, often through meditation – as a means of improving concentration, reducing stress, improving decision-making and even increasing lifespan. With its ability to reduce the production of the stress hormone cortisol, mindfulness can help conserve mental energy, as well as consolidate new learnings into long-term memories.

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