How can we support our brains at work?
Our bodies are not the only thing we use while working, both our brains and our minds are key tools that play a central role. Taking care of our brains is becoming increasingly important in today’s work life, and even more so as we move forward towards the future. We must begin to pay closer attention to our brains and their data processing capabilities, also known as cognitive functions. The requirements and tasks needed to succeed in most fields nowadays place a considerable amount of strain on our brains and cognitive functions.
Our data processing capacity is limited, as often is the case with data processing. Learning does not happen in one fell swoop, concentration is bombarded with distractions, and short-term memory is narrow. The brain gets tired of processing, and truly paying attention to several things at the same time is not possible. The work we do often places many demands on us. These can include the ability to continuously learn new things, work on multiple fronts, solve problems, remember different details, and manage our work. In the midst of all these demands, and much more, it is important for all of us to remember to support our brains and our cognitive functions. By doing so we can also support our ability to complete work tasks effectively, our well-being at work, and the feeling that our work is meaningful.
The demands and challenges of work are not – despite last paragraph’s rant – fundamentally bad to our brains or our minds. On the contrary! Meaningful, appropriately challenging, and exciting work is an important part of our overall well-being and the well-being of our brains. The way to get the best use of our cognitive capacity and abilities, and help us cope with our workload, is unlocked by first understanding the limitations of our cognitive functions and capacity, then arranging our workload optimally, and lastly remembering to take good care of the well-being of our brains.
Sleep, nutrition and exercise
It is hard to overemphasize how important sleep, food and exercise are to the well-being of our brains. Sleep is essential for the functioning of the brain. Even though we do not receive new information while sleeping and are physically resting, the brain does a tremendous amount of work during sleep. The brain organizes, processes, cleanses and reinforces information during sleep. There are clear differences in what the brain does when we are asleep and when we are awake. And ensuring that we get enough sleep is crucial. There are both immediate and long-term consequences to getting low-quality or not enough
sleep. For example, our memory and concentration deteriorate rapidly when we face challenges with sleep. On the bright side, we can also help them recover quite quickly by getting enough sleep daily.
Exercise has been shown to have clear effects on the well-being of our brains. Exercise can affect our brains ability to recover, our memory, but also how resilient we are mentally. It is important to note that exercise does not always have to be sweaty and high intensity. Calm and low-intensity exercise, even in short doses, helps our brains. Therefore, making exercise part of our daily routine and lifestyle is a wonderful gift we all can give to our brains (and minds of course). Often when talking about the benefits of exercise, the benefits it can have on the brain are overlooked. However, in my opinion, it is one of the most important benefits of exercise.
When it comes to nutrition, the two key components are eating a balanced diet and eating regularly. With a balanced diet, we ensure that our brains get the nutrients needed to function properly. With a regular diet, we ensure that our brains receive sugar from the blood for its processing, as evenly as possible. The brain cannot store sugar, so there needs to be a sufficient amount in the blood. Therefore, regular meals and light snacks can ensure the availability of sugar and support mental endurance. Additionally, fats are worth paying attention to because the brain loves fats! However, the brain is quite picky about what kind of fats it loves. Unsaturated fats are its favorite, which can be obtained for example from seeds, nuts, vegetable oil and fish.
Also, these three key components of well-being – sleep, nutrition and exercise – are all connected. Good quality nutrition and exercise do wonders for how well we sleep. High quality sleep and regular exercise are associated with regular and healthy eating habits. And getting good sleep and eating a healthy diet gives us the energy to exercise more.
Stress and recovery
It is not only our minds and bodies that need time to recover from daily stressors. Our brain needs it just as much. If our brains ability to recover is compromised, our concentration begins to waver and our ability to process information can start to feel sluggish. Additionally, long-term stress contributes negatively to the well-being of the brain by affecting our hormonal and neurotransmitter signals. Therefore, it is important to remember to take enough breaks during the working day. Lunchbreak is great, but taking additional shorter breaks during the day can help our brains recover. For example, you can take a short walk outside, get up from your chair and stretch, close your eyes and breathe, focus on how you are feeling in the moment, do a short mindfulness exercise, or you can just give your attention a moment to rest. Since recovery is so essential, it should not be limited to weekends and holidays. Instead, you should prioritize reserving some time to recover after work each day. You can schedule it in your day as you would any other event, and just do whatever re-energizes you and feels good to you.
Tips for supporting your brain’s well-being during the workday
Here is a list of actions you can take to support your brain’s well-being at work, pick out a few things that you can implement at least to some extent.
● Focus on one thing at a time and avoid multitasking. This does not mean you should not try to balance and complete many different tasks in your day. But you should avoid doing many things at the same time, as in, in the same moment. Stay away from it.
● Decide what to focus on and truly put your focus on it. By constantly second-guessing yourself and thinking about all the other things you could be focusing on, you can place a lot of unnecessary strain on your brain (and of course your mind, and work gets harder to do). Instead, decide “now / next / tomorrow morning starting with” and start the task.
Interruptions, limitations and modifying the working
● Avoid interruptions (not meaning breaks, they are important!)
● Limit the amount of information coming to you from different sources.
● Limit sensory information. Our short-term memory’s capacity is very limited and can hold only a few things at a time. As our senses pick up distractions (like message notifications) our attention is redirected to the source of the isturbance. This can overload our short-term memory and interrupt our work.
● On the other hand, we can take advantage of our keen senses redirecting our attention. By using colors or shapes, for example, you can draw your attention to things you want it on, such as things to remember.
Plan, plan and plan
● Decide when to read emails and messages. Do not keep them open all the time. This is especially important if they pop up on your screen or make a sound.
● Schedule your day and find a nice rhythm to it.
● Try to tackle the most challenging tasks first thing in the morning, but don’t forget to take a break in the middle of even the most demanding ones.
Modify information and tasks
● Make your goals clear and concrete.
● Chop up your tasks into smaller portions. This makes them easier to get a grasp on and to structure. Additionally, by doing them in smaller portions our minds receive many small feelings of accomplishment during the day from completing them.
● Structure and group information, and try to create comprehensive entities.
● Clarity is important. For example, when compiling information, use patterns or templates from which you can quickly pick up the relevant information.
Tools to support the brain
● Use checklists.
● Use tools to not forget things: to-do lists, sticky notes, calendars, and others.
Workspace and working tools
● Organize your workspace to be as logical as possible.
● Customize your systems and programs to be smooth and easy to use.
● If one of your working tools is not working and is giving you trouble, consider whether there are some arrangements, settings, or other ways you can use to streamline it.
● Use agreed-on channels of messaging appropriately. Send messages only to
people relevant to the topic or discussion, and send non-work-related messages
through their own channel (it is good to have a channel for them as well).
To keep in mind
To some extent, it is still prevalent in our work culture to think that efficiency is all about urgency, rushing, mind-numbing speed, and relying on pure grit to move through challenges. However, our brains and our minds heavily object to this old idea of efficiency, and the way we see efficiency needs to change. Lets work on changing it together! And remember that the challenges of keeping up with increasing workloads affect our brains and cognitive functions. It is good to think about the questions related to stress, recovery, well-being, and how to organize your work. You can do it on your own, together with loved ones, with co-workers, or with an Auntie professional.
Stressed Out helps!, because no one solution works for everyone, we will find your personal mental tools for managing challenging situations. You cannot always change the amount of stress, but you can change how you react to it. This package will help you regardless of if your stress comes from overload of work, workplace relationships, your marriage or financial situation.
Examples of themes in Leading Me are:
-Ability to lead oneself
-Meaning of leadership skills in one’s own work
-Organizing one’s work
We can’t sleep on your behalf, that’s a fact. However, there are things we can do together. There are tools and methods that will make you and your bed friends again. Imagine a morning when you wake up fresh and energetic again! with Sleepless in Seattle say goodbye to staring at slowly passing midnight minutes and hello to beginning of a new sleeping era.
With Overachiever, together we analyze your situation and find balance between your performance and the actual work requirements. We discuss what others really expect from you and when the overachiever in you takes over. We will help you manage better.
The author of the blog is Auntie professional Henna Ponkala, who is a trained psychologist.