Ever feel like you’re still in the office, but with your brain having left work for the day? Regardless of where you work, I bet you’d be familiar with the sensation of being completely unmotivated, especially when slogging through an endless backlog of tedious tasks. It can be extremely difficult to finish anything when your brain is being dull and uncooperative; in times like these, it can feel like your mental battery is completely drained, leaving you with no way to cut through the monotony.
There is a way out for victims of office lethargy – the key lies in understanding how your brain works and accommodating for it. Instead of forcing yourself to tackle the work head-on with a sluggish brain, you can take measures to steer your brain towards peak performing capacity. If you know how your brain works, you will also be in a better position to achieve good time management.
Mental training exercises are not going to get you anywhere, because your brain is smarter than you think, and it’s not going to be easily bluffed. If you’re procrastinating at a task that doesn’t have a deadline, simply pretending that you have a deadline is not going to make you a more effective worker. The brain is an organ – it responds to stimuli and operates through neurochemical interactions. By approaching the issue of work efficiency from a neuroscience perspective, you will attain real changes and improvements in the way you work.
The first step you can take is to evaluate your workload and work scenario against the 3F Model: Fun, Fear and Focus. As you go down your to-do list, you should be asking if each item on it is fun to you. Are these tasks things you love to do, or are you procrastinating because you have trouble with these tasks, which you deeply dislike? Everyone has tasks that they’re not good at, where they simply lack the talent or capability to get them done. It’s important to know whether you’re going to have the right level of fun with your tasks, because your brain releases a neurochemical called dopamine when you’re having fun.
Dopamine helps you think faster and learn better by making your brain more malleable and receptive to change. To get the right levels of this brain-booster and overcome your workload, you definitely want to look at what unsavoury tasks you can delegate or get rid of. Struggling at tasks that are not in line with your strengths means that you’re not having fun. When you’re not having fun, your brain is not producing enough dopamine, which can subtly but negatively affect your performance at work.
When it comes to getting work done, fear isn’t always a bad thing. As you analyse your workload to determine if they’re fun for you, you should also check if any tasks inspire fear. In this context, fear would come about if someone is checking on your progress, if you have an urgent deadline to meet or if other project stakeholders are depending on your output. Depending on the kind of scenario you’re in, if you have a lot of comparatively irrelevant tasks on hand, you should get rid of those and really focus on the things that matter most. Alternatively, you could complete the simple tasks first, so that you have enough mental clarity to handle more difficult tasks.
A certain level of fear is necessary to get the brain to release noradrenaline; this neurochemical makes us more alert and improves memory formation and recall. During situations of stress or danger, or what is commonly known as the fight-or-flight response, noradrenaline is released in higher quantities.
If the deadline for a given task is months away, it can be difficult to motivate oneself to tackle it enthusiastically – because there is no immediate stress or danger, there is no noradrenaline being released to mobilise you to work on the task. To keep yourself mentally healthy, the key is not to let fear overwhelm you as a chronic source of stress, but to get the noradrenaline flowing by putting yourself in situations where you feel slightly over-challenged, or when the task is just a little bit too difficult.
Is your workplace creating obstacles to your focus? Do you have noisy colleagues distracting you by chattering away on the phone or to each other? Do you currently have any internal distractions (for instance, a date after work) throwing off your focus from the task at hand? In order to work at your very best, it’s necessary to have sustained focus, whereupon the brain produces acetylcholine. This neurochemical works like a spotlight to keep you focused, highlighting the most important tasks and leaving everything else in the dark.
If you’re missing out on either fun (dopamine), fear (noradrenaline) or focus (acetylcholine), it’s impossible to enter peak performance. That’s why you should check if your to-do list is in line with the 3F Model – whether you’re obtaining the right levels of fun, fear and focus to get the job done. If your work doesn’t meet the 3F Model, then you want to operate in ways that can get you to fulfil these criteria, whether it’s changing the variables you can control, or avoiding the ones you can’t.
Worried about your tendency to procrastinate and cram everything to the very last minute, even when you’re aware of what you’re doing? This is likely because you have a more active dopamine system, compared to others who may have a more active serotonin system. People with a more active serotonin system tend to be very organised, thoughtful planners – because they plan ahead and work more steadily towards reaching their goals, they also experience less ups and downs along the way.
If you have a more active dopamine system, you get excited very easily, change your mind quite often and are very interested in new happenings. Scientists also call these people “sensation seekers”. On a practical level as a sensation seeker, you need to set up your life in such a way that you don’t have to work in the organised manner that defines those with active serotonin systems. If possible, you should play to your niche and focus on engaging in things that get you excited so you can deliver on results, while delegating away things you find boring. What you find boring may be fun and interesting to somebody else, and vice versa – consider splitting tasks with others in such a way that everyone is doing work they find fun.
Some people are serial entrepreneurs and start a lot of companies, but they don’t heavily engage in the logistical, detail-heavy work needed to establish the business, instead leaving it to a team of people dedicated to carrying out such work. Perhaps you’re great at starting projects or generating new ideas, or spontaneous work comes naturally to you. However, if you end up stumbling when you have to plan from a long-term perspective, you may want to steer yourself into a position where you can delegate the implementation to someone else. Realistically speaking, you won’t get your way every time, but with clear communication and supportive colleagues you can take steps to minimise the type of work that you don’t cope well with.
With that said, what kind of person are you? It’s important to understand yourself – whether you’re a sensation seeker or more of a serotonin person, you have unique stress points. Ask yourself what you prefer: planning several weeks ahead and finishing up your tasks one after the other, like a checklist, or improvisation without a fixed plan, always subject to change? Are you more excited by novelty, thrill-seeking and opportunities to learn new things? Or are you more interested in stability, routines and structure, working at your own pace and rhythm without external distractions? Regardless of the answer you arrive at, the path forward is the same – create the situations where you can do your best work.
Visualise a graph with the letter U inverted, marked by stress levels at the x-axis and performance at the y-axis. You can then perceive an inverted-U correlation between stress levels and performance, where some people perform best at either high or low stress levels. Draw this on a piece of paper, then add the five top tasks that you do on a daily basis. Where do they end up on the curve? If you have a very clerical or logistical task that bores you, you can throw that to the lower left corner of the curve.
Within your top five, which tasks give you high stress levels and which do you thrive well in? Do less of the tasks that bore or stress you out and do more of what you tend to do well at. With the help of the graph, you can get a feeling for your stress points corresponding to the kind of situations you will hit peak performance in.
People often think they need to change themselves, which begins with the idea that they need to work on themselves. I’d question the necessity of this idea. Why do you need to change? You should think about what your strengths are, what you’re really good at, then do more of those and try to get rid of the other things.
After a recent keynote speech, two top bosses of an organisation approached me and shared about their past experiences. They had been experiencing conflicts due to different work styles regarding questions they faced – she needed to look at the questions ahead of time and draft the perfect plan; he preferred to answer them spontaneously. Tensions occurred when she took issue with his lack of preparation, while he felt stressed by her need to prepare everything beforehand. Once they understood that they needed to work in line with their strengths, they could work more smoothly, with each party accepting and respecting the other’s preferences.
Many self-help resources suggest that you need to change yourself to become a better person, but you just have to know yourself and understand your neurochemical signature. That will provide insights into the circumstances where you can deliver your best work, whereupon you can set up your work environment in such a way that you can reach peak performance more easily and without much effort. Everyone has different stress points and working styles – understand your own and figure out how you can deliver your best work.
To view the full content, sign up for a free account and unlock 3 free podcasts, power reads or videos every month.
Neuroscientist & Author
The Leading Brain