3 Brain Facts That Will Change The Way You Work

By: Cortney Morris
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Have you ever learned something that made your life just a little bit easier? Perhaps it was something simple that, just by knowing, made a difference in how you operate. Like the fact that the gas gauge in every car has a little arrow to show you which side the gas tank is on. Or that your phone charges just a little bit faster in airplane mode. If you like to cook, you may have learned that when you put a wooden spoon across a pot of boiling water, it stops the pot from boiling over.

I’ve dedicated my professional life to understanding behavior. Interestingly enough, there are similar things about the brain that when you understand can make your life easier, allowing you to be more effective and efficient. When we see professionals implement strategies to maximize on how their brain works, we find that they are more productive, efficient, and satisfied at the end of the day.

3 Brain Facts that will change the way you work:

1. Dopamine drives your pleasure, motivation, and desire to learn. It helps you focus, plan, and increases your ability to think.

Ever have that feeling of inspiration; that moment where you feel compelled to take action? It is very likely that had more to do with dopamine than anything else. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that drives your pleasure, motivation, and desire to learn. Old research used to say that dopamine is released as a response to something pleasurable, but the latest research shows something entirely different. Dopamine is actually released prior to doing something pleasurable. Dopamine is released when your brain is expecting a reward and in its release you feel motivated to take action. Here are some small things you can do to increase your productivity and your feelings of motivation/inspiration:

  • Exercise: Exercise naturally increases your dopamine levels.
  • Gamify your day: Create a list of accomplishments or a “streak” of consecutive days doing a certain activity. Dopamine is released every time you finish or accomplish something. By crossing things off a list or crossing off another day in your “streak” you are signaling to your brain to release dopamine.
  • Break your big task into little tasks: By identifying the small steps along the way you are signaling to your brain that you are moving closer to achieving it leading to a release of dopamine and feelings of pleasure and satisfaction.
  • Plan ahead: Put something exciting out in front of you. Dopamine happens in the anticipation of something rewarding. Make sure you have a reward planned for your future and that you give yourself time to plan, anticipate, and imagine it. Doing this keeps your dopamine levels high.

2. When you are in a constant state of stress, your body produces too much cortisol causing you to feel overly fatigued, irritable, and to have difficulty sleeping and focusing.

Cortisol is a stress hormone that plays a huge role in how you feel every day. In the right doses, cortisol helps to regulate metabolism, controls blood pressure, and helps aid you when responding to danger. It is the instigator of the fight, flight, or freeze response. In this response, your body shuts down all non-critical functions. Once the threat passes, your levels return to normal. At least, this is how it is supposed to work.

When you are under a lot of stress, your body can produce too much cortisol and your body may never have that comedown or return to normalcy. This happens commonly with working professionals who are in high-pressure jobs and have heightened levels of stress, anxiety, and are always “on.” This leads to weight gain, trouble sleeping, and can greatly impact your ability to focus.

Stressed brains just don’t work the same. When you are operating from a stressed brain you do not have access to the resources you typically do. Think about how you are when you are stressed and tired at home. Do you show up the same for your friends and family? That is the same thing that happens at work. Here are some ways to lower your cortisol levels:

  • Learn to unwind: Make time every day to relax and disengage from work.
  • Make time for play: Laughter and having fun are related to low cortisol levels. Studies have even shown cortisol to decrease in response to laughter.
  • Eat probiotics: Probiotics are proven to help regulate your cortisol levels (and they increase dopamine).

3. When you are in a learner mindset or “curious brain”, empathy increases and self -judgment and anxiety decreases. Curiosity is tied to the reward system in the brain. When in curiosity, your brain is primed for learning and can better retain information.

Few things stall growth more than your mindset. Too often I see people get stuck in a cycle of perceived failure, judgment, and a continuous path of making the same mistakes and starting to believe it is just not possible for them. In leadership, I see people constantly frustrated that those around them aren’t “getting it.” This judgment limits our growth and the growth of the people around us.

Being able to access your own curiosity and shifting into a learner mindset increases empathy and decreases judgment of self and others. This creates the conditions for learning, growth, and forward movement. More and more studies are being done on curiosity and the learner mindset thanks to Dr. Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset.  As these studies come out, they are showing that curiosity is linked to the reward center of the brain, and is a key component in self-motivation.

When curiosity is piqued we see increased drive, better retention of information, and more self-compassion. Self-compassion is what stops the spiral of negativity. I’ve always loved the quote, “Success is moving from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm, “ by Winston Churchill. The key to not losing enthusiasm is curiosity and self-compassion. If you start to think you are a failure or that you will never get it, you will lose all enthusiasm and growth will stall.

Here is how to create an environment of curiosity:

  • Create time to think outside the box. Some companies hold hack-a-thons where the goal is to come up with a new solution for an old problem. People are encouraged to ask questions and bring any idea to the table.
  • Schedule tinker time in the day. Plan time where you get to explore something you are curious about or can play with an idea. In essence, plan time to tinker with something that is more about exploration than the result it will create.
  • Get Curious when you are stuck in judgment. Approach yourself as you would a friend who has this problem. What would you ask them?

It is often the simplest things that can have the greatest impact. Understanding these three facts can help you better structure your day, and help you create an environment that positions you to experience more success and fulfillment.

I challenge you to pick one thing off this list, just one thing that you can implement immediately. Put it into practice for the next 2 weeks. Notice what happens. You may find yourself more satisfied now that you are tapping into the reward center of the brain leaving you more confident, motivated, and inspired on a day to day basis.

If you want to learn more about your own habits and how your unique patterns may be helping or hindering you, check out our HVP. This assessment is the foundation of any one-on-one work we do because it illuminates thinking patterns that are playing out in your life. By identifying these patterns we are able to help people learn where they can maximize on their strengths and the blind spots that may be holding them back.