Although the human brain weighs three pounds and makes up only two percent of total body weight, this small bundle of gray matter uses 20% of our daily energy and oxygen intake. Our brains are comprised of about 100 billion neurons, or nerve cells, that communicate with each other through up to 1,000 trillion synapses. These synaptic connections transfer signals and information to other neurons through their branch-like dendrites. This amazingly complex neural system dictates everything we do, from making a cup of coffee to writing an email to remembering the names of our colleague’s kids.
Considering our massive brain power—signals can travel to and from the brain as fast as 268 mph—why do we still have those days when we feel like we’re lost in a mental fog? For one, today’s workplace is not conducive to optimal brain performance. Telecommuting, the flexibility of work time, and corporate globalization that warrants after-midnight conference calls with overseas colleagues all contribute to a work day that extends beyond the typical eight hours. Email, instant message, and mobile devices allow us to be accessible 24/7, unless we make a conscious effort to unplug.
High-stressed employees who function at this breakneck speed are likely to crash and burn. The reality and fallout of corporate burnout is getting companies to invest more in well-being programs that promote the physical, mental, and emotional health of their most notable workaholics (read: CEOs). But what if your company doesn’t offer an anti-burnout initiative for all employees? Dr. Jenny Brockis, author of >Future Brain: The 12 Keys to Create Your High-Performance Brain, suggests ways to keep stress under control and your mind sharp all day long:
- Do one thing at a time. Studies show that our brains can’t perform multiple mental tasks at the same time. In fact, multi-taskers are 40% less productive and 50% more likely to make a mistake. Dr. Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, found that it takes a person 25 minutes, on average, to pick up a task again after an interruption. Brockis tells us that it’s best to manage cognitive energy in chunks of time, since our brains are designed to work in an ultradian rhythm that alternates between 90 minutes of high mental performance followed by 20 minutes of down time. Try repeating this cycle throughout the work day by engaging in about an hour and a half of intense concentration followed by a coffee break or a walk outside.
- Snack on brain-healthy food.
Since brain neurons rely on glucose as their main source of energy, skipping meals can result in low glucose levels, which clouds thinking and saps cognitive energy. Brockis says, “We can recover cognitive stamina through the simple act of eating something to restore the glucose supply our neurons need to start firing again.” Carbohydrates found in fruits and vegetables supply the glucose our brains need to function well, so eating a banana or a handful of blueberries—which studies show can boost memory and concentration for up to five hours—will do the trick.
- Get plenty of sleep.
We spend one-third of our lives asleep, and most people need seven to eight hours of sleep a night for the brain’s neurons to rebuild and rejuvenate. A good night’s sleep has ample brain benefits from making clearer decisions and solving problems faster to stimulating creativity and increasing innovative thinking. Brockis states, “Reducing our sleep time to four or five hours a night over as little as one week reduces our cognitive capacity to the equivalent of a blood alcohol level of 0.01 percent.”
Sleep deprivation costs American companies $63 billion a year in lost productivity, which is why some major organizations—including the Nike headquarters in Portland, Oregon, Ben & Jerry’s main office in Vermont, and Google’s corporate campus in Mountain View, California—are so committed to sleep that they have on-site nap rooms, pods, or quiet spaces for yoga and meditation. If you do get the chance to snag a snooze, make sure to keep it short (20 minutes) to avoid sleep inertia, which is that grogginess we feel after a deep sleep, and don’t nap after 3 p.m. to avoid messing with your nighttime sleep patterns.
How do you stay alert and productive in an increasingly distracted workplace? Please feel free to leave your comments in the section below.
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