Geetanjali Mukherjee

Friday, July 11, 2014

Book Review: Your Brain At Work

This week's book review is on a book I just finished reading - Your Brain At Work by David Rock. The subtitle sums up what the book is about: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long.

Rating: 5 stars

General Comments: The book summarizes neuroscience research to explain why we sometimes find ourselves frustrated at not being able to do what we need to, and how to use the insights from this research to become more creative and productive at work. Since this blog is about just that, I thought it was a perfect book to review.

The book is really easy to read, and quite smartly, presented as scenes in a play. The problems of a married couple, Emily and Paul, are presented, as they go through daily challenges to solve problems and give their peak performance both at work and at home. Each chapter presents a specific challenge during the day, strategies for solving that challenge, and an example of how they could have done it differently. The examples really bring home the lessons, and caused me to have several "a-ha" moments while I was reading.

3 Insights From The Book:

1. Limited amount of processing power - our brain can only hold a few concepts or ideas at a time. Certain activities such as planning, deciding, choosing between options - these all require large amounts of cognitive processing power, and the more things we force our brain to consider, the worse job it will do of it. The way I understood this was, the brain is a bit like my computer (which is a bit old), and if too many programs are open at once, it starts to hang. After shutting all but the ones I am actively working on, it starts to work properly again.

The best way to work is therefore to a) save the brain power for important tasks, and not waste CPU space by trying to remember too many items - just write things down; and b) since we can only focus on a few concepts at a time (max 3-4), it's best to simplify complex issues down, or work with only a few issues at a time.

Thus, the optimum way to work is to write down what you need to accomplish, write down your main few goals / points of focus at any point (for yourself, or for a group of people), and then use your brain's processing power to focus on those few high-level items.

2. Embedded routines are easier to perform - the brain creates pathways for tasks or routines that have been done before, which is why even after doing a task 2-3 times it starts to become easier. And why the first time you do something, you have to really focus and concentrate. Given that we want to save our processing power as much as possible for the really important tasks, it pays in efficiency, to make as many aspects of your job an embedded task (i.e. it becomes part of your long-term memory and almost automatic) as possible. This will help you focus your brain's power on those aspects that are more challenging.

The flip side to this point is that we automatically do the same things over and over, and making a chance requires consciously doing something different each time. For instance, if your natural instinct at 4pm is to eat a doughnut, and you are tired, it will require a lot of energy (which you don't have available when tired), to resist eating that doughnut and eat an apple instead. Unless of course you make eating an apple a new embedded routine - which is when it will become your new automatic response. This means making change is just something that is better done one at a time, and with patience.

3. Build awareness of your own mind - it isn't easy to observe ourselves falling back on unconscious patterns or ways of thinking or behaving that may not be serving us well. However, the research indicates that the more we practice observing our thinking, the better we get at it, and the more control we have over our own mind and its processes. We can become more efficient at work, more in control of our emotions, and even create better relationships, at work and at home. This is isn't easy, but with practice it can become much easier.

For instance, I caught myself getting angry at my project today, and realized that the biggest problem was that I wasn't making as fast progress as I would like - partly because its a difficult and fact-laden project, and partly because I was being a perfectionist. I may not have been able to change the outcome yet, but just recognizing this thought process helped me to realize I had choices in how I dealt with this, rather than feel helpless and frustrated which is how I initially felt.

It was hard to pick just 3 insights - because each chapter is full of revelations about how we think and how our brains work. One major takeaway for me from this book was that a lot of my limitations that were frustrating me before, I could start to see they were merely biological limitations, and just acknowledging that has made me brainstorm other, more productive ways to approach my work. Some of those approaches I have already blogged about in the past, and reading this book helped me understand scientifically why those strategies are effective.

Recommend For: Anyone who wants to be more productive or efficient at work, who wants to find ways to manage their teams better, who wants to improve their relationships or who simply wants to understand themselves and their minds better.
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