Your Brain at Work

Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long

David Rock
Rating: 9.0

“Simply put, this intriguing book offers fascinating research about the brain’s functions, limitations, and capacities, and it teaches us how we can “direct” our own brain chemistry in order to achieve fulfillment and success. Well worth reading and ingesting these skills.”
-Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

The Prefrontal Cortex

The market demands that you become a knowledge worker, and rewards you most for staying focused and creative. Yet emails, social media messages and endless entertainment options make today the most distracting time in history. You can’t change the world, but you can learn how your brain works and how to make it perform better.

“While your brain is a machine, it’s not just a machine. However, the only way to be more than just a machine is to deeply understand the machine-like nature of your brain.”

Your brain is subject to “surprising performance limitations.” You can think at your highest levels for only limited periods of time. To make decisions or solve problems, you depend mainly on your powerful prefrontal cortex. However, the prefrontal cortex is a little like Goldilocks: For it to work well, everything has to be just right. Imagine the prefrontal cortex as “a stage in a small theater where actors play a part.”

“Distractions are everywhere. And with the always-on technologies of today, they take a heavy toll on productivity.”

The stage represents where you direct your focus. The actors represent information passing through your attention. Your stage “needs a lot of lighting,” or energy. The audience is “information from your inner world” – your memories and thoughts. Members of this internal audience sometimes take over the stage, which can hold information from the external world, from your internal consciousness or from both together.

“Five Functions”

You can perform five functions with the information on your stage:

  1. “Understanding” – Grasping a new concept means an actor must appear onstage and stay there long enough to connect with audience members.
  2. “Deciding” – Process ideas by making decisions about them. You compare them and make “value judgments.”
  3. “Recalling” – Recall means pulling information out of the past like pulling an audience member up onstage.
  4. “Memorizing” – Memorize by moving an idea off the stage and into the audience.
  5. “Inhibiting” – Keep excess or unwanted audience members offstage by inhibiting a recollection. Having too many actors onstage distracts you and weakens your focus.

“While you can hold several chunks of information in mind at once, you can’t perform more than one conscious process at a time with these chunks without impacting performance.”

Recalling a recent memory is easy, but to remember something from longer ago, you must sift through vast amounts of data. Thinking clearly about the future is hard; thinking about current problems is easier because you know your problems, and the emotions around them are clear.

Tools for Thinking

You can change how you work to fit how your brain works. Prioritizing is confusing, so “prioritize prioritizing.” Visualize the future, rather than thinking about it abstractly. Use pictures, draw diagrams or make charts to improve your processing. Track your time and attention. Learn when in the day you are sharpest. Then, schedule energy-intense work accordingly. Shift tasks to match your focus.

“Peak mental performance requires just the right level of stress, not minimal stress.”

Ideas compete for space on your tiny stage, so simplify them. You can hold only four simple items in your mind, four items organized into narratives or “chunks.” Break these ideas down to a “pitch,” a metaphor or an image that sums up their essence. Break larger assemblies of information into smaller, easy-to-remember chunks.

“As you learn more about your brain, you begin to see that many of your foibles and mistakes come down to the way your brain is built.”

Your brain can perform only “one conscious process at a time.” You run through other processes on autopilot, like a driver on a familiar route. If you attempt “two cognitive tasks at once,” your “cognitive capacity” drops from a “Harvard MBA” to the level of an eight-year-old child. You cannot effectively multitask. No one can. When you do too much, you do each thing less well. When you switch back and forth between tasks, you burn up your “working memory.” To make the most of your limited attention, consider which decisions you must make in order to make other decisions. Make those trigger decisions first. Identify bottlenecks and try to eliminate them.

“Having friends helps you change your brain, because you get to speak out loud more often.”

Get rid of distractions. Every distraction means you must spend energy refocusing, which leads to making mistakes. Fight “external distractions” by disconnecting when you’re trying to focus; turn off your phone, computer, television and all your devices. Fight “internal distractions.” Your brain continually generates activity and distraction leads it to revert to its “default network.” Then you’ll just think about internal issues, like common worries.

“Your prefrontal cortex is the biological seat of your conscious interactions with the world.”

Your brain works best with just the right level of arousal. Too little and you’re bored; too much and you’re overwhelmed. Everyone’s optimum level differs. Two neurotransmitters are at work: dopamine, which relates to interest, and norepinephrine, which relates to alertness. Proper amounts of the two determine peak performance. When you hit a mental roadblock, you generate a repeating, limited group of solutions. Shift gears. Let your “brain idle.” Quiet your mind to hear the “subtle signals” that lead to insights. The greater your happiness and relaxation, the more likely you are to generate these signals. Don’t try to force your way through a problem. Simplify it. Identify the key elements. Consider how the problem’s different aspects relate to each other.


In addition to the stage (your awareness, your actors and your “conscious information”) and your audience (information below the level of consciousness), one more player is at hand: “your director.” This is the aspect of your cognition that steps back from an experience, reflects on it and makes changes. That process is called “thinking about thinking” – or metacognition.

“Giving people feedback creates an intense threat response that doesn’t help people improve performance.”

Everyone’s brain generates “internal representations of the outside world.” These “maps” – or “networks or circuits” – develop according to how you focus your attention over your lifetime. Your “default network” or “narrative circuit” tells a story about your relationship with the world. It acts as a lens or filter that interprets outside information. You also engage the world through “direct experience.” In this mode, you’re more aware of your senses. These two networks correlate inversely. If one is active, the other is less so. You switch between these circuits naturally. You can learn to switch consciously with practice. That would help you distinguish which circuit is active, which helps you change how your mind works. Furthermore, if you practice what spiritual traditions call “mindfulness,” and develop your “internal experience,” you can improve the health of your mind and your body.

The Limbic System

Your brain continually monitors your environment to determine if anything around you is threatening your existence or helping sustain your life. Every evaluation carries an emotional response that affects your thinking. The limbic system intertwines with emotion and tells you to pay attention to something. It continually makes “toward or away decisions,” pushing you away from a threat or toward a reward. These decisions don’t all have the same intensity; levels of risk and reward vary. Everyone’s limbic system responds to different triggers, or “hot buttons.” An over stimulated limbic system leaves less energy for your “prefrontal cortex functions.” In situations of high tension, you’re more likely to go on autopilot and less likely to think clearly.

“The brain is more than a logic-processing machine. Its purpose is to keep you alive.”

Three general approaches can “minimize arousal” that blunts your thinking. Start with “situation selection.” If you know a certain situation threatens you, avoid it. “Situation modification” means recognizing a threatening moment and changing aspects of it. Since you can’t always scream or cry to express emotions, you may try “expressive suppression,” or ignoring your feelings. That never works well. Your limbic system still activates itself, sometimes more than it would have if not suppressed. Tamping down your emotions makes it harder to recall a provocative incident clearly or to pay attention. The antidote is making a “cognitive change,” shifting away from an instant response. Name your internal state. Briefly express how you feel, but don’t dwell on it.


Your brain continually makes predictions. When a pattern starts, your brain tries to complete it. Your brain likes to know what’s going on, and it craves certainty like an addict craves a drug. Receiving a hit of certainty creates a pleasurable rush. That explains the popularity of games like Sudoku. They create a “toward response” that draws you in. But when a situation is uncertain or threatening, your brain generates an “away response.” When you expect things to happen a certain way, your expectations can alter the data your brain receives. You accept information that fits your expectations and reject information that doesn’t. If things turn out as expected, you get a mild dopamine boost; you get more if you exceed expectations. If you fail, you feel threatened.

“Status is relative and a sense of reward from an increase in status can come anytime you feel ‘better than’ another person.”

Your brain closely links autonomy with certainty. Lacking control or “agency” threatens you and generates uncertainty. A lack of control can damage your health. Most people find reward in making even the most basic choices about life. Just giving people a choice or the feeling that they have a choice serves as a reward and generates a going-toward response.

“Practice getting faster at such things as labeling and reappraising, reading other people’s states, or developing a quiet mind when needed.”

That’s only one reason that “cognitive reappraisal” is such a powerful tool for dealing with emotions. It lets you regulate your emotions by reframing what you’re feeling to make it less painful. Just deciding how to perceive your life increases your autonomy and becomes a reward in itself. You can reframe a situation several ways. You can reinterpret it, which can be as simple as getting familiar with it. You can normalize it by learning more about its patterns. You can reorder it by consciously changing maps to find one that fits you better. The most challenging method is “repositioning,” that is, working to see the situation from another perspective.


Ancient people evolved in a world of scarcity where they had to tell an ally from an enemy very quickly. Even today, your limbic system stays attuned to your “social environment.” If you don’t know someone or lack social cues, you automatically default to seeing that person or situation as potentially hostile. This calls on a different “set of brain circuits” than thinking about friends or people you see as more like you. In a social situation – or even a collaborative project at work – as much as 80% of your mental processes will focus on your relationship to the other people involved. If your evaluation of them is positive, that is pleasurable and will “release oxytocin.” Positive connections help you function better. People with rich social networks tend to live longer. Those who have friends “think better.” Knowing more people makes you likelier to see things from multiple perspectives.

“Human emotions are messy, involving many brain regions.”

To collaborate more effectively, be aware of the social aspects of cognition, represented by the acronym “SCARF,” which stands for “Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.” If you have trouble with some people, you may threaten elements on their SCARF list. To fix the situation, enhance one or more of their SCARF factors, such as their status. When people interact, they remain intensely aware of their status, just as your brain innately seeks to maintain or enhance your status. When you feel better than someone else, you gain a sense of reward. A threat to your status is more powerful than a sense of reward and can disrupt your social relations. Your brain also seeks fairness, which triggers a reward of dopamine, generating a warm sense of connection. Employees who regard their companies as fair see their jobs as more rewarding, but a perception of unfairness creates emotional pain that can disrupt connection and rational thought.

Facilitating Change

Leaders try to get others to change by giving them feedback. But no matter what technique you use, feedback often threatens people’s status, so they reflexively defend themselves. Suggesting solutions to someone else’s problems wastes everyone’s time. Instead, if you can help people quiet their brains, they’ll be more likely to generate their own insights. Work through the SCARF list. Simplify complex problems to help people release their mental energy. Speaking aloud reinforces learning, so ask questions to help people shift their focus and to guide them to greater awareness of “their own mental processes.” State clear objectives to help them build a “sense of certainty” and solve their own problems.

“Insights occur more frequently the more relaxed and happy you are.”

Don’t use rewards and punishments to guide an organization through change. That would send a signal that you’re trying to change people, thus threatening their status. Instead, help them focus on new areas by telling stories or by asking questions that connect them with past successes or that encourage reflection. Establish clear mutual “toward goals” that people want to pursue, rather than “away goals” they want to flee. Review these goals regularly so people stay focused.

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