For our first book, we chose Brain Rules by John Medina. Why did we choose it? We make our living with our brains, so it’s valuable to understand how they work and how to optimize their performance. This book makes learning about such a complex topic relatively easy and accessible, even for people with a limited background in biology or neuroscience.
Here we will summarize some key points from the book and wrap-up with some key take-away messages from the book club discussion. The book covers a lot of ground, so this article will focus on a few of the most important messages and those that have the most direct application to our workplace and workforce.
Over the course of the vast majority of human evolution, we moved—a lot. Pre-civilization, people walked up to twelve miles a day. Now, we don’t. Many of us spend hours a day sitting or relatively sedentary, despite scientific demonstration of the many benefits of exercise and physical activity. In particular, the brain benefits from high levels of physical activity. Exercise has been shown to help with cognitive function, executive function, long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, and fluid-intelligence tasks. Students who spend more time on exercise and less time on academics do better academically.
The lesson here is that if we want to do better work, we need to move more. We’ve already started making some changes at Rho. We make treadmill desks available, employees have the option of standing desks, and we’ve had walking paths set up near our building to encourage walking breaks and walking meetings.
Not everyone is going to be, or should try to be, a triathlete, but unless you are already exercising more than ten hours a week, we encourage all our employees to be a little more active.
There are several important lessons when it comes to attention, all of which have direct bearing on how we work. The first is that we don’t pay attention to things that are boring. In the work place, that means if we want people to pay attention to our message, whether in a presentation, an email, or a meeting, it can’t be boring. Emotions do get our attention, so making an emotional connection can help us gain and keep attention.
Another important concept is that meaning needs to come before details. Making connections between ideas is necessary if we need to pay attention to the associated details. One suggestion that comes out of these concepts is a suggestion for structuring presentations. Structuring talks in 10 minute chunks that start with an engaging story and then dive into the details will help your audience pay attention.
Finally, our brains don’t multi-task. The end result when we multi-task is that tasks take longer and result in more errors. We can increase productivity by limiting our interruptions and setting aside dedicated time for important tasks.
Sleep Well, Think Well
Sleep—getting enough of it, getting the right kind of it, and getting it at the right times—is critical to the performance of our brains. Lack of sleep hurts attention, executive function, immediate memory, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning ability, and general math knowledge. Some of us are larks (get up early and go to sleep early), some of us are owls (get up late, stay up late), and some of us are hummingbirds (somewhere in between larks and owls). Moving away from these natural rhythms is very difficult for most people and can lead to decreased performance. This is one of the reasons we try to give people a fair amount of flexibility in when they work, as long as the work is getting done and they are meeting the needs of their customers and teammates. We’ve noticed that introducing this language (owls, larks, hummingbirds) has already changed the way we negotiate meeting times—we’re able to schedule things so everybody is alert.
We also encourage employees to think about how sleep impacts their work productivity. Staying up late and working may actually decrease your productivity rather than getting a healthy amount of sleep and coming to work focused and energized. This is something we are dealing with primarily by educating and encouraging our employees. We also believe in respecting our employees’ autonomy and privacy, so actively managing employee sleep patterns is not something we are interested in doing.
The evidence is clear: short naps in the afternoon can have a very positive impact on performance. We are still mulling this one over. Despite the scientific evidence of the value of naps, there are difficult issues associated with encouraging naps in the workplace—issues of hygiene, culture, propriety, and management. Though the discussion about nap rooms sparked a lively conversation, we haven’t dedicated any square footage to them yet.
Use More of Your Senses, Especially Sight
When we deliver information using multiple senses, it makes more of an impact and is easier to remember. Presentations with pictures and words are far better for teaching than words alone. Additionally, text and pictures presented at the same time and in close proximity are better. Animation with narration is superior to animation with text. In general, the more senses that can be integrated the better. Even associating smells with certain ideas or information can help remember that information later. That said, all senses are not equal. The brain spends up to half of its energy processing images, and there is evidence that the brain will ignore other senses when what you see doesn’t line up with what you smell, taste, hear, etc. For example, expert wine tasters can be fooled into believing white wine is red wine by changing the appearance.
How are we using this? It has changed the way we present. When we do use PowerPoint, we are moving to rely more on images rather than slide after slide of text. In our sales presentations, we are moving away from PowerPoint entirely in exchange for white board presentations.
Top 3 Lessons
Our discussions covered many topics and it seems that each participant took away something different. There are three lessons, however, that we feel are key for improving performance as individuals and as a company:
- Get more exercise
- Don't multi-task
- Images trump text