On December 7, cognitive neuroscientists Dr. Sahar Yousef and Professor Lucas Miller, from the University of California, Berkeley, gave us the keys to unlock our brains and become superhuman—or pretty close. Most of us will happily settle for improvement to our productivity, focus and energy levels. In a recent Poly webinar, Dr. Yousef and Professor Miller provided three simple steps everyone can take to make that a reality.
Step 1: Limit Distractions
Dr. Yousef explains, “The human brain is hard-wired to constantly scan the environment for threats and opportunities,” and now “40% of our brains are dedicated to seeing and hearing.” If we plan to increase our daily focus, energy and time, we need to protect these sensory systems. Auditory distractions, especially those with intelligible speech, slow our productivity by up to 10% because our brains are processing that background information even if we aren’t paying attention to it, so if you’re going to play music while you work, Dr. Yousef advises choosing something without lyrics or in a foreign language. Over the past two years, we’ve learned first-hand that pets, children and organic background noise are also distracting, which makes investing in professional-grade noise-canceling headphones a worthwhile expense. Visual interruptions are also a concern. Finding ways to limit foot traffic and other movement in your line of vision will help improve your focus and productivity. Whether you are at home or in the office, make the adjustments that make your environment work for you.
However, the biggest drain on our cognitive resources, no matter the work environment, is our smartphones. The notifications that pop up throughout the day are great at grabbing our attention and disrupting our focus, which drains our energy. Dr. Yousef explains that the best thing we can do to reclaim our control is to reevaluate our relationship with the notification settings. Turn off anything that isn’t an emergency and set VIP notifications for those that are. To reduce your sensory stimulation even more, turn off the phone’s color saturation during work hours. These simple changes will help you improve your daily energy and ability to focus.
But, you know what’s a bit scary? Our cognitive performance and overall productivity levels change depending on the physical location of our smartphones. Research shows that the presence of a smartphone reduces brain power, even if the phone is powered off and, in your pocket, or turned over—and even if it isn’t yours. This means our smartphones are incredibly sophisticated thieves. They steal the focus, energy and time we plan to invest in our work, and they do it every day. To prevent this, Dr. Yousef suggests placing your phone out of your line of sight and away from your body. Instead of slipping your phone in your pocket or leaving it on your desk, place it in drawer or somewhere behind you. Even though your phone is still nearby, simply keeping it out of sight and away from you will have a huge impact on your productivity and ability to give others your full attention.
Step 2: Set 3 MITs Each Morning
Professor Miller explains that people are biologically designed to gravitate toward responding to emails and messages before diving into more challenging projects because these smaller responsibilities are fast dopamine tasks; they give us a happy sense of completion, but not the more rewarding sense of fulfillment, which is critical. To be fulfilled in life and at work, we must feel a sense of progress and accomplishment, and we will only achieve this by completing those challenging, time consuming, low dopamine tasks. The problem is that we are not biologically designed to feel motivated by those.
To place yourself in the brain’s driver’s seat, Dr. Yousef advises starting every morning by outlining a system for the day listing your 3 Most Important Tasks (MITs) to help make those low dopamine tasks more motivating. Writing down the MITs on a piece of paper helps anchor your focus throughout the day. When the unexpected happens, you simply cross an MIT out and update the list—adjusting the plan is okay. The goal is to always leave the workday having accomplished what’s most important, leveraging the strategies that make doing so enticing for your brain. Those other small, fast dopamine tasks will still get done, but they will get done between the MITs, not before them or at random. Creating daily MITs helps you hack your brain’s biological impulses so you can be the driver of your day and stay focused on what matters most.
Step 3: Reduce Video Fatigue
Virtual meetings are here to stay, but as we all know, video fatigue is real and very draining. Professor Miller explains that this fatigue is caused by four different things: excessive and unnatural eye contact, starting at yourself for long periods, the lack of mobility and a heightened cognitive load interpreting non-verbal cues. None of these challenges exist with an in-person meeting. You are never making eye contact with multiple people at once or staring at yourself for hours—it’s unnatural for your brain. Watching yourself and others for long periods makes you hyperattentive to an overwhelming number of non-verbal ques, effectively exhausting your brain. In addition to the mental load, we tend to tense our muscles, limiting the body’s natural movement as we perfectly frame ourselves in the video box.
It’s nice to know there’s a biological reason why virtual meetings exhaust us, but they are too helpful to disregard. So, what can we do? Professor Miller suggests turning off default gallery mode and self-view, and when possible, take “audio-only” breaks. This helps limit unnatural eye contact, reduces the time you are staring at yourself and decreases the brain’s cognitive load. Making the changes Professor Miller suggests will ease your brain and preserve your energy throughout the day. Before long, you’ll notice you have more time, focus and energy to tackle challenging projects.
Hats off to the Experts!
Becoming Superhuman: The Science of Managing your Time, Focus and Energy is the insightful, timely webinar we all needed. Data-driven evidence reveals the ways our brains become exhausted or simply don’t operate at full capacity, compromising our productivity. As businesses across all industries trend toward remote and hybrid work, productivity barriers are more relevant than ever. Providing employees with the strategies and tools to effectively combat them will make their lives, personally and professionally, more productive and fulfilling. An additional thanks goes out to our internal Women’s Leadership Group, who suggested this partnership, and the Executive Sponsors who invested in this opportunity for the people of Poly.
To learn more about Dr. Sahar Yousef and Professor Lucas Miller’s Becoming Superhuman research, please click here. If you’d like to equip your team with tools that help them focus, like noise canceling headphones, we’d love to help. Click here to contact a Poly expert.