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  • Writer's picturePatricia Faust

Your Brain on Productivity

Have you ever experienced ‘flow’? That is the time that you are just humming along oblivious to anything other than the project you are working on. It is a wonderful state and one we would love to be in all the time. But if you are human, there are times when your brain is so overwhelmed that you have a hard time doing simple tasks. Well there is a reason for this (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it!). All of this boils down to the way we take information in and then process it. If you are only taking in information, not removing any content from your overwhelmed brain and aren’t keeping a task list, you have overloaded your working memory.

The Three Types of Memory

There are three types of memory that function within our brain. Working memory is designed to keep the most pressing things in the forefront of our minds. Short-term memory takes on the overflow of working memory and long-term memory is embedded within our brain for recall at a different time. As we scan our environment our brain determines what information is worth paying attention to and then picks it up in working memory. Now this is actually where there is a flaw in the system (I think!). Our working memory is vulnerable to distraction and can only hold 4-10 pieces of information for a short period of time. This is where the information we need to work with enters our brain. So you can see how quickly your brain can become overwhelmed with information.

Sabotaging Your Productivity

There are some tools we need to be aware of in order to give our working memory a break to function at full capacity. We don’t need to keep everything in memory. We are fooling ourselves if we think that trying to remember everything is a great exercise for our brain. It is quite the opposite – we are adding cognitive load and asking our brain to still function at a high level. If you are working on a project and you are handed another project to complete, you might be trying to keep the information you need for both projects in your memory. Trying to manipulate all this information creates low effectiveness on both projects. Your brain is not made to work this way. That scenario launches the limbic system into action and the stress response has now overtaken your brain. You are reacting rather than thinking and the quality of your work goes down. You are sabotaging your productivity.

Write a To-Do List

Unfortunately, this is the way we function in our world. The solution is quite simple actually. Write a To-Do list. Offload some of that information from your working memory. It is not necessary to keep all of that information in your head. Working memory then becomes more efficient. If you are paying particular attention to each task, you engage the anterior cingulate and the prefrontal cortices. These areas of the brain dampen the action of the limbic system associated with stress and anxiety and voila - you are thinking clearly again.

You can write your to-do list and cross off completed tasks. That actually releases some dopamine – the neurotransmitter that assists in motivation and reward. Or you can get more structured with your list-making. Every night before you go to bed, take a little time to write down the top 3-5 priority items that will help you move forward towards your goals. (This will help you sleep better because you won’t be mulling over work in your mind while you are trying to get to sleep.) At the end of each day look over your list and cross out what you completed and roll over uncompleted tasks to the next day. You can comment on what you felt went really well and what you needed to do differently. You are in control of your day instead of your day being in control of you.

Neuroscience and Productivity vs Your Brain and Productivity

Now let’s move on to your ‘brain’ and productivity. As I mentioned, this is a whole different perspective. Neuroscience and productivity looked at the way the brain functions. Your brain and productivity looks at brain health. It is rare that we look at brain health – usually only when something is clinically wrong. But everything starts and stops with the brain. It is your brain that allows you to solve complex problems, to be creative when facing unchartered situations, to learn new job skills, to discern the intent behind a person’s words, to create and design something new, and to plan for the future.

Your brain is a fine-tuned machine. It has specific requirements to operate at optimal levels. And life, with all it brings, is constantly causing wear and tear on brain function. So knowing how to take proper care of your brain and understanding its needs will create brain resiliency (stronger brain). So what are the specific actions you need to take to keep your brain functioning at a high level?

The Research

There was a study conducted in Australia that looked at physical exercise and productivity. The study was small but offered some provocative insights. Forty employees at a Melbourne branch of a large software company were given pedometers. Their goal was to walk 10,000 steps per day (2000-3000 steps/day – average). This was the control group. The experimental group too had a goal of 10000 steps/day but also had to do resistance training three times per week. Both groups participated for eight weeks. There were neuropsychological tests used to measure the participants’ ability to plan, remember, stimulate future scenarios and make decisions. Researchers also measured alertness, energy levels, anger and stress.

The results showed a correlation (meaning that the actions supported the results but didn’t prove that they caused the results) between vigorous physical activity, increased brain function and reduced stress levels at work. A four percent increase in brain function was also found in those who both walked the 10000 steps and did resistance training. (Linda Sasser, Sept. 23, 2015). The next step of this study was to compute what the physical and cognitive improvements were worth in terms of money. Harvard University’s Productivity Questionnaire was used and calculated that each employee in the experimental group (steps plus exercise) had contributed an additional $2500 worth of productivity annually to the company. The research leader, Paul Taylor, stated that this result confirmed previous findings of increased happiness, productivity, and cognition as a result of vigorous exercise.

When you realize that our brains need outside support to maintain health in our very stressful world, you will find great benefits in scales of happiness, engagement and productivity.


Ryker,N. 5 Powerful ‘brain hacks’ that will rocket your daily productivity & focus. Retrieved April 6, 2016 from

Mochel,D & Sara. (July 30, 2014). The neuroscience of productivity. Retrieved April 6, 2016 from

Sasser,L. (September 23, 2015). New ways to maximize productivity! Retrieved April 6, 2016 from

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