The non-stop pressure to pick up the pace, be accessible 24/7, manage the flow of information we’re exposed to, multi-task and make thousands of decisions in a day is leaving people feeling overwhelmed. So much so that two-thirds of employees report feeling overwhelmed, according to a recent Deloitte research report on Global Human Capital Trends. The bad news for businesses and workers alike is that being overwhelmed takes a toll on the brain and our ability to perform.
Research using functional magnetic resonance imaging revealed that as people receive more information, their brain activity increases in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region behind the forehead that is responsible for making decisions and controlling emotions. But when the information load became too much, it was as though a breaker in the brain was triggered, and the prefrontal cortex suddenly shut down. According to Angelika Dimoka, Director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University, “When people are overwhelmed, they start making stupid mistakes and bad choices because the region for smart decision making has essentially left the premises.”
Being overwhelmed for prolonged periods of time can do long-term damage to the brain. For one thing it shrinks the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory. Cortisol, the hormone associated with high levels of stress, interferes with the function of neurotransmitters, the chemicals that brain cells use to communicate with each other. This makes it difficult to think or access long-term memories. That's why people get befuddled and confused when they’re feeling overwhelmed. The mind goes blank because the lines of communication are down.
The top seven brain drains at work and what you can do about them
It’s easy to feel like a victim when you’re dealing with challenging clients, needy co-workers or a demanding boss. The reality is, far more is within our control than most of us realize. All too often it’s our own work patterns that squander our brainpower and leave us feeling drained and overwhelmed.
Here are seven of the most common brain drains and what you can do to protect your brainpower and well-being:
1. Starting your day with email – When email is your first task you give up your power and allow others’ priorities to take control of your day. Instead, make your first task reviewing your goals and prioritizing your work based on these goals. Keep them top of mind as you move through your day and make decisions about how you will spend your time.
2. Wasting peak performance time – Research shows that we have about two peak performing hours a day. While first thing in the morning is the most common time for people, it could be different for you. Know when your peak performance time is and save it for your toughest tasks. Avoid scheduling meetings during these times unless they demand your absolute best thinking.
3. Multi-tasking – Multi-tasking literally drops our IQ. It leads us to make stupid mistakes, miss cues and fly off the handle when we shouldn't. Constant multi-tasking triggers conflict in the brain that slows you down and increases stress. Trying to complete two or more tasks at once can take 50 percent more time or longer, depending on the complexity of the tasks. Stopping to answer a colleague’s question while you’re in the middle of something has a similar effect. When we switch between tasks, our brains must halt any processing of the current rule set and load a new rule set for the next task. This happens quickly. But halting, unloading, loading, and restarting takes a toll on the brain and slows you down.
To make matters worse, our brains like distraction. Our brain's reward circuit lights up when we multitask; in other words we get an emotional high when we do multiple things at once. Over time we lose the ability to focus and distraction becomes our norm.
4. Not having focused work time – Focus time is when we focus intensely on a single task, making deeper connections across the brain. This deep concentration is important for long-term memory as well as overall brain health.
Maintaining focus takes practice. Spend part of your day focused on a single task that requires real concentration. Turn off all the distractions. If it’s particularly hard for you, start with five minutes a day and work your way up to larger chunks of time.
Today’s open landscape offices, glass walls and open door policies can make it difficult to concentrate. It’s why 90% of people say they do their best work outside the office. If you control the office environment, set up quiet areas where people can work undisturbed for blocks of time as needed. If you only control your individual workspace, create your own quiet zone. Invest in a sign that says “focus time” or “please do not disturb” and then post it in a visible place with a note that’s says when you’ll be available. Switch off your email, office phone and cell phone. If your office is noisy, use headphones with calm background music. Be sure to communicate what you’re doing to your colleagues and or manager so you’re not viewed as inaccessible or wanting to avoid interaction.
5. Thinking when you don't have to – Part of what contributes to our feelings of being overwhelmed is the amount of time we spend thinking about how many things we have to do. Our brains have limited capacity for thinking and making decisions during a day. Rather than ruminating about everything you have to do, capture it in a list and schedule when you will do it. Having an organized plan will help you eliminate the need to hold all this information in your active memory. Get in the habit of compartmentalizing what you need to think about now and what you can deal with later. Devote your thinking energy to what needs to be handled now. If thoughts of future projects start playing in your head, shift your thinking by saying, “I’ll save that for Wednesday” or whatever time you’ve designated.
6. Skimping on down time – Skipping lunch, canceling your time at the gym or working too many weekends may make you feel like you’re getting a lot done but there is a point of diminishing returns. You’re logging lots of hours but the quality of your thinking is diminished and the amount of time it takes you to do something increases. Your brain needs downtime; that means time spent zoning out, being in the moment without an objective and doing activities that don't require active thought and allow the mind to wander. Downtime replenishes the brain’s supply of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to achieve your highest level of performance.
7. Buying into the busyness culture – Busyness has become a badge of honor – bragging about how many direct reports we have, the number of emails we get in a day, and how packed our schedules are with back to back meetings. That’s because how busy we are has become a measure of our status and whether we’re living a full and important life. When busyness is a virtue, we’re terrified of empty spaces in our schedule. We feel guilty spending time thinking or taking downtime to replenish ourselves. If we want to protect our brainpower and function at our highest level, we need a different perspective. That means measuring our worth based on the real value we bring to our jobs and the people around us rather than the quantity of “things” in which we’re engaged.
It is worth noting that work in general is good for the brain. The key is avoiding the traps than drain your brainpower and knowing how to maximize your mental resources to significantly reduce stress and improve performance.