Retrain Your Brain – 10 Hacks to Improve Focus, Productivity & Creativity

The word “hack” used to refer specifically to unauthorised access to data in a system or computer. However, it’s been appropriated as a verb to describe a range of quick fixes and clever solutions to problems.  There are countless ways to hack your environment to improve focus, productivity and creativity.

Rather than being a limited capacity, relying on a single resource, self-control appears to be a combination of executive functions and working memory, tied closely to our motivation. Our attention attempts to allocate our cognitive resources efficiently and effectively but we can also be proactive, putting systems and processes in place to modify our environment and take some of the workload away from our brain. Here are 10 recommendations to help you begin your own testing and development process.

1. Physical exercise

A physical exercise class may be one of the most effective brain hacks for improving cognitive control, in children and adults. Across age-groups, regular aerobic exercise can provide a simple way for healthy people to optimise a range of executive functions such as task switching, selective attention, response inhibition and working memory capacity. Some of the largest fitness-induced benefits for our brain are associated with executive-control processes. This is a great incentive to move more during your work day and to include more physical activity in your week.

2. Plan ‘classes’

We can learn something from our school days. The idea of breaking your time down into ‘classes,’ which focus on certain subjects, is actually a pretty good one for all of us. Try to plan at least four hours of your day and break it up into designated ‘classes’ where you focus on a particular project or task. Plan times with a specific goal in mind and estimate the cognitive load associated with the tasks, so that you can polarise the distribution through the day. During these four hours, alternate between working very hard for focussed periods, or take it very easy and allow your attention to recover.

3. Embrace boredom

When we feel bored, arousal is often low, we feel dissatisfied with our environment and we often view the things we are tempted by as a means to improve our situation, even if experience tells us otherwise. I can remember many days at school when I was bored, but I had to accept the boredom. I looked out the window at the trees and restored my attention, though I didn’t realise I was doing that at the time. I let my imagination flow in some idle-time, simulated a more interesting future, or I accepted the tedious nature of the task and kept grinding through the work, so I could get to the end as quickly as possible. Learning to cope with boredom taught me tactics to restore my attention, use time creatively and develop my ability to inhibit my responses.

4. Less is more

Our visual environment is too competitive. The laptops, smartphones and tablets on our desk have become symbols of the hyper-productive knowledge worker, but it’s likely a folly that is compromising the effectiveness of our work, our relaxation and our recovery. There are good cases for using multiple screens and it can enhance performance in a given task such as writing an article and referencing a source from a different device, for example. The problem of multiple screens is that it can encourage task-switching and it can increase demands on our attention unnecessarily, compromising our performance and recovery. If you can avoid using multiple screens, you will eliminate a lot temptation and increase your likelihood of staying focussed and relaxed.

5. Put it away

I try not to waste my limited cognitive control resources on self-control, if I don’t have to. Often it’s easier to eliminate distraction than have to make the effort to avoid it. For me, this involves minimising the number of screens I’m using and leaving my phone, and any other unnecessary devices, set on ‘flight mode’. The cost associated with being aware of an unread e-mail sitting in your inbox is equivalent to losing 10 IQ points. Shutting applications down at the end of the day and switching my phone to flight mode mode means that I’m not bombarded with notifications of unread messages when I open my computer or check the time on my phone in the morning.

 

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A book by James Hewitt and Dr Aki Hintsa
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6. ‘Asynchronise’ yourself

One of the best things about text-based communication, whether it’s e-mail, an instant message or a post on a collaborative working platform, is that the message may arrive instantly, but we don’t have to respond straight away; it offers efficient asynchronous information exchange. I don’t have to be there to receive the message and I can batch my responses at a later time. Quarantining e-mail within shorter periods, rather than interweaving it throughout the day, is associated with a number of benefits. A recent study found that checking e-mail three times per day, as opposed to as often as we can, is associated with less stress and improved physical and psychological wellbeing.

7. Upgrade your meetings

According to the World Economic Forum, complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity are the top three skills we will need in 2020. People management, and coordinating with others, are numbers four and five. Meetings will continue to be an essential part of our working life, perhaps even more important than they are today. Many of our current meeting practises offer a lot of room for improvement. Meetings often lack clear direction and leave us feeling that they could have been replaced with a single, well-worded e-mail. However, with a few simple changes, they can become a great opportunity to be creative and to collaborate effectively.

8. ASAP or VIP?

At school, a fellow pupil couldn’t simply walk into the room and start talking to you in the middle of a class. Another teacher would never wander in and ask you about a different subject, while you were learning from another member of the faculty. They had to wait. Students are VIPs – very important people – and their learning and creative time is sacrosanct. Limited access is the essence of a VIP experience; it’s turning left when you board the plane, it’s the roped off area in the nightclub. We need to create our own VIP bubble of knowledge work to get our most meaningful and valuable work done.

9. Schedule, don’t ‘to-do’

Jotting down a ‘to-do’ list is the usual response as we try to move from being reactive to proactive. However, we often write tasks with vague descriptions and our lists can quickly become an unwieldy distraction of ill-defined, uncompleted items. Also, when we finally sit down to complete some tasks on our lists, we waste time and mental energy thinking about how we need to approach them. In contrast, scheduling tasks to be completed at specific times, with specific instructions, can have a positive impact on productivity and cognition. If you schedule a task and use a verb to describe what you need to do, it’s more likely turn into ‘done,’ than remain as ‘to-do’ and it will free valuable cognitive resources.

10. Don’t be a perfectionist

It’s impossible to do everything. As Tim Ferriss says, “Oftentimes, in order to do the big things, you have to let the small bad things happen.” This challenge has a number of levels: 1) Limiting attention can release your creativity, but you need to think carefully about who and what you give your attention to. 2) Accepting that attention is limited and following its ‘rules’ means that you also must accept that some things will pass you by and go unnoticed. 3) Letting things pass by means that you will annoy some people who are used to being able to make themselves appear on your radar anytime, but this group of people is likely much smaller than you think.

The above excerpt is from Exponential, a book by James Hewitt and Dr Aki Hintsa.


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