In June’s brain blog I talked about how the human brain is built for change. The process of adapting to change can be difficult, particularly when those changes are forced upon us by circumstances beyond our control, but it’s reassuring to hear that it’s what brains are built to do.
The experience of adjusting to lockdown has ranged from a bit of a nuisance for some to utterly unbearable for others. One major problem people have faced is trying to stay productive while unable to leave their home. As somebody who’s been working from home more or less full time for a decade, I’ve developed a variety of brain hacks that I’ve found greatly improve my own efficiency. These tips and tricks are all “Neuroformed” – i.e. neuroscience-informed – in the sense that they are ultimately inspired by insights gleaned from the neuroscience research literature.
With the exception of a few places here and there lockdown is slowly but surely being eased across the UK, Europe and further afield. But for many, the process of “unlock” does not necessarily mean physically going back to the office. For the foreseeable future working practices will continue to be much more remote, with much more working-from-home than ever before. What better time to share the tactics I’ve developed for turning your home into a place where you can actually get work done as effectively (if not more) than in the workplace?
Working inside the home rather than outside it robs people of the natural boundary between work and home life – the dreaded commute. While its absence comes with benefits – more time than ever to invest in the replenishing, memory forming and emotional management boosting actions of sleep – the lack of a clear boundary between work and play is perilous. It threatens not just psychological wellbeing but also overall productivity, because our brains can settle down to work much more quickly and stay at it for longer if it’s had the chance to enjoy a solid period of downtime.
When people only work in their workplace, the front door delineates the boundary between a work-centred mindset and the somewhat different brain states associated with home life. Digital devices have already increasingly blurred this line over the past decade or so. The existence of internet-connected smartphones, tablets and laptops do encourage many to feel obliged to continue working when they get home from work. While such practices have become increasingly common, at least some of the stresses associated with the workplace can be “left behind” when a person exits the building.
This is a psychologically healthy way to go about things because we all need to give our bodies and brains a break from the high cortisol levels (the most famous of the “stress” hormones) typically associated with being in “work mode”. Cortisol acts on our cells to increase energy availability for that brain to keep us motivated, focused and able to get our work done. But with many people finding themselves with no alternative but to cram home offices into bedrooms and living rooms, it’s harder to feel psychologically distanced from work-related stresses than ever before, given all the evidence of the day’s unfinished business cluttering rooms at the end of each working day. Just a glance at the home office space, when unwinding on the sofa or moving into the bedroom in preparation for sleep, can be sufficient to trigger a jolt of cortisol to wind us up when getting off to sleep (and staying asleep for a solid 7-8 hours) actually requires the opposite.
The key thing to keep in mind is that our brains switch gears, so to speak, when we move from one environment to another. Brain states relevant to one environment are replaced by others appropriate and useful for whatever other environment we might find ourselves moving into. Factual memories, procedural memories and relevant events that previously occurred in that particular space will be triggered by sensory cues present in the new environment; priming your brain to perform actions and readily bring to mind thoughts that are most pertinent to that particular place.
This happens outside the home when you move from the street – where your brain is primed to dodge other pedestrians and navigate effectively, into the café – where your brains navigational networks will be dampened down and social interaction / decision making networks will be primed to enable you to queue, order and pay for your coffee and cake, almost entirely on autopilot. This happens in the workplace, when you move from your desk to the meeting space your brain temporarily ditches the thoughts and memories relevant to your “to do” list in favour of cognitive set pieces that enable you navigate the hypercomplex world of group social dynamics. When you later go back to the table and chair where you typically get your work done, those social brain networks are switched off and cognitive networks dedicated to prioritising tasks on your “to do” list switch on again so you can get back to work.
Incidentally, this phenomenon of mindset switching explains why we can often find ourselves scratching our heads trying to figure out what the hell it was that we were looking for when we move into a different room to get something. Crossing the threshold from one room to another can be sufficient to wipe your short term memory buffer clear. (NB you can thwart this process by simply repeating to yourself silently in your head – or out loud if you don’t care what think of you – exactly what you’re intending to do in that other room. The active rehearsal helps to keep the objective clear by keeping the explicit goal in working memory as you cross the threshold. Singing it helps too because if you get distracted, the tune can help you recall what you were chanting!).
Our brains have such a broad repertoire of skills and knowledge that it’s impossible to keep it all in mind simultaneously, so we use cues in the environment to prime the information and actions most relevant to what we are likely to do in that particular environment. If you’ll permit me another brief tangent, this is also why people who sleep badly are advised to banish all electronic goods from the bedroom. The aim is to ensure that there are no associations with that particular space and stimulating activities. If recent memories of the bedroom environment feature only relaxing activities like reading a book or sleeping, rather than ramping up brain activity in preparation for an exciting episode of the latest box-set, or a late night survey of social media on your phone, tablet or laptop, the brain instead starts shutting down in preparation for sleep state as soon as you cross the threshold into your bedroom.
The first step in this first brain hack involves doing everything in your power to keep the parts of your home in which you work-from-home as separate as possible from those in which you rest, unwind and sleep. If this means packing away your whole home office into boxes at the end of each working day then do it. The sequence of movements involved in packing the equipment away will become a ritual that helps you to psychologically move away from the stresses of work. And unpacking everything the following day will help you get your brain into “work mode”. For those of you reluctant to engage with such a daily “start of work” / “end of work” ritual, at the very least throw a sheet or blanket over your work office if it is visible when you are in the living room or bedroom.
The next step in availing yourself of this first working-from-home brain hack is to get yourself into different work-related brain states while still in whichever location you’ve designated as your home office. For example, boring, administrative work requires a different brain state to creative problem solving. Trying to do creative problem solving work in exactly the same environment that you do the boring, administrative stuff is much less efficient than having two different spaces reserved for each endeavour. This is why using the boardroom for brain storming activities usually doesn’t result in much innovation – an environment associated with scary meetings with senior management is likely to stifle everybodies’ creative potential. If, like me, you only have one physical space in which you do all your work, you might want to get a bit creative with the arrangement of your furniture to make the same space look and feel different according to what kind of work you need to get done.
Over the past couple of years I’ve done some consultancy work for a company called Steelcase. They’ve been making office furniture for nearly a century now and had recently launched a new breed of furniture for offices and educational establishments designed to be moved around more easily. They got me involved when they heard me speak about the Neuroscience of Creativity and How To Fostering Genuinely Innovative Workplaces on a panel for a Microsoft event. They were particularly motivated by what I had to say about how the human brain creates associations between certain environment and certain brain states. A central tenet of my argument was that if a person only performs activities known to get the brain into a more open-minded creative state when they are in a certain space, then soon enough they will find they can improve their capacity to be innovative simply by moving into that space. There are certain cafes, libraries and hotel lobbies that I work in around London when I’m doing creative work (and even certain spaces within those cafes and libraries that I aim for where I’ve previously had my best ideas) and in order not to sully my brain’s associations between that space and innovative thinking I always move elsewhere to do boring work; even just to take a business call.
I was inspired to take this approach by some brilliantly imaginative research that came out of the University of Southampton in 1975. The researchers got people to memorise some information under two very different sets of circumstances: while scuba diving underwater or on the poolside. They were also tested to establish how accurate their recall was above versus below water. It turned out that those who learned the information underwater were more accurate in remembering the information below the waterline compared to above. And those who learned the information above water demonstrated better recall above the waterline. I figured that if the environmental association was strong for memorised information, then why not apply the same logic to creative thinking.
During lockdown, of course, I’ve had no access to my usual creative spots. I’ve had to adapt the approach I described above to the interior of my home. Most people would work in room and relax in another. That isn’t an option for me because I live in a studio! With only one room to work with, for several years now the cue that the work mode is finished and relaxation mode has begun involved shuffling the furniture around. The big table that I work from is also my dining table. When this table is moved away from my computer monitor, it signals that work is done for the day. When it is in the very centre of the room, that tells my brain that I’m hosting. When it is tucked away into the corner, that tells my brain it’s time for a session of Virtual Reality. When it is pushed against the window – I’m in writing mode.
Using this technique, the cues that my brain gets from the same room are completely different when I’m in relaxation mode versus work mode. While ceremonially packing away all the work-related materials at the end of each working day, only to have to set it all out again the following morning in exactly the same place may seem like a complete waste of time, I view this as an important part of my switch on / switch off ritual. It is time and energy wisely invested when it comes to managing a work / life balance when your work and leisure time all takes place in the same space.
In addition to these monthly blogs I regularly tweet (@drjacklewis) about interesting neuroscience research that hits the press and review a different Virtual Reality game or experience every single week (Brain Man VR Reviews).