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Training Your Mind for Productivity and Presence at Work: Part 1 of a 3 Part Series

The brain's role in controlling our lives -- whether we know it or not.

You can probably attribute a lot of your professional success to the power of your brain. It’s how you strategize, plan, collaborate with colleagues and make progress toward your goals -- no other part of your body is going to get you there. That’s pretty obvious.

But have you thought about the possibility that your brain might also be holding you back? That might seem like a paradox at first, but the reality is that our brains do a lot of work behind the scenes that’s designed to protect and guard us, but which also can spiral into overprotective control.

There’s a fantastic book by psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk called The Body Keeps The Score, which I highly recommend that all business leaders read even though it’s not about the working world at all. It’s a deep dive into the ways that we hold trauma and stress in our physical bodies, primarily the nervous system, as well as a rundown of both conventional and unconventional tactics for managing it -- from therapy to yoga to breath-work. Chances are, there’s something from your past affecting the functions of your brain and the rest of your nervous system. Left ignored, it can severely impact our day-to-day functions even if we don’t know it’s doing so. So how do you work through this to bring yourself improved productivity and presence on the job (and beyond)?

What you have to understand first is that our brains are wired for negative stimuli: danger, warnings, and threats. It’s understandable why this is the case when you think about it. In earlier eras of humanity, we had to be worried about danger around every corner, whether it was a rockslide or an approaching predatory animal. So it was a matter of survival to pay more attention to what was alarming than to what was familiar or positive. And the most ancient part of our brains -- the limbic system, sometimes called the “lizard brain,” is what controls this response. If your nervous system is holding a lot of trauma, a classic fight-or-flight response can be triggered even for situations that seem relatively tame to the observer. This system is there to keep you safe, and it works very quickly. It's always scanning what’s around you.

But in our modern world, the result of it is a phenomenon called negativity bias. Our emotional reaction to bad news is stronger than our reaction to good news. We take negative feedback more personally. And this is why it’s important to write down good ideas as soon as you think of them -- whether they occurred to you in a meeting or in the shower -- because we don’t retain positive, productive information for as long as we retain the negative.

Imagine the implications here for the working world. When your boss gives you critical feedback, you might take it too personally, damaging your relationship with your boss. Or, if you’re leading a team and something unexpected happens with a client or project, your immediate reaction could be one driven by a fight-or-flight response rather than by strategic calculations.

What can you do to help reset a stress-laden nervous system? You can give your brain a chance to reset. Even just a few deep breaths can help, which is why I like to talk about something called “one minute moments.” Whenever you start to feel triggers of high stress, whether it’s sudden bad news or a deadline crunch, taking just one minute to reset your brain and calm down your limbic system can have noticeable positive effects. So what are a couple of “one minute moments” you can try out?

  • Breathe. It’s as simple as that. Close your eyes, and take five deep sets of inhales and exhales.

  • Draw. Grab a pencil and paper, and start drawing for a minute. No judgment; no one has to see what you drew.

  • Be grateful. Write down (with a pen or pencil, not typing) three things for which you are grateful at that exact moment.

  • Take a sensory inventory. This is an exercise that sounds basic, but is great for resetting the brain and reestablishing presence. Take note of four things you can see, three things you can feel, two things you can hear, and one thing you can smell.

  • Move. Take 60 seconds just to get up and move, whether it’s walking a lap around the office or shaking out your hands, neck, and shoulders.

All these “one minute moments” help you regain a sense of presence when your brain wants to go into overdrive. What we're really doing here is training ourselves to listen to the best parts of ourselves, and to quiet the parts that get in the way. Negativity bias, fight-or-flight responses, and old stresses held by our nervous systems can seriously impact our ability to go through life and work, but it can just take a few deep breaths to start to create a reset.

Check out the other 2 parts to this series by clicking the links below:

The two situations you need to know how to handle. Part 2 of this month's 3 part series

The Power of Being an Observer- Part 3 of this month's 3 part Series

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