The best way to improve genuine mental performance is to understand the natural limits of our brain. By paying attention to your habits, you can learn to cultivate the mind to create your best work.
Research in work and brain science shows that our general biology limits our ability to produce our best thinking. While we each have individual differences, nature wires our brains more or less the same.
Most of us are aware of the fact that we do our best thinking in situations that are less than ideal — we’re playing with our children, driving to work, or at home in the shower. It’s a miracle if we can remember enough about these insights to execute on them, much less write them down. Or we suddenly become distracted by the idea in mind when we need to focus on another task at hand. And we all know by now that multitasking doesn’t work.
As David Rock has outlined in his excellent book “Your Brain at Work”, our nature wired our brain solve problems when we’re not thinking about them.
“10% of people do their best thinking at work, 90% of people do their best thinking when they aren’t at work“.
Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for these insights to come to us. We can learn to use the brain’s biological limits as opportunities to cultivate deep work and optimize our focus. This allows us to develop a weekly strategy to do our best work at the best times possible.
The key to quality focus is allowing the right things to come into focus at the right time.
Allow your creative energy to flourish
David Rock suggests that we must learn to schedule the most attention-rich tasks when we have a fresh and alert mind.
While some are different, most of us do our best thinking in the morning.
We should do creative work that involves high cognitive ability as early in the day as possible.
Things like writing, coding, illustrating, designing, or planning take significant energy to complete.
By leaving these activities to the afternoon or late at night, we leave ourselves vulnerable to doing less than optimal work.
Prioritizing is one of the most energy-draining activities we do
Instead of planning our work around the time due or perceived importance of the work, we can recognize and plan around our cognitive abilities throughout the day.
Since planning takes the most energy, we should prioritize prioritizing above all else.
Monday morning is the best time for quiet reflection because you have the least noise from the week. This is a great time to spend an entire morning planning the rest of your week.
Our minds are quietest in the early morning
While we usually wake up in stillness, we’re conditioned to shake off that hazy feeling you get still laying in bed. While we start out by thinking about what we need to do, we’re quickly distracted by looking at our phones or jumping for the pot of coffee. But research shows this is when the prefrontal cortex is most active and best suited to make new connections.
For this reason, it’s important to optimize your day with your most creative and attention-rich tasks early in the morning.
Just after waking up is the most optimal time to develop and engage with ideas that inspire us to do creative work. We should cherish these moments and be careful to stay in this headspace as long as possible. It is also a significant chance to do contemplative routines.
Things like journaling, meditating, or exercise create temporal and spatial energy. This gives us the chance to unload our most complex thinking early in the day. Often these activities create a sense of resolve and give us the fuel for our brain to use. Instead of the default, where our problems nag us while we’re trying to focus on important tasks later in the day.
Information distracts us, even when not actively thinking
As we check-in with the world and get pulled into our day, our minds become busier. We think about the headline we just read, or the email response we need to compose, or whatever our politicians are tweeting about today.
Our subconscious minds are much more powerful than our conscious minds. But if our subconscious is busy working on details of the outside world, it’s unequipped to work on problems of your inner world.
We can improve the time we spend in our inner world by ensuring our minds are working on problems related to our selves — instead of immediately jumping to the happenstance of the world.
So, it’s a good idea to wait for your morning check-in with your phone. A good rule of thumb: wait to check your phone until after you’ve showered. Use this time as a gift that a good night’s sleep afforded us.
Let yourself be productive
Since our brain can only focus on so much at one time, it’s helpful to practice grouping similar ideas into chunks. Don’t try to multi-task. And don’t schedule meetings until after 11 a.m. or noon. This lets you and your work partners be creative, but also helps ensure that you still keep the energy to stay on task.
We should schedule urgent and import tasks requiring lots of decisions in the afternoon.
We naturally schedule blocks of time for different modes of thinking. But most of find things to distract us, and these blocks of time end up being used for other activities.
If possible, try to muster some discipline and wait to do tasks until you must do them. This means not even thinking about what needs doing until you’re doing them. Turn the productivity system off and focus.
Everything else — especially replying to emails and texts — we should complete last
While executive function is still high in the afternoons, our busy work depletes our energy easily.
In his book, David Rock sites a study suggesting email and text reduce cognitive performance by as much as missing a night of sleep.
“A study done at the University of London found that constant emailing and text-messaging reduces mental capability by an average of ten points on an IQ test. It was five points for women and fifteen points for men. This effect is like missing a night’s sleep. For men, it’s around three times more than the effect of smoking cannabis.”
Work activities like updating spreadsheets, checking off task lists, or responding to text and email remain essential and are often still a priority. But these are more automatic, require less attention, and are easier to do with little cognitive effort.
So it’s ok to offload these tasks to later in the day. Even if that means waiting for the last essential moment we can complete them. This busywork drains us if we try to do it too early, so we should try to do these things last.
Pay attention to your habits
Finally, when you get stuck on an impasse, taking a break is one of the most beneficial ways to develop solutions.
Insight requires relaxation and often come to us when we’re not thinking about our problems. So it’s vital to plan relaxing moments in your day. You can learn to plan for solutions for your problems if you expect needing to solve problems in the first place (which is the essence of the work we do today).
Since insight is so valuable to our daily life, it’s not only crucial to plan and adhere to your breaks, it’s also important that you are away from your computer or phone by doing something activity disengages you from your work. Like having a cup of tea by the window, reading a chapter or two from a book, or a routing round of earthing (if that’s your thing).
For your more troublesome problems, maybe go for a quick jog or take a nap. Just make sure you’re giving your brain space to work on the answer, instead of obsessing over the question.
Instead of resisting the impulse to leave your desk, schedule breaks routinely in your day.
Just like contemplative morning routines can help inspire us to do excellent work, planning a break can help replenish our energy and generate insight. By walking away from the work at hand, it allows us to refocus on what needs doing.
Don’t feel so guilty
All of this means we need not feel so guilty about how our energy fluctuates. And that we should forgive about taking breaks while using the space available in the mornings to cultivate energy and focus, instead of jumping right into email and busywork.
When you encounter inspiration to create, note what created this energy. See if you can reproduce it for next time. Take this a step further and schedule it according to your ideal energy levels, and learn to take advantage of your insight at their ideal times.
Free up your mornings to do contemplative and imaginative routines while our brain energy is at its peak. Leave your automatic busy work until you absolutely need to think about them. Take breaks often and relax to generate insight.
Do all of this together, and your creative productivity will flourish.