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What a Scissors Attack Taught Me About Brain Energy

Death by scissors... almost.
Death by scissors… almost.

Imagine a man with arms like an albatross swinging a pair of scissors at you, then cornering you in a room with his wheelchair. That happened to me once when I was working with “Edward”, a brain injured man. And this was definitely my fault. For openers, I had not prepared the room properly before he arrived.  Too many scattered papers and folders on the table.  Also, too much task switching.  Do this, no do that!  And there were too many steps.   I had taxed his brain to the limit and he exploded in a rage.  Carefully I reached for the phone to dial hospital security…

Alright, this man had a significant brain injury and what I was asking him to do probably wouldn’t have set off that kind of reaction in most people. Yet, it has been said that one of the best ways to understand what the brain really does is to study a damaged brain. Prior to fMRI, PET scans and other imaging technology, that was all we had.   Even with today’s technology, there are still significant limitations about what we can conclude based on a neuroimaging. Edward had a damaged prefrontal cortex  after haven taken a bullet to the head and survived it.

In the years that I worked with brain injured clients, one of the most interesting and challenging parts of the job was management of the environment in order to maximize their brain power and reduce frustration.  Physically removing distractions, manipulating the number of steps it took to complete a task, task redirection, and providing external feedback about attention span had an almost magical effect on what they were able to accomplish as well as improving their mood.  All of these techniques tend to take the pressure off the brain because they are largely external manipulations in the environment.  The prefrontal cortex can take a mini-break.

Now  in my role as  coach, I can offer that you don’t have to be brain damaged to benefit from these techniques.  They work for everyone- it’s all about managing brain energy.

Here are 4 powerful adjustments you can make to maximize brain power:

1. Avoid Task Switching :  Task switching is not giving yourself enough time to “get on a roll” on any given task. Every time you do a task, your prefrontal cortex, the most energy-expending part of your brain, has to recruit the correct brain cells to do the task.  Each time you switch tasks, you deplete energy.  What’s more, too much task switching creates irritability.

2. Adjust the Number of Cognitive Steps:   In a previous blog,  Adding Cognitive Steps to Manage Distraction , I discussed the notion that you can use cognitive steps to either make something easier or more difficult to do.  If accessing something on the computer is one simple click away, you are more likely to give in to that distraction.  If it requires several more steps, you might not bother.

3. Manage Distractions:  Distractions can be managed either internally or externally.  Internal management requires additional brain energy, sometimes a considerable amount of energy.  Don’t you dare do that!  Is it easier to ignore the TV or turn it off?   Would you rather work to avert your attention from your phone or put it in another room?   I usually have a lot of fun with this particular challenge as I think of ridiculous or ingenious ways to remove distractions from my life.

4. Actively Build Attention Span:   You can do this through meditation.  Or you can do this by setting a timer that will help you gauge progress. Start with 10 minutes then work your way up.

As in all things you want to change, you have practice these enough so that they become part of your mindset and your approach to productivity.Merely reading about it isn’t sufficient. Or doing it occasionally.  The brain responds most of all to the dynamic tension of actually doing something.



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