A Guide to Better Work Performance, through New Brain Insights

The 9-5 workday framework — a real world heartbeat, a dynamic looping force cultivating world building — is a phenomenon ripe for sculpting performance. But understanding how to be your best at work, tied so closely to mood and motivation levels — amorphous, multilayered expressions that they are — can be slightly abstract.  Espresso morning highs unexpectedly veer into email x coworker distraction; dull-edged, excel sheet boredom spontaneously turns down the afternoon, or fatigue’s opposite may appear in robust presentation-interest.

But clarity in recent findings is enlightening a new frontier in focus.  In her book, “The Leading Brain,” neuroleadership expert Friederike Fabritius uses advances in neuroscience to translate routine work activities into emotional responses in an inspiringly fresh and perception-changing performance strategy.  Not only does her book add new insights on how our minds work.  But her science-based approach increases the vividness of common wisdom with internal play-by-plays.  Take exercise, it feels good, but knowing it resets your neurochemical system sheds new light and elevates its importance. Or mindfulness, a less than sparkly activity, but learning it boosts gray matter to improve emotional regulation offers a more concrete reason to be present.

Below, Fabritius, who trains leaders at the world’s top companies, and has been featured on Wharton Business Radio and Cheddar TV among many others, talks on the neurochemical supplies necessary for optimal performance, relying on expert’s intuition, and a to-do list for stress relief; she also discuses work-family balance and learning six languages.   

On Friederike Fabritius

What is a typical day for you?

I have four small children.  So, on a typical day I get woken up at five. Then, if it’s a day when I don’t have to travel for work, I usually start out with a healthy breakfast and then spend the morning really focusing on what I need to do: working on my second book, preparing for upcoming keynote addresses, and developing new ideas for my clients. And, of course, I still set aside some time for a workout. I practice what I preach. The things I advocate in the book, I actually do myself. After lunch, I take a brief nap, which is something I realize that few people do. After a nap, I spend the afternoon with my children. The oldest is four and the youngest is 4 months, so it’s almost like having our own little kindergarten.

How do you balance family with such a successful career life?

It’s not easy. I have to be really tough about prioritizing. I know exactly what is and isn’t important to me.  For starters, there is sleep and my health in general. Exercise is another top priority. I need that to be a relaxed and happy mom. Of course, nothing is more important than my children, and yet at the same time I love my job. It’s meaningful to me.  I could easily have said I’m just a homemaker. I think every woman needs to make her own decision on this. It’s very hard to tell someone else what to do, but for me, I always felt I needed to have both.  That’s why when I do work it really has to be worth it.  It needs to be fun, and it has to be something that helps me develop.  I only make time for projects that I really enjoy, and I say no to everything else. Of course, that isn’t always easy because it’s often tempting to say yes. But then I just say no so that I can maintain that balance.   

Finding Daily Optimal Performance

What are the three chemicals that we need for optimal performance?

Dopamine, noradrenaline, and acetylcholine.  Because most of us don’t want to keep track of the names of a lot of neurochemicals, I have developed a friendlier framework to describe the key ingredients for optimal performance: fun, fear, and focus.  When you have fun, that is, when you really enjoy what you are doing, you release dopamine. And when I say “fun,” I’m not talking about the kind of after-work fun, but the fun you experience that is actually related to the task at hand. That’s when dopamine is released.  Dopamine makes your brain more efficient, helps you learn better, and allows your prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain for rational and analytical processing, to function better.  Next comes fear, and I’m not talking about having negative relationships with the people around you, I’m talking about being slightly over challenged.  So when you do something that really challenges you, when you step just slightly out of your comfort zone, it’s good for you. Unfortunately, many people go to work and do the same thing day in and day out.  Boredom is not very good for our performance.  We need to constantly test our limits. The third and final factor is focus. It’s only when we truly focus that acetylcholine is released in the brain. Of the three factors we need for optimal performance, I think that finding focus is the toughest for most people these days.

After finding time for sleep, exercise and nutrition, how do you map out people’s schedule for optimal focus? 

I usually start out by recommending that they take a moment and jot down how they feel at regular intervals throughout the day, They can just ask themselves, do I feel overly stressed or do I feel bored or do I enjoy what I’m doing? When we analyze these responses, we will usually see some sort of pattern.

Of course, many of us have a very bad period after lunch when we feel overly tired and unmotivated. That’s a pretty typical biological response. But beyond that, our peaks and valleys can be highly individual. That’s why I always encourage people to keep a diary for a few days until they begin to recognize their individual lows and highs. Most of us have a peak period each day, a time when we’re at our freshest, that typically lasts about two hours or so. Once we pinpoint this period, we try to schedule the most important activity for this time and focus on making the most of it instead of wasting it on checking emails or making phone calls that are not really important.

I do advise people to see if they can squeeze in a very quick nap after lunch. I know some people who have managed to do that by closing their office door. You don’t necessarily even need to sleep. You can use the time to do mindfulness meditation, or you can take 20 minutes and read a good book and relax.  No matter how you use this downtime, it will usually increase your productivity for the rest of the day.  Of course, if you are working in an open office space you run the risk of being branded as some sort of odd ball, so social compliance can sometimes be a factor.

Stop Stress

What kinds of activities are good to reduce stress?

Exercise is the number one.  People often try to influence stress mentally. That’s great, but it doesn’t usually work.  When you are sad or stressed, telling yourself don’t be sad or don’t be stressed won’t change a thing.  But if you go outside and run for an hour your brain will naturally balance out its neurochemicals.  During exercise, you get more dopamine and serotonin and your cortisol gets flushed out of your system.  Dopamine is good for a sense of reward and for learning. And serotonin is good for emotional balance and resilience. Cortisol is a harmful stress hormone that can cause real problems if it remains in your system. So, instead of consciously working to make stress disappear, if you schedule an hour of exercise, a lot of that stress will just disappear by itself and you don’t have to work so hard to make it go away.

What else removes cortisol from your system?

Power posing. Like exercise, this is a case of using your body to calm your mind. It has been shown that assuming a confident and comfortable body posture can increase your levels of testosterone, which makes you feel more powerful, while decreasing your cortisol levels so you feel less stressed. 

Stop Multitasking

Why is multitasking not good?

It has a number of negative impacts.  Normally when you multitask you take 50 percent more time and you make 50 percent more mistakes. I think these statistics speak for themselves.  When we multitask, it might seem as though we’re doing several things at once, but in reality we’re switching rapidly from one task to another and back. With each switch, you need to re-establish your concentration.  Something new catches your attention, your brain switches to that new thing, and there is a delay until you are fully focused again. All this switching takes up a lot of energy and time.  I think research shows that it takes up to 20 minutes until you are fully focused again.

Why has multitasking become so commonplace?

As both a mother and a neuropsychologist, I’m very, very skeptical of all of these digital devices, video games, and cell phones for children. I think it is a big problem. A recent study found that although drug abuse in teenagers has gone down, cell phone use has gone up. It’s easy to see how cell phones may have become the new drug. In my opinion, digital devices are fundamentally changing the way our brain’s work centers operate. We’ve grown accustomed to constant bursts of dopamine that come with each new bit of information.  You know how in video games you constantly get rewards for your behavior at very short intervals? This sets up your brain’s reward centers for failure. That’s because real life is not a video game.  When you’re at work, there isn’t usually someone sitting next to you saying “Good job!” every 20 seconds.  Sometimes work can be difficult and you may need to work a little bit longer on things before they begin to pay off.

Intuition is real

Why is intuition a reliable process in the right circumstances? 

When it comes to intuition, there are two brain areas involved.  One is a region called the basal ganglia, where our experience resides and where a lot of the procedural habits are stored.  So, for example, when you learn how to ride a bike, that process is stored in the basal ganglia.  The other region is the insula, the part of the brain that processes specific sensory inputs from your body as well as overall body awareness. When you combine those two, you can enhance your intuition.

Let me explain: a recent study found that if you presented seasoned executives with a decision  and you supplied them with lots of information and lots of time, they actually made worse decisions than if they were given almost no information and very little time. Executives who had limited time and information made better decisions because this forced them to “trust their gut.” When you make a gut decision, you draw on your built-in experience and all the expertise and information that have been subconsciously collected in your basal ganglia over time. Because you’re forced to act quickly, your prefrontal cortex doesn’t have time to consciously analyze all of your options, and so you turn to your intuition instead.

Here’s the thing: when you are already an expert at something, then it’s good to trust your intuition. So, for example, if you are a doctor who has treated cancer patients for 30 years and you meet a new patient, there’s a good chance that you can instantly determine what is going on with this patient. That’s because you’re processing all of the information with your basal ganglia, and you are not even consciously aware of all the signs and symptoms you’re considering.  You just “get a feeling” of what this patient might have. 

Whereas, if I meet a cancer patient, I might also have an intuitive feeling of what’s good for that patient, but it might not be correct. There may be lots of information stored in my basal ganglia, but because I’m not an oncologist, it’s unlikely that it’s information that will help me to correctly diagnose a cancer patient. 

The key takeaway is this: if you are an expert, you can usually trust your intuition. That’s because you have the right kind of information and expertise stored in your basal ganglia. But if you aren’t an expert, any intuition you may feel is likely to be based on a bias, rather than on any accumulated information and expertise.

Learning Languages

You speak 6 languages, how did you do that?

I can answer that with just two words: emotional relevance. When it comes to effectively learning almost anything, including another language, that’s the most important concept to keep in mind.  Many people try to learn things that they aren’t truly motivated to learn, or if they are motivated, they do their learning in a really boring way. When I learn, I make a point to entertain myself.  Children learn best by playing and having fun.  And it’s the same for us. That’s because the hippocampus — which is the part of the brain responsible for the intake of new information — filters that information based on its emotional relevance.  We’re more likely to remember things that have an emotional meaning for us — that somehow make a difference in our lives.  For example, when I was in college and graduate school, I moved to a different country every year. Of course, moving every year was a kind ordeal. I mean, it’s not like someone made all the arrangements for me or that I went on some kind of exchange program.  I went through a lot of work to get this done. But the truth is that I was just so curious to learn about other cultures and countries that I just did it.

What’s an example of the way you learned languages?

While living in Austria, I learned Swedish by joining a Swedish choir.  At first I started out the traditional way by signing up for a Swedish language course. Unfortunately, the class was made up of other native German speakers, and the teacher spoke German 95 percent of the time. It quickly became clear to me that I wouldn’t be learning much Swedish in that class.  So, I dropped out of the class and joined a Swedish choir that practiced at a Swedish church in Vienna. Shortly before my first practice, I carefully rehearsed a couple of sentences in Swedish. I learned how to say, “I don’t speak Swedish, so I won’t say much. I just want to listen and learn. And please don’t speak German or English to me.”  For the first few weeks, I just sat there quietly until things started to make sense.  And of course they eventually did. The best way to learn a language is to expose yourself to it.

Learning languages positively changes your brain, what does it do for your brain?

Yes, it does a lot of things to your brain that are very positive. We have the prefrontal cortex for higher rational processes but also for delaying gratification.  People who know several languages have a better functioning prefrontal cortex so they can switch from one task to another more effectively. They also have better executive control. As we know from the famous marshmallow experiment from the 60s, people who have greater executive control are also more successful later in life.  It’s good to train your executive functions, your willpower, and your ability to delay gratifications — that’s what your prefrontal cortex can do for you. If you always go for immediate gratification, you won’t get anywhere.

Increase Empathy, Shrink Stress and Practice Mindfulness 

If we could work on our brain, what parts would we build and what parts would we shrink?

For the most part, I think our brains are perfect the way they are.  That said, one thing we could grow are the social pathways in the brain that make us more understanding of other people and more compassionate. For example, when you do mindfulness training these are the pathways in the brain that are usually enhanced. Empathy and compassion are things we can never get enough of. If people could develop more of them, we might have less war and fighting in the world.

One thing I might want to shrink is the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes negative emotions. For people who are constantly stressed, the amygdala grows or becomes overly active, which makes them even more sensitive to negative information. Then, when someone says even the tiniest negative thing to these people, they shift into a threat state.  Shrinking the amygdala would probably ease a lot of their anguish and reduce their stress.

How do you feel about mindfulness?  

I have seen an increased interest in mindfulness during the last few years.  A decade ago when I started thinking about and teaching on that topic, most people didn’t even know what it was. Now everyone knows it.  It’s in the newspapers. It’s all over the place. But this doesn’t mean that people are actually doing it. I think it would be definitely be good if more people practiced mindfulness. 

You can take the eight week-mindfulness program, and it can have a gigantic influence both on you personally and your brain. But there are other things you can do. For example, I like to read, and when I do, I get into a very special brain state. I forget everything around me.  I’m not saying what I do is mindfulness, but it’s definitely very good for me.  And research has shown that people who read a lot get into flow more easily.  So I do think the key is to find something you enjoy and that is good for you and then do it every day.  It could be exercising, it could be reading, it could be art, it could even be acting in local theater.  Everybody has a certain interest, a passion. I think if everybody could find the one thing they love and then do that everyday that people would improve a lot.  

Learn more on “The Leading Brain” at www.fabulous-brain.com               Illustration by Christina Hagerfors