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Brain Rules by John Medina

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Knowing and being able to apply time management techniques is a great thing but to truly understand the principles behind them is whole other thing. To truly grasp the concepts you have to have a good understanding of how our brains work (neuroscience). Every time management expert I know, ranging from David Allen to Tony Schwartz, are all very knowledgeable on the brain and how it affects your personal productivity. That does not mean you have to be an expert on the brain to become better at managing your life and time, but it would definitely help. To get your feet wet with neuroscience, Brain Rules by John Medina (audiobook) is a great resource to start with and I will show you some of the big ideas of the book to help you understand the importance of the brain in relationship to personal productivity.

One concept you really have to understand is that our brains of today are not very much different than the brains of thousands of years ago. There are a lot of hardwired mechanisms in our brain that are still active today. Some are good, some are bad and not relevant but are still there in the brain. Once you understand the relevant/irrelevant mechanisms you will get a good grip on why certain techniques and concepts are effective or ineffective. This especially goes for time management and personal productivity.

Energy Management

As a simple example, we are hardwired to walk, on average, 12 miles a day. Back in the “old days” we would have to walk for miles and miles to look for food and shelter, and this went on for many centuries. This hardwiring is still in our brain but it’s not relevant today. Nowadays we would be lucky if we walked more than a mile a day.

The reality is, we are hardwired to exercise that much on a daily basis and it is helps our brain to stay healthy. That’s why exercise is not only important for your weight but also for your brain – it keeps it sharp and healthy. Tons of studies have shown that regular exercise boosts brain power and helps with:

  • Memory function
  • Focus
  • Reasoning skills
  • Problem solving skills

All functions that the brain deals with. As we have written before, regular exercise is important to improve your productivity and neuroscience research backs that up. It will also greatly improve your energy capacity and like we have said before many times on the blog – there is no way that you will get work done when you are constantly tired. If you feel fatigue a lot, it’s time to start exercising.

Another big factor contributing to your energy level is the amount of sleep you get each night. We have written about it before here but it is worth repeating: sleep well, think well. Get enough sleep each night and your brain will function much better. In the book the author also goes into detail why we feel like napping every afternoon. Why does this happen? Well, it’s a hardwired mechanism for us to take a short nap in the afternoon. He also shows why naps are a great instant fix for boosting your productivity – studies have shown that taking short naps (less than half an hour) can boost your productivity by 34%.

Multitasking

If you have heard and read about multitasking, you probably know by now it’s a myth that it helps you get more done. To really understand why that is, you have to take a look under the hood (your brain). In simple terms, the brain cannot focus on more than one thing at a time. Try to focus on the number 3 and the number 5 at the same time. You simply can’t do it. What you can do is switch very quickly between them, but you can’t actually focus on two things at the same time. The brain is a sequential processor and that explains why we cannot multitask.

People who look like good multitaskers are actually very good at “switch tasking” – switching back and forth between things. The problem with this is that on the outside it looks like that person gets a lot done and is very effective. However, mentally switching back and forth all the time has more negatives than positives. First, there are a lot of “switching costs” involved when you multitask. Each time you switch focus, your brain has to go through a couple steps before it can focus on something. When you do this all the time you get a lot of overheard that will eventually cost you more time to complete a task. Studies have shown that multitasking can take up to 50% longer to complete a task.

The next important downside is that multitaskers are more prone to making mistakes. In fact, four times as much than people who single task. The next time you put up a job ad, scrap the fact you are looking for a good multitasker :-)

Visual cues

Sight and vision is the best sense we have and it has been of huge importance for our survival. We needed this to look for food, reproductive opportunities and to avoid major threats. Our brain processes a lot of information through our sight and once you understand the basics of how the brain processes this information, you can learn to take “advantage” of it.

In Brain Rules plenty of examples are given why people should try to learn visually rather than through using text and/or audio. To keep it simple, our retention rate of images is far better than of text and audio. In fact, numerous studies have shown that when are presented with a picture, we are twice as likely to remember it than when we get presented with just text. Another study in the book shows that when you hear a piece of information, a couple days later you will only remember about 10% of that. When you add a picture to the audio, you will remember about 65% of that information. In short, images simply beat text and audio.

That is why mind mapping is a better way of taking notes and memorizing information than just text notes. In fact, the brain is not really wired to read. Reading is actually a very ineffective way of processing information for us and the main reason is that the brain sees words as tiny pictures and subsequently it sees phrases and paragraphs as a collection of a lot of tiny images. This takes considerably more processing power and time for the brain to process because it has to identify certain features in the characters to understand them. You can of course partially make up for it by learning how to speed read but by understanding how this works inside the brain clarifies a lot of things.

That is one of the reasons why I never liked audiobooks as my primary learning media because my retention rate was horrible, and after reading Brain Rules I understood why. Nowadays, what I like to do is read a book first, mind map it and at some point later in time listen to the audiobook to review but to also gather new insight and information. This has really helped me understand concepts and ideas in books much better.

Recommendation

The greatest thing about Brain Rules is that it is a very accessible book on how the brain works. The books covers a lot of other aspects of the brain that are not mentioned in this post like how our memory system works, differences between sexes, what stress really is and many more. For anyone who is curious about neuroscience, this is probably the best book to start with. It lacks the scientific facts and references for the hardcore neuroscience geeks, but that’s okay if you just want a primer on the brain. You can grab a copy here on Amazon.com (audiobook).

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Nicole April 25, 2012 at 8:46AM

As an interesting tangential to our inability to multitask, check out this radiolab episode about a guy who can listen to and discern discreet parts of not two, but three, but FOUR symphonies at the same time.
http://www.radiolab.org/blogs/radiolab-blog/2011/jul/26/4-track-mind/
What an ability!

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Thanh Pham April 26, 2012 at 1:22PM

Wow I just listened to that. That’s crazy!

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