When it comes to productivity, your brain is your best ally—but are you ignoring the most important signals it’s sending?
Considering this week is Brain Awareness Week, now’s a good time to start paying attention to your mental energy and learning how to manage it to boost your productivity.
After all, it’s hard to be productive when your mental reserves are tapped, and today’s energy-draining environment is fighting you at every step. The typical response to declining energy and productivity levels is to try time management techniques so that you can catch up and stay on top of your workload. But most of those techniques are destined to fail when your energy level falls through the floor.
Instead of thinking of productivity as a time management challenge, try viewing it as an energy management issue. Because while you can’t recover time—those wasted hours are gone forever—you can recover energy.
And here’s where your brain comes into the equation.
We often let this phenomenon of energy gain and drain happen by accident, but your own mental processes play a huge role in your energy throughout the day—at work, at home and with every person you meet. In fact, your energy levels have a lot more to do with what happens inside your head than what happens outside. Becoming conscious and intentional about this aspect of your life can unlock new levels of productivity. The key is to manage your mental filters, not your time.
Here are 10 quick tips for managing your thinking to increase your productivity:
1. Be mindful of your energy levels throughout the day. Notice the situations and people that are associated with a loss of energy as well as those that leave you “feeling the flow” and full of energy. Look for patterns: Who is involved? What happens? What time of day does it happen? Some signs that you’re experiencing a situation or person as an energy suck:
- Your mind wanders.
- You feel tired.
- You feel irritated.
- You start interrupting people.
- You make excuses to avoid certain events and people.
2. Maximize your productivity by keeping your changing energy levels in mind and planning for them. For example:
- Schedule demanding tasks for your periods of highest energy.
- Mentally prepare for people and events that seem to drain your energy.
- Involve someone else in your interaction with an energy-draining person.
3. Meet people where they are, energetically speaking. This is not so much about being non-judgmental as it is about developing empathy. Find out about their preferences and circumstances and what’s draining their energy. A tool like the HBDI® Profile is great for opening a conversation.
4. Hold the context, please. He acts that way because he’s lazy. She’s doing that because she wants my job. Notice your tendency to unconsciously fill in context when interacting with an energy-draining person. Instead, ask people to proactively share their context. The Whole Brain® Model gives you a way to manage a mismatch of energy. While differences in thinking preference might be the source of the problem, we all have access to all four thinking modes.
5. Tap into your own cognitive diversity as a way to accept diversity in others. You can either resist differences or embrace them. Embracing them allows you to reverse the energy drain that comes with resistance and start having a lot more fun.
6. Stop multitasking. What you’re really doing is task switching, and the brain simply isn’t good at it. Studies show that multitasking compromises working memory, and the mental blocks created by task switching can eat up as much as 40% of your productivity.
7. Master your attention. Notice when you disagree with people, and use it as a cue to give them the gift of your full attention. Even if you don’t agree, when you truly understand their perspective, you’ll be able to minimize energy- and productivity-sapping conflict. Give that gift of full attention to yourself, too: Quiet your mind for 5 or 10 minutes and decide what you will focus on.
8. Match your tasks to your energy level. There’s only so much you can do to control what’s going on around you, but the one thing you have control over is your brain. So plan to check emails, social media and engage in similar activities that don’t require much of a mental stretch during low-energy times.
9. Keep a “clean machine.” Your energy levels are intimately connected to your overall health. Exercise. Eat well. Get enough sleep. It’s no coincidence that these are also linked to memory, learning and attention—all essential for peak productivity.
10. Raise your productivity and energy levels by noticing what works. The only way to keep improving and build on your successes is to pay attention so you know what’s making the difference. Make intentional attention a habit.
Energy is the pivot point in your productivity. The best way to get more productive is to get more conscious about how you manage your energy drains and gains.
For many, the word “diversity” brings up images of staid EEOC training or well-intended but not necessarily critical programs—the “have-to-dos” that don’t get much buy-in or enthusiastic support across the business. So it’s probably not the first word that comes to mind when you’re talking about innovation.
But here’s why it should be.
“A diverse group of people can be more innovative than a homogenous group.”
In making that statement, David Greenberg, Senior Vice President of HR for L'Oréal US, emphasized that he’s not just talking about the more traditional definition of diversity but also diversity of thought, which he says is key to how L’Oréal fosters innovation. While he acknowledges that there can be more friction and discomfort when you bring together people who think differently, “the output,” he says, “is more innovative.”
Cognitive diversity has been getting a lot of attention lately for this very reason. Modern business issues demand innovative thinking, especially when you consider the fact that, from market conditions to customer demographics to the problems, tasks and tools, nearly all of the variables have changed. With so much complexity, we need diverse perspectives and ideas. You can’t use old processes to fix new problems.
Our research, including the six-year study on team effectiveness conducted by the US Forest Service, as well as numerous examples from companies like Caesars/Harrahs Entertainment, has consistently shown that you get greater creative output and, ultimately, more effective solutions when you bring together heterogeneous thinking teams and give them practical tools to leverage their differences. Furthermore, mentally balanced teams consider more options, make better decisions and exceed expectations more often than homogeneous teams.
The reason is that applied creative thinking, which drives innovation, isn’t just the domain of certain people or functions. It doesn’t matter if someone prefers structured, logical thinking or expressive, free-flowing, imaginative thinking; all are necessary, not just to finding innovative solutions but, just as importantly, to successfully implementing them.
That legendary innovator Steve Jobs, who would have turned 60 last week, recognized this, and spoke about the importance of a having a balanced team:
My model for business is The Beatles. They were four guys who kept each other’s kind of negative tendencies in check. They balanced each other, and the total was greater than the sum of the parts. That’s how I see business: great things in business are never done by one person, they’re done by a team of people.
When a team has a diversity of thinking and approaches working together as a synergistic whole, it has a huge advantage. The development team working on the Kinect Adventures games at Microsoft Game Studios’ Good Science Studio is a great example.
Shannon Loftis, head of Good Science Studio, says that while in a typical design project, the creatives have the loudest voice, this wasn’t going to be a “typical” game. The project presented her with the perfect opportunity to innovate the design process and break away from traditional thinking about game design.
The Kinect Adventures team was purposefully assembled with a balance of thinking styles and then given the data, skills and tools to recognize, appreciate and take advantage of all of their thinking strengths. Not only did this “diverse by design” approach allow the team to tap into different perspectives and test new ideas, it also helped them shorten the development time because they avoided the overruns and delays that often plague design projects. The creatives and the project managers all had equal voice.
The front-end work they did was critical, though. To go back to Greenberg’s point, there can be more friction, so just having diversity on a team isn’t enough to successfully drive innovation.
Here’s what we know about cognitive diversity in teams, based on our research:
- Heterogeneous groups can be extremely creative and successful, or they can “crash” if they fail to take the necessary steps and time to find synergy.
- The more mentally diverse a group is, the more it needs a multi-dominant facilitator/leader to bridge between different perspectives.
- The first step to high performance is providing team members with data on how they are similar or diverse in their thinking, and the implications for the task at hand. Too often, this step is skipped, and frustration follows.
If you want to get the innovative benefits of cognitive diversity, our advice is to start by giving team members an understanding of how they each think (using a tool like the HBDI® assessment) so they can learn about their own preferences with a clear focus on application in terms of solving real business challenges—so they know it’s not just another “feel-good” teambuilding exercise.
Then bring them together to learn about their thinking differences, how different thinking preferences can contribute to innovative ideas and solutions, and how they can complement each other and add value to the innovation process. Provide team members with tools to leverage their differences, and let them get to work on a real challenge.
Once they see that the results they get together will almost always outperform those they get separately, the conversation about diversity will take on a whole new tone.
Be sure to check out The Whole Brain® Business Book, Second Edition (available May 2015), which includes a comprehensive list of creative problem solving tools that align with each preference.
In our always-on/always-connected environment, between work and family, texts and emails, new demands and ongoing change, most of us are feeling like our brains are full. And yet the constant stream keeps coming. It may seem unrealistic to hit the off switch, but we’re hoping to at least find a pause button.
This is one reason for the growing interest among business, HR and talent leaders in mindfulness and deep thinking, practices that just a few years ago would have seemed completely at odds with what it takes to be successful in business.
But whether you’re responsible for helping others develop and grow, managing people and projects, or just managing yourself, it’s easy to see how the distractions of the modern world are taking a toll, not just on performance, productivity and morale but also on people’s health and well being.
How can our businesses continue to thrive if we aren’t able to put our best thinking to work?
In fact, mindfulness is being aware of what's going on in your brain. This is far different than being "mind-full"—letting your brain get so full that you feel overwhelmed by information.
Here are three strategies anyone can apply to increase mindfulness and become more productive as a result.
1. Understand your thinking preferences
All of us have thinking preferences that help us—and sometimes hinder us—in our productivity. I have natural preferences in the area of research and analysis as well as thinking about the big picture and exploring new ideas. I have lesser preferences for dealing with details and getting organized.
I work hard to not let my desire to research and explore get in the way of actually getting a project done. This takes intentional effort, but becoming aware of your preferences is the first step in getting more deliberate about how you apply your thinking.
2. Get out of your own way by removing distractions
The goal is to manage your thinking processes rather than letting them manage you. We create obstacles to this by getting lost in multi-tasking: responding to a text while trying to have a conversation with somebody sitting in front of us, or checking email and browsing the web during a meeting.
Recently, I was talking to someone and heard an alert from my computer that I'd just received a new email. At that point my eyes ever so furtively glanced at the screen, read the subject line of that email and missed three or four sentences of what the other person said—the most important sentences in our conversation. I had to sheepishly ask that person to repeat them.
We know that the brain is not a parallel processor. In other words, it can only do one thing at a time well. To be more mindful and more productive, shut down the sources of distraction. If necessary, write down any thoughts that nag at you so that they no longer tug at your attention.
3. Warm up for a deep dive
Finally, when you have a certain type of thinking to do, give yourself permission to do a deep dive. This includes warming up to the task and allowing time for your brain to function at full capacity.
For example, our ability to move between analytical and empathic thinking is limited. We can do both. But if we try to do them both at the same time, our efforts will cancel each other out.
So if you're doing a task that requires you to be in tune with another person's feelings, then prime your thinking. Recall an event that left you with positive emotions about another person. This helps you to engage in a deep way with someone else.
If you want to a deep dive into a task that requires analytical thinking, then make sure you have what you need. Get your brain into that mode by looking at data. Shut down Facebook. Get focused. Block time on your calendar to get the thinking done.
What strategies are you using to help take control of your thinking rather than letting it control you?
What makes a good match? Whether you’re putting together a workplace mentoring program or just thinking about your prospects for Valentine’s Day, thinking preferences provide some clues.
On the work front, many organizations have begun setting up mentoring programs recently. With another estimated 4 million Baby Boomers expected to retire this year, these companies want to make sure their valuable knowledge, experience and critical thinking skills don’t leave along with them.
But just like any pair, not every mentor match is made to last.
HBDI® Certified Practitioner Lynne Krause has used thinking preferences as her guide in pairing mentors and mentees at the US Naval Command, and we’d challenge even the best of online dating sites to equal her 99% success rate!
Of course, it’s only natural to be curious about the connection between thinking preferences and your personal relationships, too. Here’s what we can tell you on an anecdotal level:
In working with thousands of people over the years, we’ve asked them where they think the preferences of their partner, spouse or significant other lie, and anecdotally, we can say that opposites attract—at least in first marriages.
On the other hand, couples in second and third marriages, as well as unmarried couples who are living together, are generally more similar in their thinking preferences. (Could it be that the unmarried couples think so much alike that they don’t feel the need for a formal contract?)
Being with someone who has significantly different thinking preferences from your own can be challenging, both in the positive and negative sense of the word. It doesn’t mean the relationship is doomed to fail, but maybe couples in their second and third marriages have figured out that they just don’t want to work that hard anymore!
The keynote I delivered at World Financial Group last week had more than 200 leaders in attendance, all seated by their HBDI® thinking preferences. It’s always so striking to see how that validates people’s learning about themselves and others, both as they discover their HBDI® Profiles and begin applying what they’re learning.
In The Whole Brain Business Book, Ned Herrmann shares a story of the “aha” moment that came from just such a seating exercise. Presenting to a leadership group of a large company, he had assigned people to tables based on preferences (unbeknownst to the participants), and it turned out that the company’s chairman/CEO and president/COO had opposing profiles.
Elected as spokespeople for their respective tables to discuss the kinds of work they really loved and were energized by, it was almost as if they were speaking directly to each other, Ned recalled, as the “source of their 15 years of arguments and differences of opinion and frustration was being revealed.”
They realized they had a huge opportunity they were missing out on because they hadn’t been appreciating and taking advantage of their differences and cognitive diversity. It was not only a memorable public demonstration of the consequences of thinking preferences at work, but also the beginning of a true partnership between the two leaders.
Wayne Goodley, Director of Herrmann International in New Zealand, makes the point that seating by quadrant preference is “the best way to ease leaders into the appreciation of the HBDI®” and break down barriers to learning, adding that “the lively and often robust discussion which follows eliminates any doubts as to the effectiveness of the learning process.”
For HBDI® Practitioners out there, what’s been your experience with seating based on thinking preference? How has it affected the learning process and outcomes?
The “shocking” to “disturbing” headlines about employee engagement are almost routine these days. Study after study turns up numbers in the range of 70 to 80 percent of the workforce that’s either not fully engaged or actively disengaged at work, costing companies billions in annual turnover.
It’s not that executives aren’t throwing money at the problem. In fact, by some estimates, companies are collectively investing upwards of $1.5 billion a year into trying to turn it around, without much to show for it in return.
But there have been a few positive signs beginning to emerge. Modern Survey’s Fall 2014 Employee Engagement Index showed engagement levels are beginning to inch up, while disengagement is at its lowest point since the study began.
Sounds good, right? Well, keep reading.
That same survey examined “who wants to leave” and found that, surprisingly (or “alarmingly,” as they put it), nearly a quarter (24%) of fully engaged employees are currently looking to leave their companies.
Something is clearly wrong when companies are spending billions of dollars on engagement, and they can’t even count on their fully engaged people to stay.
One of the biggest culprits? By and large, leaders, managers, and even L&D and HR professionals don’t know their employees. They don’t know what they care about, what matters most to them or what they pay attention to. This is the critical “homework” that has to be done before you put all that money into engagement and retention efforts.
Because work of any kind is primarily a mental activity, the best way to get to know your employees is to start by understanding how they think. This is the filter through which they communicate, listen and process information. It influences how they approach a task and what kind of work they find stimulating (or draining).
As part of the process of writing the second edition of The Whole Brain Business Book, we looked at some of the data around work satisfaction, and generally speaking, we found that the highest satisfaction comes from those who have a strong alignment between their thinking preferences and the mentality of the work they’re assigned to do. The lowest are associated with those who are misaligned—unless they’re looking for a challenge in that specific assignment and have been prepared and are motivated to stretch.
And that’s why this isn’t just about them; it’s also about you. Unless you’re intentional about your thinking, which is what Whole Brain® Thinking is all about, your own preferences will become filters and blind spots, impacting how you communicate, make decisions, assign work and create development plans for others. When fully engaged people are still looking to leave, being able to see past your own preferences and “get inside their heads” is the critical missing piece.
So before you make assumptions about what’s going to engage and retain them, start with thinking. In our experience, it’s the much more cost-effective—and just plain effective—route.
How do I become a better leader in a changing world?
It’s a question that’s been on the minds of so many I’ve talked with recently. It was also the question that lingered in my mind this past year as I was deep in the process of putting together the second edition of The Whole Brain Business Book.
The response we hear so often is, Be more agile. Build your agility. But how? And what does that even mean?
Well, for one, I believe it means unleashing your full brainpower. The only way you can keep up with change and lead through the chaos and uncertainty and distractions and complexities and big data and on and on and on…is to get more conscious about your thinking and how you apply it.
Unleashing your full thinking potential can be uncomfortable, though, whether you’re a highly structured thinker who needs to experiment and take more risks, or a highly imaginative person who needs the discipline and organization to be more productive with your time.
Fortunately, brain research supports the fact that you can stretch and overcome your mental blind spots to become a more agile thinker and leader. It’s something we talk about throughout the newly updated Whole Brain Business Book.
Although the second edition won’t be on the shelves until this spring, you don’t have to wait until then to get started! Here are 6 tips from the book you can apply today to make thinking agility your leadership advantage in a changing world:
- Get used to being uncomfortable: Discomfort is a sign the brain is engaged and learning. Instead of wanting to avoid those who make you uncomfortable, recognize the opportunity they offer to help you stretch your thinking. Hire and enlist them. They can become your biggest asset. Make it a personal challenge to work through the discomfort to new understanding.
- Challenge your assumptions. The brain is very efficient, and it will “fill in the blanks” for you when you’re looking for a solution. But when you’re trying to see something in a different way or find a new way of doing things, the quick leap to conclusions can ultimately be a trap. When you begin to make an assumption, flip it around. Ask yourself, “What if this was not true?”
- Embrace the unknown. It’s your ally, not your enemy. Change presents a great opportunity for new thinking, but only if you deliberately and consciously take advantage of it.
- Optimize your toolkit. Use your own thinking preferences to determine the tools that work for you. For example, if you’re a highly visual thinker, a linear, spreadsheet-style planning tool may make the task of getting organized even more difficult for you. If the techniques and processes aren’t helping, look to thinking preferences for clues and help on how you can find or create a more workable solution for you.
- Lighten up. Unconventional approaches free the brain and stimulate new ideas and perspectives. Find ways to jolt your thinking, and have fun with it!
- Make it a mental habit. Decide what you want and go for it, making your desired future outcomes a reality.
Especially in today’s knowledge-intensive world, your greatest strength lies in your ability to get smarter about your thinking—to make your thinking work for you instead of being trapped by it. Try it, and see how it makes the difference!
(And if you want to get more insights from the book—and be among the first to get a copy—be sure to join me at the ATD 2015 International Conference & Exposition in Orlando this May.)
Recent research suggests looking at cute things can improve performance. We figure it’s worth a shot!
Resolve to put Whole Brain® Thinking to work for you in the new year by spending some time outside your thinking comfort zones. Remember, if you aren’t just a little uncomfortable, you probably aren’t learning!
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Clearly define work goals for next quarter.
- Use logic in your decision making.
- (Re-)organize your filing system and/or your desk.
- Plan out a project in detail and follow through with it.
- Spontaneously recognize another employee in a way that is personal and meaningful for them.
- Be aware of your non-verbal communication and make it friendlier—smile, be relaxed.
- Set aside time for idea generation, and think of at least one “crazy” idea per day.
- In your “mind's eye” (with eyes closed), imagine your organization ten years from now.
You have access to your entire brain, so use it! Happy New Year from all of us at Herrmann International
When you’re delivering a presentation, conducting a training class or just having a conversation with someone, of course it’s important to focus on what you’re saying. But what about the rest of that equation?
It pays to think about your listening skills. Marian Thier, an HBDI® Practitioner and cofounder of Listening Impact LLC, says they’ve found that companies whose leaders are excellent listeners have a strong advantage, outperforming the competition by a factor of three. But there’s more to being a good listener than just stopping talking.
In a recent Fast Company article outlining the habits of good listeners, Marian discusses how important it is to be able to adapt your own preferences to how others communicate. The better you are at planning your interactions and keeping the other person’s preferences in mind, the better you’ll be able to meet their needs. It seems obvious when we’re talking about talking, but it applies when we’re talking about listening, too.
So the next time you’re meeting with a client or facilitating training (or maybe having a conversation with a family member at the holidays!), try applying Whole Brain® Thinking as a listener and as a speaker, and see how that changes things.
As the playwright Wilson Mizner once said, “A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while, he knows something.”
You’re on a roll, tearing through that 20-page document, making changes and getting it all down. And then it happens:
Your computer freezes up on you.
It’s the ultimate frustration. Your system just won’t work, and the only way to move forward is to shut it down.
Something similar happens when you’re mentally stuck. Sometimes you need to change your entire operating system, but sometimes you just need to reboot.
There are advantages to both. Why and when would you want to reboot rather than change systems?
Well, a reboot is easier. It builds off of something you’re familiar with and allows you to feel like you still have momentum. Doing a zero-based budget is a great example of a reboot. Some years ago I was looking at needed cutbacks, and I as went line by line through the P&L, I got lost in the detail of it all: Did we really need this item? How much?
I felt overwhelmed and wasn’t making any progress. So I rebooted by trying a zero-based budget. I started with a clean spreadsheet and listed out all of the items that were must haves if I were starting the company today. Having the clean page gave me a fresh start, took the noise out of the process and made it all much easier. And I knew I could always go back and look at the old P&L if needed to.
You can do this with a project or any plan you get stuck on. (And if the blank page makes you feel even more stuck, try “walking around” the issue by viewing it from the perspective of each of the four quadrants of the Whole Brain® Model.)
What about in life? You can zero-base your life planning by simply asking yourself: If I only focused on what I want and needed from this this day forward, what would that look like? What if the past didn’t matter?
Feel overwhelmed by the never-ending number of commitments you’ve made? Zero-base your activities by imagining you have a totally clean slate to work with. What are the value-added activities you would choose to have in your life?
Feel that your team is riddled with baggage? Give yourselves permission to zero-base your team’s world. Start as if you were onboarding together as a new team. What meetings, processes and structures would you need to be most effective?
The key is to move everything down to zero and then add back in the items that are most crucial. It’s a great way to reboot, shift your thinking and get a clearer view.
Ready to try a reboot? To ramp up your brain first, check out this video that asks, what would you choose to do if money were no object? It will free you up to think differently!