Thanks to the vast amount of research being done, it’s now becoming clear that solving many of the challenges that people face at work is linked to getting smarter about that three-pound organ that we all carry around in our heads. We long to be more effective at our jobs. We keep telling ourselves: Just be more focused, just work harder. But, in reality, no matter how hard we try, our brains just don’t work that way.
Noted psychiatrist and author Edward M. Hallowell has identified a neurological phenomenon he terms “attention deficit trait.” He says it’s a direct result of what’s happening to people’s brains in today’s hyperkinetic environment. “Never in history has the human brain been asked to track so many data points,” he says, concluding that this overloading of the brain’s circuits is the primary reason that smart people are underperforming at work. We’re simply expecting more of our brains than they have the energy to handle.
The direct contrast to multitasking is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., has famously named “flow”—being completely immersed in a challenge over time. It’s considered by many to be our most productive state. Flow rarely happens by accident, and it can’t be sustained indefinitely. During flow, however, we’re absorbed and engaged in what we’re trying to accomplish. Unlike stress, which releases chemicals associated with over-arousal and fear, flow is a highly pleasurable and highly productive state of arousal. It’s what many employees—and their employers—crave more of in today’s workplaces.
Steelcase researchers and designers have identified three brain modes that each require distinct behaviors and settings:
Focus: When we need to deeply focus on something, it’s important to avoid unwelcome distractions. Whether the distractions are external or internal, every time we switch our attention we burn through finite neural resources and increase opportunities for the limbic system to hijack our focus. Whether it’s turning off our phones for a while or completely overhauling how we manage
our day or just getting more sleep, a widening circle of expert authors is offering a steady stream of helpful tips in books, magazine articles, interviews and online media, suggesting various behaviors that we can adopt to focus our brains more productively.
Regenerate + Inspire: Although self-regulation is necessary for controlled attention it’s important to recognize that distractions can be opportunities to give our brain the timeout it needs and then let our minds go where they will. Although daydreaming has taken on generally negative connotations in the work world, as it turns out our brains are still working when they wander, even though we feel like we’re not. “The neurons are forging new pathways versus focusing on what you already know. And that’s when insights really start developing,” says Flynn. “That old adage about focusing too hard so you can’t see the forest through the trees and the stereotype of ‘aha’ moments in the shower or driving to work—now we know that those really have a scientific component. Neuroscience helps us understand that often the best way to solve a problem is to walk away from it and let your brain do the work subconsciously.”
Activate: When we need to activate our arousal, moving our bodies is the key. Although we may have learned otherwise in school, static sitting sabotages our ability to concentrate. Numerous studies have proven that movement boosts attention by pumping oxygen and fresh blood through the brain and triggering the release of enhancing hormones. While the physical and emotional benefits of movement are well established, neuroscience has proven it also enhances cognition.
Harvard’s John Ratey comprehensively explores the connection between exercise and the brain in his book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.” He explains that when our bodies are moving, we stimulate production of the protein BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which he describes as “Miracle-Gro for the brain,” fueling the birth of new neurons. Another very recent validation of the benefits of movement: A study recently published in Computers in Human Behavior concluded that students who read something at a treadmill desk were 34.9 percent more likely to answer a question about it correctly than their sitting counterparts. They also reported paying more attention to their work, and their electroencephalography readings showed more signs of attentiveness and better memory
Deep focus requires avoiding unwelcome external and internal distractions. This library zone is designed as a retreat from the noise distractions and frequent interruptions that are common in open-plan offices. Phone use is prohibited and conversations are restricted. Designed with a range of acoustical, visual and psychological boundaries, these settings support a wide range of user preferences for focused work.
Layers of boundary—from fully enclosed spaces to micro lounge settings—enable users to control external stimuli—sound, sightlines, lighting and temperature to their individual preferences.
- screen eliminates visual distractions
- adjustable table orients user to work
- light illuminates personal content
- ottoman enables ergonomic wellbeing
The Brody WorkLounge settings support views to the outside and shield distractions. The Bivi workbench provides boundaries between individuals to allow for focused work. Brody WorkLounge cuts down on T distractions and provides an empowering sense of control and psychological safety.
REGENERATION AND INSPIRATION
Easy access to colleagues, nourishment and places to rest the mind helps cognitively-overwhelmed workers gain a new perspective.
This social zone, placed at an intentional crossroad, hosts a variety of nurturing activities: grabbing a cup of coffee, taking a few minutes to be mindful, having a relaxed conversation with coworkers or simply taking a deep breath to recover brain energy.
- A fireplace surrounded by natural wood encourages calm contemplation and is also a hub for quiet conversation.
- The Visalia Lounge chair by the fireplace creates a calm contemplative place for reflection.
A coffee bar provokes serendipitous encounters and conversations, while a media wall invigorates the mind with interesting company information and news from around the world.
An informal lounge setting encourages relaxed postures and dynamic exchanges that provoke new ways of thinking.
Physical activity has proven to stimulate the brain. Provide easily accessible settings that encourage workers to move throughout the workday to activate their minds and also take care of their bodies.
These settings incorporate opportunities for movement—whether a stand-up brainstorm session or a walk during a conference call, this activity refreshes the mind as well as the body.
- This private retreat supports an immersive experience and connection to nature.
- A Walkstation Treadmill Desk can stimulate the brain through movement while doing routine tasks.
- Standing height table without seating encourages movement during a short brainstorm session and access to content on the wall.
- Access to natural light and views inhibits stress hormones, helping workers attain productive states of mind.
- Whiteboards capture information and ideas, reducing cognitive load to encourage creative thinking
Part of the problem of our distraction, and the solution, lies in ourselves. By changing our existing habits, we can gain more control of our brains—and our lives. As we become more knowledgeable about how our brains work and more attuned to the ebb and flow of our attention, it becomes easier to recognize what our brains need when.
We are lucky enough to live in a state that harbors all these environments to help foster productivity, creativity and overall wellbeing for ourselves!