Your Brain at Work

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5 Big Discoveries About Personal Effectiveness in 2012

Five of the bigger self-improvement takeaways from this past year.

The science of self-improvement never ceases. Every year brings dozens of new quirky findings about how to be more effective, whether in managing our time, being more creative or just getting things done. Here are some of the highlights for me from 2012.

1. You don’t know yourself as well as you think

We think we know ourselves best, but more and more evidence is surfacing to the contrary. This raises an interesting challenge for employers who solely base their hiring decisions on self-reported questionnaires. Psychologist Timothy Wilson proposes that to really know someone, you have to ask others to evaluate you. It turns out that how you see yourself and how other people see you are only very modestly correlated.

In his book, Strangers to Ourselves, Wilson talks a lot about the adaptive unconscious. He tells us that much of what we do lives in the unconscious and therefore we cannot detect it ourselves. Things like what we think, feel, and want become unnoticeable. Now of course, if you’ve ever practiced mindfulness, or have ever self-reflected, some of the unnoticed start to surface and we gain insights, but more often than not, a lot of information goes unnoticed.

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This is why one might have a hard time understanding why things go wrong. Given that we aren’t completely conscious of what we were doing, we tend to blame others for our mistakes. In order to gain better insight into ourselves, we need help getting the right answers. It turns out that other people's assessment of your personality predicts your behavior better than your own assessment would. So instead of thinking you already know everything about yourself, stop for a minute, and ask someone else.

2. Have a problem? Distract yourself from it

It’s already known that in order to gain an insight, your brain has to be in a quiet state, but new research by Neuroscientist David Creswell from Carnegie Mellon sheds light on the phenomenon of how and why it can be valuable to come back to a problem, after a brief moment of distraction.

Creswell explored what happens in the brain when people tackle problems that are too big for their conscious mind to solve. He made three groups of people think about purchasing an imaginary car based on multiple wants and needs. One group had to choose immediately—this group didn’t do so well at optimizing their decision. The second group had time to try to consciously pick the best car— yet their choices weren’t much better. The last group was given the task, then given a distracter task—something that didn’t require lots of mental energy, but still held their conscious attention, allowing for their non-conscious to keep working on the problem. Results showed this group did significantly better than the others at optimizing their decision.

FMRI scans also showed something interesting happening with the third group. According to Creswell, the brain regions that were active during the initial learning of the problem, continued to be active (we call this unconscious neural reactivation) even while the brain was distracted with another task. 

In short, when trying to solve a complex task, people who were distracted after first tackling the problem did better than people who put in conscious effort. (More information can be found in my previous blog.)

3. We’re more creative when thinking about others

Creativity in the business world is increasingly important. Creativity often involves viewing things from different perspectives. New findings show that we are more creative when we think of others solving problems instead of ourselves.

To test this, professors Evan Polman and Kyle Emich presented 137 undergraduates with this riddle:  “A prisoner was attempting to escape from a tower. He found a rope in his cell that was half as long enough to permit him to reach the ground safely. He divided the rope in half, tied the two parts together, and escaped. How could he have done this?”

Half the participants were asked to imagine themselves as the prisoner locked inside the tower (we’ll call them the “prisoner group”) and the other half were asked to imagine someone else trapped in the prison (“imaginary group”). In the prisoner group, 48% of participants solved the riddle, but in the imaginary group, 66% were able to solve the riddle. In a second experiment, the same professors asked participants to draw an alien that someone else might use to write about in a short story. In a third, participants had to come up with gift ideas for themselves, someone close to them, and someone they barely knew.

In the results across all three experiments, Polman and Emich found that participants were more creative or had better solutions when thinking for someone else. This is an intriguing finding with many implications and applications for creative problem solving. Just try to imagine someone else coming up with good ideas for using this finding…

4. It’s not napping, it’s constructive rest

We live in a time when where more people are staying connected on vacations. People have forgotten how important it is for your mind to rejuvenate. Research shows that naps improve productivity—a growing body of evidence shows that taking regular breaks from mental tasks improves productivity and creativity — and that skipping breaks can lead to stress and exhaustion.

(I’ll be right back…zZz)

John P. Trougakos, an assistant management professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management, compares the brain to any other muscle in the body. Similarly to how muscles become fatigued after repeated and sustained use, so does the brain after sustained mental exertion.  The brain needs a rest period before it can recover he explains.

There is no need to take a break if you’re on a roll though, Trougakos advises. For some people, working over an extended period can be revitalizing—you get into a zone. It is only when you’re forcing yourself to go on that you should stop.

Research from the University of Notre Dame even shows that sleeping shortly after learning new information is the most beneficial for recall.

Notre Dame Psychologist Jessica Payne and colleagues studied 207 students who habitually slept for at least six hours per night. Payne randomly gave each student information to study at either 9am, or 9pm, allowing for the 9am team to be awake for the rest of the day, while the 9pm, went to sleep. She tested these students on their recall after 30 minutes, 12 hours, and 24 hours. She found that after 12 hours, those students who slept shortly after studying had a better overall memory. After 24 hours, when both teams were well-rested, all students had superior memory recall.  

"Our study confirms that sleeping directly after learning something new is beneficial for memory” Payne says. In a world where we believe to be more successful you have to work longer hours, perhaps its time for a change, or even time for a break. Jessica will be presenting these and other findings at the 2013 NeuroLeadership Summits.

5. Optimize your peak time

What if you aligned everything in your schedule according to your body’s biological clock? New research is showing there’s a peak time for all activities, from when you should think critically to the best time for a tweet.

People run on circadian rhythms that are patterns of brain wave activity, hormone production, cell regeneration and other biological activities linked to our 24-hour daily cycle. Disruption of these rhythms can be quite harmful. Steve Kay, a professor of molecular and computational biology at the University of Southern California, says problems such as diabetes, depression, dementia and obesity, can develop from not listening to our body’s clock.

If you get paid to think critically, try to get most of your work done in the late morning, right after a warm shower. This will motivate your body’s clock by raising its temperature and preparing your working memory, alertness and concentration for getting things done. Anytime before noon is the best for when it comes to focusing because the afternoon (12pm-4pm) is prime time for distractions according to recent research led by Robert Matchock, an associate professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University. (Tips on how to manage these distractions can be found in my previous blog.)

If you get paid to think creativity, most adults perform their best right as they begin to slump in terms of wakefulness. Martin Moore-Ede, chairman and chief executive of Circadian, a training and consulting firm, says at around 2pm, sleepiness tends to peak. This can boost creativity. When you’re fatigued, your mind can’t stay focused and you drift in and out of all these different avenues in your mind, which allows for you to free associate and be open to new ideas.


In summary, it turns out that if you want to be most effective, letting go of the need for your own conscious mind to do all the problem solving might be the key. Let your unconscious do more work, whether through napping or distractions, and try seeing things through the eyes of others. Finally, quite counter-intuitively, perhaps others know more about us than we do ourselves.  Happy holidays to all.


The 2013 NeuroLeadership Summit is going local with three days of events in three different locations. Click here for more information.  

David Rock is executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group, a global consulting firm.


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