Your Brain at Work
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One at a time
Your brain can only hold 3 or 4 thoughts on the stage at one moment. But you can only really hold one thought in your mind without your memory getting distorted. And your brain can only do a single thing at one time.
Your brain is more constrained than you might think.
Simplify decisions to only 3 or 4 variables.
Clear your mind before getting into complex work. Relax and get unrelated thoughts out of your mind to make room.
Willpower depletion. Making decisions and inhibiting tires the brain quickly. This also means:
Remove all distractions. Turn off notifications, alerts, disable social networks, avoid open spaces. Isolate yourself to make room for thinking.
Do your best work while fresh. Do the most important decisions in the morning when your willpower isn’t yet depleted.
Create an environment in which you don’t have to make decisions on things that don’t matter. Automate.
Learn to suppress instantly. It’s the easiest to inhibit an internal distraction, an urge, a negative emotion in the split second immediately after it pops into our consciousness.
Fussy brain knobs
Two knobs in your brain:
Arousal (norepinephrine) and Interest (dopamine)
Both need to be in the optimal levels.
Practice noticing both your arousal and interest and turn the knobs when needed to achieve best performance.
Take a walk
When you’re at an impasse writing, finding a solution to a problem, or anything else that needs creativity:
Switch off. Stop working. Stop thinking about the problem. Relax. Take a walk.. Do something else.
Quiet your mind so you can notice subtle connections in your brain. Think about your thinking, not the problem.
And boom, an insight comes.
Two modes the brain can perceive reality: the default (narrative) network, and the direct experience.
Practice mindfulness, experiencing the world directly, activating your director.
In this state, your senses are heightened, you perceive things close to objective, and you can observe your own mind. And you get to intervene and change it. And notice subtle signals normally drowned among the noise.
Practicing mindfulness makes you better at it, and better at directing your own experience and behavior.
The more you pay attention to your brain, the more you are capable of changing it.
Two kinds of emotions:
- Away emotions. Fear, anger, etc. Those are strong, last long, and are really dangerous, as they suppress our prefrontal cortex, making it hard to think clearly and easy to do something stupid.
- Toward emotions. Opportunities and rewards. This is a pleasant state that doesn’t generally hold us back.
Dealing with emotions
Notice instantly. Again, your veto power is the strongest instantly when a though arises. Practice noticing your emotions and observing what arouses them.
Don’t suppress. If you can’t kill a thought when it arrives, don’t inhibit a strong away response.
Cognitive change. Use your prefrontal cortex to make a switch in how you perceive emotions:
Labeling. Catch yourself experiencing a strong emotion, and literally label it in your brain. “Okay, I’m overwhelmed”, “I’m angry at Tim”. Practice assigning words to emotions.
Reappraisal. Change the way you perceive an emotion:
- Reinterpret. This isn’t actually a threat.
- Normalize. This isn’t me, this is my brain. This is normal.
- Reorder. Change the ordering of your values to avoid strong emotions.
- Reposition. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Misapplied expectations can really screw you up.
Set low expectations, as a general rule. Exceeded expectations are a great feeling.
Always be optimistic. Not too optimistic, just a healthy amount.
Positive spirals. When our expectations are met, and our dopamine is kept reasonably high, we fall into a positive spiral, feeling great and making more things to our way.
Certainty, Autonomy, Control are primary rewards or threats to our brains.
Create a sense of certainty and autonomy whenever you can. Even a fake sense of control makes you happier, less stressed, and more productive.
Friend or foe
Our brains automatically classify people as friends or foes, but without an evidence to the contrary, we assume strangers to be foes.
Break ice. Always start by establishing a sense of safety, and connecting on a human level to remove a sense of threat, and release oxytocin in your brain.
5 primary threats, rewards and motivators in social interactions:
Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.
Pay attention to them.
Practice noticing threats to those 5 values in yourself.
Disarm people in conflict by reassuring their status, autonomy, fairness, etc.
Play against yourself
A way to increase your sense of status without threatening other people’s status is to play against yourself.
Compete against your mind, beat yourself, get better at what you do. Derive a sense of status from that.
Giving feedback can be dangerous. Feedback often provokes a strong sense of threat.
Help others come to their own insights. Calm them down, reaffirm their autonomy. Ask questions to get them to find answers.
Focus attention to change your and other people’s brains. Don’t just do carrot and stick. Neurons that fire together, wire together.
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