How to Use More of Your Brain







February 14, 2015

A blacksmith is useless without his hammer. The factory is nothing without a conveyor belt. A jockey gets nowhere without his horse. Jimi Hendrix is lost without a guitar. What is thunder without lightning... OK, that last one was a joke. This is not the start of a new love song I'm writing. Craftsmen and their tools, that's the point. Without those, they would be nowhere. But crafts have changed and so has our equipment. We've moved to offices and are spending our days in front of screens. The computer is the main new tool we're using, making our brain the shining star. Brain is to computer what the blacksmith's dexterity is to his hammer. Without mastery of the hands, the hammer is useless. Without our brains, the computer will do very little (at least for now...).

Know your brain like the back of your hand

Do you understand your mind the way Jimi Hendrix knew his guitar? Most of us spend surprisingly little time figuring out how our brain really functions. We assume that how it thinks is simply how it thinks, c'est la vie. Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps without realizing it, you have taught your brain to think and respond in particular ways. It also has habits if you will. Yes, some reflexes are primal and instinctive, but even those can be tamed simply by recognizing them for what they are. Gaining Jimi Hendrix-style control over our brains might be far off, but we should at least know our minds like the blacksmith knows his hammer. Here are eight tips on how to use more of your brain.

1. Fix your "open loops"

This is the easiest one to solve, but perhaps also the nastiest one if left unresolved.

You can fool everyone else, but you can’t fool your own mind. It knows whether or not you’ve come to the conclusions you need to, and whether you’ve put the resulting outcomes and action reminders in a place that can be trusted to resurface appropriately within your conscious mind." - David Allen, Getting Things Done

When I read Getting Things Done back in 2008, one of the immediate and most powerful takeaways was to start emptying my head. Everything which was unresolved (David Allen calls them "open loops") had to get out of my brain and into "external" memory. External memory "devices" can be your todo list, calendar, smartphone, Evernote, even plain old pen and paper. The point is not to use your brain to simply remember things, so you free it up entirely to concentrate on more difficult activities.

Never memorize something that you can look up.”- Albert Einstein

2. You're more irrational and biased than you think

Psychological research shows even smart people display surprisingly bad and biased judgments. Now you might be reading this and think "I'm more intelligent than most smart people and have excellent judgment". Well, have a look at the below overview of 13 common types of irrational thinking from Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow:

  1. The overconfidence phenomenon (the tendency to be more confident than correct).
  2. The framing effect (the effect of how a question or issue is posed — as when people are more accepting of a surgery with a 95 percent survival than a 5 percent death rate).
  3. The discounting of base-rate information (and favoring anecdotal information) when making social judgments.
  4. The availability heuristic (estimating the likelihood of events based on how readily examples, such as of plane crashes, come to mind).
  5. Illusory correlations (perceiving associations where none exist).
  6. Illusions of control (presuming that one’s behavior can control chance events).
  7. Perceiving order in random sequences (attributing causal explanations to random “hot streaks” in sports and investing).
  8. Belief perseverance (clinging to an initial belief and the reasons it might be true, even after the discrediting of the original basis for the belief).
  9. Hindsight bias (overestimating, after an event, one’s ability to have foreseen it).
  10. Self-serving bias (the tendency to perceive oneself favorably).
  11. Mood effects on memories and judgments (our moods color how we recall and judge the world).
  12. Ingroup bias (the tendency to favor and perceive virtue in one’s group).
  13. Myside bias (a type of confirmation bias that leads us to seek and favor perspectives that are sympathetic to our own).

Just being aware of these misjudgments can go a long way to help you catch them and improve your thinking.

3. There's a 97% chance you can't multitask

Three percent of people are supertaskers: individuals who work better and faster the more tasks they're given. For the rest of us, doing more than one thing at a time slows us down and leads to mistakes. You might be confident you belong to that special 3% of people and that's ok (see the above list under point number two). Luckily, I've found a simple test to help you determine whether you're indeed a supertasker, or merely suffering from overconfidence and self-serving bias: The Multitask Test. Much and more has already been written about multitasking, so I'm not going to repeat what others have already explained very well. If you're still convinced multitasking is great, here are a few more articles on the topic:

4. Prioritizing comes at a cost

Determining what to do and what not to do is hard. It involves knowing what is important to you and what's not. You also need to be good at saying no a lot and not be too worried about making the perfect decision. But there's one other factor. The activity of setting priorities costs brain power! Have you ever stared at your todo list at the end of the day, struggling to determine what to work on first the next day? Many people recommend prioritizing tomorrow the evening before, but personally I find this quite difficult. At the end of the day I don't have tons of energy left, which makes determining priorities a lot harder. If you have encountered the same problem, try spending five to ten minutes at the start of your day instead. It will come easier and you will make better decisions about what to work on.

5. Our instinctive response to stress is counter-intuitive

Our natural response to pressure is to either run away or face it head-on (jump into action). This was great when we were still running around in bear hides, but in most modern work situations this is counter-productive. One of the best ways to get rid of stress is to declutter your head. This is the middle ground between running away and immediately jumping into action. Emptying your head to deal with pressure goes beyond merely getting rid of all "open loops" (see point number one above). The main question to ask yourself when you feel stressed and losing control is: "Which are all the things that bother me?".

Find the real stressor

Often stress comes from multiple sources and it's easy to mistake the forest for the trees. To give you a recent example from my own life, here's the "What's currently bothering me?" list I made last week:

  • My Evernote setup has become ineffective for my current work situation and I'm afraid some things will slip through the cracks.
  • Because I don't have a printer in my new apartment, I haven't used my own habit checklist for the past weeks.
  • I need to make a call to apologize to a client, as I had to cancel a training which was scheduled for early March.
  • I'm experiencing light pain in my right shoulder by the end of each working day.

My mind was telling me it was the unstable Evernote setup that was bothering me the most. But once I wrote everything down and gave it some thought, it became clear calling my client was subconsciously nagging me the most. It was also the easiest to resolve from all of the above. Of course this list can look very different for you. The point is to take a break for 5 to 10 minutes to write out all the things that are causing you stress. Consider which one is the worst offender, then tackling that one first. It will immediately ease the pressure and clear up your mind. Note that the type of stress described here is the short-term type. Chronic stress caused by a permanent work overload or other severe (personal) issues are very different beasts and beyond the scope of this article.

6. We're lousy problem-solvers.

The process of problem-solving needn't be hard. Here's a description by Farnam Street blog, taken from the book Problem Solving 101:

This book offered a simple way to deal with problems that I can still recall today: (1) understand the current situation; (2) identify the root cause of the problem; (3) develop an effective action plan; and (4) execute until the problem is solved."

Sounds easy enough, right? Unfortunately, one of our flaws from point number two plays up again here:

If you’ve ever found yourself in the middle of a problem solving meeting you know that our bias towards action causes us to want to skip steps 1 and 2. We’re prone to action. We want to shoot first and ask questions later. This bias makes the simple four step approach above almost painful. If we think we understand the problem our minds naturally see steps 1 and 2 as a waste. The next time you find yourself in an unfortunate problem solving meeting ask yourself a few questions – are we addressing a problem or a symptom. If you’re addressing a problem, does everyone in the room agree on the problem? How will we know we’ve solved the problem?"

Being aware of this bias and remembering to follow the 4-step process goes a long way in getting to the root cause of problems and solving them.

7. Focus on what you can change

If what I've learned from Stoicism so far had to be summed up in one sentence, this would be it:

What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” - Epictetus

I have always been a pretty hard and determined worker, yet it wasn't until reading The Obstacle is The Way that I became aware of the Stoic mindset. I realized I was often letting my thoughts get wasted on things outside of my control and sometimes loosing my clarity of thought because of emotion. This all comes down to the difference between focussing on what we can change versus everything else. Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is The Way, sums it up like this:

What is up to us? (our playing field)
  • Our emotions
  • Our judgments
  • Our creativity
  • Our attitude
  • Our perspective
  • Our desires
  • Our decisions
  • Our determination
What is not up to us? Everything else. The weather, the economy, circumstances, other people’s emotions or judgements, trends, etc."

Gaining control over everything on the "What is up to us?" list and accepting everything else gracefully, is a key way to improve your thinking, which in turn leads to better (work) performance and overall well-being.

8. Mindfulness

Oh, that word. Perhaps one of the biggest hypes of the past years, I dread writing it down here. But truth be told, all of the above works better when you're more aware of your own thoughts. This can be achieved by being more mindful. Mindfulness is not the same thing as meditating but they're closely related. Meditating is one of the best ways to practise being more mindful. Some people think meditating means being in control of your thoughts (or even suppressing them), but that's not really what it's about. Besides being more present in the moment (as opposed to constantly thinking about the past or the future), the way I understand and use mindfulness is this: to be able to observe my own thoughts, without immediately attaching an emotion or automatic chain of follow-up thoughts. Often a certain type of thought makes you feel guilty, anxious, or stressed, which then triggers another set of "automatic" thoughts related to those emotions. A thinking "habit" if you will. By meditating and being more mindful, I'm capable of recognizing a thought "happening" and then letting it pass gracefully or responding to it effectively. This as opposed to reacting with emotion or an "automatic" chain of thought (note this also sits well with the Stoic philosophy of the previous point).

"Can you please summarize all that for me?"

Certainly, here you go:

  1. Use "external memory devices" to get as much information stored outside of your brain as possible.
  2. Be aware of common flaws and biases in your own and other's thinking.
  3. Give up on multitasking and start single-tasking instead.
  4. Don't try to prioritize your todo list when you're tired.
  5. List everything that's bothering you when stress strikes, to determine and get rid of the worst offender.
  6. Make sure you understand the root cause of a problem before jumping into action.
  7. Adopt a Stoic mindset and focus only on those things you can change.
  8. Practice mindfulness to turbocharge all of the above.

Further reading and exploring Our brain is one of the most complex and intriguing objects in the universe. The above covers just some aspects of our thinking. There are many more tricks, tips and research out there that are well worth digesting. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Farnam Street blog: my number one resource for everything related to better thinking and decision-making. Their weekly email newsletter is awesome, click here to sign up, you'll not regret it.
  • One of the first books to get me more interested in the brain many years ago, was How the Brain Works by David Rock. It's a relatively easy read and structured in a way to really drive home practical lessons about your thinking.
  • If you haven't done so already, Getting Things Done by David Allen is an absolute must-read if you're interested in productivity and your brain. You can skip the second half of the book in my opinion, but the first 50% forms the basis for almost every productivity trick and method out there.
  • Start practicing meditation, even if only 10 minutes per day. Downloading the Headspace app is the easiest and fastest way to get you on your way.

Do you have other tricks and tips on improving your thinking and brain use? Please share the in the comments below!