Stupid Human Brain Tricks and Your Productivity

brain_power_memory_2_3I love being a writer. It’s one of my main reasons for living, but it’s tough sometimes. Okay, it’s tough a lot of the time. Sometimes the enemy is my own brain. Even the most facile thinker can have problems bouncing from project to project, reorienting his or her brain toward the required task. You’re tapping away at your magnum opus, when BOOM, the phone rings— your best client needs to talk to you right away about Madagascar hissing cockroaches. You scribble down notes about revisions to the project and go back to your computer to find fifty new e-mails, a handful of which require your immediate action.

So how can you shift your focus and apply your best self to each task?

Discipline, yes. Those things you’re supposed to do, like keeping a to-do list, blocking out spaces of time for each project, returning messages promptly… those Highly Effective Steps all of those Highly Effective People use every day.

But there’s much more to the task of balancing tasks than mere paperwork or better productivity software. According to Dr. Nick Hall, internationally recognized psychoneuroimmunologist, (try fitting that on a business card) we can work with our own biology to become more productive.

For instance, some studies show that our brain hemisphere activity cycles every 90 to 110 minutes. This is a brilliant method the brain uses to manage its energy throughout the day. The trick is to harness and work with your gray matter’s natural rhythms.

The first step is to figure out which brain hemisphere happens to be switched on.  According to Dr. Hall, you only need to pay attention to your breathing. More specifically, your nostrils. Sit very quietly, inhale through your nose a few times (blow your nose if you’re congested), and note which nostril feels less constricted as you breathe. As I’m writing this, my left nostril is definitely doing more than its fair share of the work. Using Dr. Hall’s hypothesis (cribbed from ancient India), my right-brain is more active. So it’s a good thing I’m using my right-brain language skills now. And in about 90 to 110 minutes, I should switch to my left-brained tasks, like sorting out my inbox or updating my contacts list. Theoretically, this will make performing all types of tasks more efficient.

Another way Hall recommends you improve productivity is to match your breaks to your tasks. After spending 45 minutes composing a proposal (language skills), don’t hop on down to chat with your friends at the water cooler (or the virtual representation of the watercooler) for a break. Okay, this is not really a break. This is a continuation of language skills. Sure, we need breaks. But if I hang out on FaceTwit for fifteen or twenty five or ten minutes and then return to that proposal, my brain is already tired and hasn’t rested. Probably a more effective break would have been a quieter activity like fetching a cup of tea, going for a short walk, or taking a few deep breaths. Then I can go back to my linguistic pursuits refreshed.

One method I use is to work with my biological rhythms. I am peppier and more creative in the morning. That’s when I do the bulk of my fiction writing or tackle tasks that require more energy or focus. After lunch, I work best at editing or revising. At around four or five o’clock, though, my mental energy plummets. This is when I normally exercise. And from banging my head against the wall time and time again, I’ve learned that the part of my brain that makes sentences checks out after about ten o’clock, so I have no business writing then. Better to perform a more rote task, or even better, chill out and get ready for sleep.

You probably know when you’re at your best for certain things and not for others. It’s much easier to fit your tasks around your rhythms than trying to muscle your way through something your brain is not up for.

But I know what you’re thinking: “I’m at work, and my report is due in two hours. According to my ‘nostril clock,’ I’m on the right side of my brain. So I’m screwed, right?”

You might not be. Some studies have suggested that you can change which side of your brain is “switched on” by closing the currently active nostril and forcing the other to do the work. I’ve been playing with this trick for a couple of years, on and off, and it has worked for me about fifty percent of the time. Maybe you’ll have more success.

What are your favorite productivity tips that don’t involve your nostrils?

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6 thoughts on “Stupid Human Brain Tricks and Your Productivity

  1. avcarden says:

    This is a brilliant post Laurie. At my yoga class we practice pranayama (alternate nostril) breathing and it IS very effective. Unfortunately I’ve been unable to attend due to ill health this year and I’m so glad you have written about it because It’s reminded me that I should be doing it. It may really help to improve my own concentration if I practice it at home. Thank you! 🙂

  2. richmeyerwriter says:

    Nice post. I personally consider anything a “break” if I’m just doing something I want to do, rather than something I’m supposed to be doing. I used to be a 12th Level Master of doing that at any job…

  3. acflory says:

    I love the General Theory of Nostril Clearing. 😀 Jokes aside, I found myself checking my breathing as I read your post and I’m definitely in right-brain mode. I’ve also learned some of those physiological patterns – morning creativity, afternoon editing, 4pm slump – but I’m brain-dead by 8.

    Really interesting article Laurie, and funny too. 🙂

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