If you’re like most people, you might not know about your own brain. Yet, your brain is who you are. It’s the size of your fist, weighs about as much as a cantaloupe—around three pounds—and is the boss of your mind and body. It never shuts down and is active even when you’re asleep. It determines how well you perform at work and how far you climb the career ladder, so it’s important to know what it needs from you. With modern imaging techniques, neuroscientists have advanced our understanding of this amazing organ, how it functions and what it needs to provide you optimal job performance. Science shows that you can provide your brain 10 things to keep it happy and healthy and maximize your career success.
Your brain needs plenty of blood flow to function optimally. Studies show that exercise is good medicine, not just for limbs and heart, but for the brain as well. One study found that, after twelve months, exercise and movement amped up blood flow to the brain and even helped slow the onset of memory loss and dementia. You can feed your brain the excess blood it needs through aerobics, walking and stretching and toning your body.
Your brain needs periodic breaks. Science doesn’t back up the belief that running your brain into the ground is good business. In fact, new research shows the value of what scientists call “Microbreaks” throughout the workday. These short breaks—I recommend five minutes or less—are effective energy management strategies and can be as simple as stretching, walking up and down stairs, gazing out a window at nature, snacking or having a five minute mindful meditation. Microbreaks mitigate brain and decision fatigue and chill your brain between appointments when you deep breathe, meditate, practice yoga or tai chi or get a massage.
Your brain needs certain kinds of foods. Healthy brain foods boost your mood, health and work performance. Pay attention to the food on your plate, and ask if it promotes overall brain health. Proteins—such as meats, poultry dairy, cheese and eggs—give your brain the amino acids it needs to create neurotransmitter pathways. Plus, it stabilizes blood sugar. Omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines help your brain with mood. Vitamin B is essential for brain wellness and can be found in eggs, whole grains, fish, avocados and citrus fruits. And Vitamin D—found in dairy products, beef liver, orange juice or egg yolks—is an important mood stabilizer.
Your brain needs ample sleep. According to neuroscientists, sleep is restorative, whereas sleep deprivation lowers your resistance to stress and harms your brain. Lack of sleep interferes with memory and learning. Your brain moves slower. You’re more forgetful, and your attention is short-circuited. A recent study showed that ample sleep restores clarity and performance by actively refining cortical plasticity. The converse is also true. Studies show that sleep deprivation leads to brain stress, cloudy thinking and decision fatigue. Plus, fragmented sleep signals a vulnerability to social stress. Research shows sleep loss makes it difficult to see the positive side of things, causing us to react stronger to stressful workplace situations; whereas, ample sleep helps us respond better to negative and positive situations at work.
Your brain learns from novelty. Your brain’s ability to adapt to novel situations is essential for survival. Studies show that the brain’s exposure to new experiences dampens established thought patterns in order to consolidate new information. Novelty promotes adaptive learning by resetting key brain circuits and enhances your ability to update new ideas into existing neurological frameworks. So your brain likes it when you try new things.
Your brain is healthier when you have social connections. Recent findings show that social engagement mitigates cognitive decline. People who get together with friends and family, volunteer or attend classes have more robust gray matter and healthier brains. The key is to avoid social isolation and cultivate safe ways to maintain social interactions in order to enhance your brain’s gray matter and amp up your well-being.
Your brain prefers focus to multitasking. At some point, you might have to perform more than one activity at a time. But if multitasking becomes a pattern, it can backfire. When you bounce between several tasks at once, you’re forcing your brain to keep refocusing with each rebound and reducing productivity by up to 40%. Not only does multitasking undermine productivity, it neutralizes efficiency, creating several half-baked projects that can leave your brain overwhelmed and stressed out. In an effort to handle the overload from prolonged multitasking, scientists say your brain rewires, causing fractured thinking, lack of concentration and decision fatigue. As a result, multitaskers take longer to switch among tasks, have greater brain fatigue and are less efficient at juggling work problems than non-multitaskers.
Your brain wants to help you communicate with co-workers from socially diverse backgrounds. Yale scientists discovered that your brain acts differently when you talk with someone of a different socioeconomic background from your own. They detected a higher activity level in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for self-regulation, bias avoidance and collaboration with your limbic system (or emotional brain) to help you understand the world. Your prefrontal cortex is the decider of whether or not you do what your impulsive, lightning-fast emotional brain wants to do. The Yale scientists concluded that, despite our implicit biases and prejudices, the human brain’s frontal lobe activates during conversations among employees from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds to assist in navigating communication barriers and social diverse attitudes.
Your brain likes positivity. Research shows that, although the brain is wired for negativity, it likes optimism. Neuroscientists have found that chronic pessimism damages your telomeres—the protective tips at the end of chromosomes that are shortened by negative thoughts and lengthened by positive thoughts. Shortened telomeres make us prone to declining health, truncated career trajectory and earlier death. Additional research shows people who are enthusiastic and cheerful are less likely to have memory decline as they age. Positivity is always present—even under the direst pressures. Focusing on the possible, big-picture aspects of situations enlarges your brain’s range of vision, allowing it to see more possibilities. Studies show when you expand your negativity’s constrictive “zoom lens” into a “wide-angle lens,” it creates more optimism, and optimists scale the career ladder faster and farther than pessimists.
Your brain needs 120 minutes per week in nature. A groundbreaking study in Scientific Reports found that your brain loves spending a minimum of two hours a week in parks, woodlands or beaches. It promotes physical and mental health and well-being and gives you a bigger perspective of your life circumstances. Study participants who spent 120 minutes per week had better health and higher psychological well-being than the ones who didn’t spend any weekly time in nature or those who spent less than two hours per week. It doesn’t matter how the 120 minutes are achieved. It can be done in one block or spread out over the entire week to get the benefit. It doesn’t matter what activity you’re involved in, either, as long as you’re outdoors: sailing, biking, kayaking, walking or tennis—or simply sitting.
It’s A No-Brainer
These 10 steps stress-proof your brain and make it happy and healthy. You don’t have to continue to allow external or internal pressures to clog your brain, dictate its health and burn you out. Your brain and body weren’t designed to stay on red alert 24/7 in order to speed from task to task. Unless you’re under threat, you were designed to saunter. When you slow down and savor job tasks you’ve been rushing through, ease and stillness keep your energy up, brain clear and productivity high. Scientists recently discovered that when you resolve an argument by day’s end, it significantly reduces brain stress. So step back, take a breath and chill. By the end of the day, you will have time left over for the things you want to do. You will be more productive at work, your brain will be happier, and you won’t wear it out before its time.