As with “soft skills”, businesses are coming to understand that deeply human capabilities – the kind of skills that robots will never be able to master – are rising in value in the job market. These are the skills which are called the “executive functions” of the brain.
Tara Swart, renowned neuroscientist, medical doctor, and executive leadership coach, says “The ‘executive functions’ of the brain are the highest functions of the brain, and those include the ability to regulate our emotions, suppress our biases, switch between tasks, solve complex problems and think creatively and flexibly.
“About 20 years ago, it was seen as really important to be strategic rather than tactical,” says Swart. But advances in her field, combined with the shifting demands of today’s employers, have begun to change that. “Now, I think an understanding of the cognitive sciences is going to be the thing that makes people thrive.” These executive brain skills will obviously be more and more crucial as the workplace evolves.
Your brain determines your productivity
To be really productive, you need to be able to think clearly. And to think clearly, you need to ensure that blood is flowing freely to your brain, carrying the glucose and the oxygen it requires. When you’re stressed – for example, if you think that you’ve been treated unfairly – what happens is that your brain literally moves the blood away from its higher centers down to what’s called survival mode. When you’re in that state, you can sit at your desk and look like you’re doing your job, but you’re unlikely to be really productive or to successfully collaborate with people.
“Your brain is like the CEO of your body”, explains Swart. “If you knew how your CEO thinks, what their values are, how they like to work, you’d be able to give them the best piece of work that you could, and it’s exactly like that with your brain: the more you know about how it works, the more you can get out of it.” When you’re really stressed, or if there are problems in the workplace, Swart explains that giving the brain a short rest can be beneficial. “It’s better to either take some time out or sort the problem out and then come back to work being as productive as you can… you feel warmer towards other people, you’re more likely to lower your guard and trust them, you’re more likely to think creatively, and you’re more likely to take a healthy amount of risk.
The care and feeding of a healthy brain
All the things we want from life – health, happiness, wealth and relationships – are governed by your brain. Knowing more about how your brain works and the connection between the brain and body can help you train your brain to be successful in modern life and realize your greatest potential.
Rest is vital: studies have shown that any disruption to a good night’s sleep can reduce your working IQ by as much as five to eight points the next day. Try to get seven to nine hours of good quality sleep every night. Some tricks to do this include avoiding smartphones and laptops for an hour before bed (the blue light their screens emit tricks the brain into thinking it’s daytime, which negatively impacts sleep quality); sleeping in complete darkness; limiting alcohol and caffeinated drinks. Another tip is to take a nap during the day. Though some say napping can disturb your sleep cycle, studies show it can reinvigorate your brain. A 30-minute nap improves learning and memory, while a 60 to 90-minute nap will support the formation of new neural connections, which aids creativity and helps retain information.
Fuel is, of course, brain food. Although our brain only weighs two to three kilos – a small fraction of our body weight – it absorbs 25-30% of the nutrients from what we eat and drink. Some “brain healthy” foods include eggs for protein and vitamin B12; salmon and oily fish for their Omega 3 essential fatty acids; magnesium rich foods, such as beans, nuts or leafy green vegetables (these help lower the stress hormone cortisol); coconut oil and avocado which both contain “good” fats… And full fat dairy products, as opposed the skimmed or reduced fat alternatives. The fatty acids in full fat milk play a role in gene expression and hormone regulation.
Hydration means H2O: As little as a 1 to 3% decrease in your hydration can negatively affect your memory, concentration and decision-making. Water allows the chemicals and electrical signals to pass freely between brain cells. Try to drink at least 500ml of water for every 15 kg of your body weight each day. And eating hydrating foods, such as cucumber, melon and lettuce can actually be even more beneficial than water.
Oxygenation: move it, move it! You can oxygenate your brain simply by taking deep breaths which sends some extra resources to your brain when you feel stressed. But this is only a quick fix; the best way to oxygenate your brain is through exercise. Try to get a few hours of exercise per week, and keep moving throughout the day, especially if you have a desk job. Regular exercise can have the same effect on the brain as a low dose of anti-depressants and can boost your productivity by as much as 15%.
Simplify, simplify. Mindfulness, the practice of focusing all your attention on the present moment, has long been associated with relaxation and stress-relief. In a world with an increasing number of distractions, mindfulness can help clear your mind and focus your attention. By concentrating on your own breathing, body and thoughts, you can remove pressures and judgements attached to those thoughts. Although mindfulness is often associated with yoga or meditation, you can even practice it while walking or eating.