Your Brain at Work

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5 Big Discoveries About Personal Effectiveness in 2013

Some of this year's bigger findings about how we can be more effective at work

In 2013, we continued to push the boundaries of what we know about ourselves; going boldly into questions no researcher has gone before. Like, what should we do when we need a little lift – take a run, have a coffee, or grab a beer? Like many things today, the answer is ‘it depends’. Below are some of the bigger findings in 2013 about how we can be more effective at any kind of work.

1. Open plan offices close the brain.

Open plan offices are all the rage. In 2013, researchers confirmed something obvious to most people who work in one: it can be hard to get things done.

Finally, we have some real numbers behind this challenge. One study of 42,000 Americans found open plan offices reducedemployee wellbeing 32% and productivity 15%. Those in open offices cited a lack of “sound privacy” and lack of individual workspace as their major pain points. Those with private office were generally more satisfied at work. Another study found that open plan offices help increase levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure, and high staff turnover.

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Every day another executive walks into a half-empty office and has the bright idea to go open plan. While there may be obvious savings from reducing a company’s real estate footprint, no one seems to be measuring the long-term financial costs of reduced wellbeing and productivity and assessing what the net effect may truly be.

2. Working without enough sleep? You may as well be drunk.

If you need to work in an open plan office, perhaps the answer is to annoy the boss even more and spend more time working at home. Nearly three-quarters of employers now provide employees with the tools needed to work remotely, giving people the freedom to pick the hours they work. In exchange for working remotely, most employees choose to work until late: around 80 percent think it's okay to make a work-related call at night. Working at home may sound like a great idea, but many people are finding it affects their relationships and even their sleep patterns. This may be a bigger problem than it first sounds.

Studies are showing being sleep deprived may be worse for cognitive performance than being drunk. Despite the hard-hitting evidence, we’re not giving the issue the attention it demands. Reports now suggest that the engineer of the derailed Metro North train had just switched to a much earlier shift, and drifted off as the train was reaching speeds three times higher than the limit, resulting in the derailment. Four people were killed and over 60 injured in that sleep-related tragedy.

"The sleep situation in our society has become a terrifying problem," explained Dr. Jessica Payne, head of the Sleep, Stress, and Memory Lab at Notre Dame, and advisory board member for the NeuroLeadership Institute. "If you're not getting enough sleep before work, research shows you might as well be working drunk". This is not just a metaphor. According to Dr. Charles Czeisler at Harvard Medical School, a week of sleeping four or five hours a night induces impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of .1%.

In companies if you arrive at work drunk you are sent home without your job. Everyone knows alcohol impairs cognitive ability and inhibits performance, making you a danger to your organization, to yourself or to others.

3. The more you multitask the worse you are at it.

If you’re not getting through your work at the office, and the slower pace at work means you are not getting the sleep you need, perhaps you need to be a better multitasker? If you have 10 tasks to complete in an hour but only time for 10, shouldn't you just do two at a time? Learning to multitask may sound logical, but research this year showed it has some unexpected dark sides.

Lots of research has been done showing that multi tasking increases both mental and physical mistakes people make, making it a poor strategy for productivity if you are driving or doing any important cognitive work. However most frequent multitaskers tend to believe they are pretty good at it. This year, researchers at the University of Utah said otherwise. It turns out that those who multitask the most tend to be the worst at it.

Professors David Sanbonmatsu and David Strayer had 310 undergrads complete a series of tests and questionnaires to measure student’s multitasking ability. Students were analysed during simple problem solving: being engaged with multiple forms of media at once or talking on the cell phone while driving. The research found students had an inflated sense of how good they were. 70% classified themselves as pro multitaskers. 

The research found that individuals engaged in multitasking not because they felt they were accomplishing things efficiently, but because they were less able to block out distractions and focus on a single task. Multitasking with a cell phone while driving “correlated significantly with sensation-seeking, indicating some people multitask because it is more stimulating, interesting, challenging, and less boring.”

Ironically, the 25% that scored highest on the multitasking test, tended not to multitask at all which allowed them to lend greater focus on the problem at hand. The irony here is that if you want to be good at multi tasking, don’t do it very often.

4. More technology may not be better.

If our offices are not giving us space to think, and multi tasking isn’t the answer, perhaps we simply need more technology? Unfortunately, increasing numbers of people are discovering that more technology isn’t necessarily the answer. It certainty doesn’t appear to be giving us more leisure time.

In 2013, we began to see research supporting this hunch. In one study, 68 percent of women say technologies have not made them any more productive. In this study, people reported that the increasing prevalence of mobile technology, such as smartphones and tablets, made it harder to balance work and life. The reason? Work simply took over, with forty-two percent of women saying new technologies made it harder to disconnect from the office. Technology can do incredible things. However, we need to be mindful that just adding technology to a problem isn’t always the right answer.

5. Cocktail, cappuccino, or cardio? Research shows there’s a time for each.

If you are working in an open plan office, dealing with lack of sleep, doing too much multi tasking, and juggling a small electronics store of technology, it is almost certain you will find moments when you need a little pick-me-up. Finally some good news: New research on the effects of caffeine, alcohol, and exercise on the brain can now help you make just the right choice at the right time.

Trying to come up with a creative solution or an idea? Have a cocktail. One study found that consuming a moderate level of alcohol increases your creative reasoning ability. (Caffeine on the other hand tends to decrease creativity.) Alcohol affects the cerebral cortex of the brain, the region associated with conscious thought and language. You feel less focused, but alcohol makes it easier to tune out distractions that compete for your attention. It actually quiets the brain and allows for more creative insights to occur. All in moderation however. Too much to drink and you can lose both your creative spark as well as your bright career opportunities.

Already have the idea, just need to focus on the follow-through? This is where caffeine may come in handy. For straightforward work that doesn’t require a lot of intuitive thinking, coffee can increase output and quality. It helps you focus and complete motor tasks. The bad news is the frequent coffee drinker quickly develops a tolerance for caffeine and has to drink more to get the desired boost. With caffeine, think speedy follow-through, not creative power, but it is best used in moderation.

Perhaps it’s neither caffeine nor that cocktail you need. A recent study showed that people who exercise during their workday were 23 percent more productive than days they didn’t exercise. Regularly exercising supports the generation of new connections between cells, strengthening the brain’s ability to process information and support healthy memory function. Exercise also slows mental aging of the brain, with recent studies showing that it can buy you back a few years in cognitive health. So if you do need that pick-me-up, perhaps it is time to slap on the running shoes. Just remember to stay hydrated—exerting yourself to the point of dehydration can actually unravel the cognitive benefits of cardio.

In summary, this year we discovered that many of our hunches about personal effectiveness and productivity have been right. To start with, open plan offices really do suck, and our lack of sleep is actually a real problem. It’s good to finally have some evidence and even some numbers to help us analyze these challenges more deeply, especially if you are thinking about how to make a whole organization more productive. Or perhaps even a nation.

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

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