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A Neuroscientist Shares 5 Ways to Hack Productivity

Multitasking is a myth, Sahar Yousef, Ph.D. tells us. Here, she weighs in on a few tactics to use your noggin more efficiently.

Is escaping the stranglehold of Wi-Fi the new freedom? Between the constant stream of emails, Slack messages, Airtable tasks, Google Docs, iCal alerts, videoconferences, and everything in between, working in the digital age has spread us all a bit too thin, sending us on high alert at all times of day. Whether at an office, working from home, or away on vacation, it feels increasingly impossible to escape the virtual grasp of daily work demands. And that’s not even taking into account the phone calls and in-person meetings that also take us away from focused, concentrated work. 

Dr. Sahar Yousef, a UC Berkeley-trained cognitive neuroscientist and recently turned strategic consultant to businesses and startups, shares a few tips on how to break through the noise and structure your day — and mind — for higher productivity. Spoiler alert: Quit your multitasking habits now.

Take a design-it-yourself approach

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change throughout your lifetime, in relation to factors including behavior, process, and environment — which means the vast majority of us who aren’t natural-born geniuses with infinite potential (sorry, Einstein) can still improve our lot with strategic and incremental changes to our daily routines. Understanding these basic principles of neuroplasticity is the first step to achieving higher cognitive performance, Yousef reports. “I would say the brain is probably the most complicated thing in the universe,” she says, and while the complexity of this organ is certainly not to be understated, “I love the colloquial analogy of thinking of the brain as a muscle, because it puts the individual, the human being, in the driver’s seat. It empowers the individual in the place of truly being the designer of their own brain.”

“You are the designer, you know your brain and your own conscious experience,” Yousef says. “One example of this is being able to increase your ability to focus for longer periods of time and gain more cognitive control by training your attention. The more focus training (i.e. meditation) you do, it’s like hitting the gym, that ‘muscle’ gets stronger, and then it becomes easier to then in turn focus.”

Tap into your internal rhythm

To improve your mental acuity and performance, you have to first understand its natural peaks and slumps throughout the day. While some might swear by an early-bird schedule, jump-starting the day at sunrise and reserving less intensive tasks for a late afternoon wind-down, others might be natural night owls, passing the day with meetings and letting their minds do more complex tasks in the evening, while burning the midnight oil. As Yousef says, there’s no general rule of thumb and the preference is up to the individual, so the best way to know what time of day your mind is best functioning is to simply pay attention to your own internal rhythms.

That might be easier said for the independent freelancer or entrepreneur more in control of their own schedules, unencumbered by fixed hours at an office, though Yousef says it shouldn’t be a mystery. If you are really at a loss as to figuring out which time of day lends to optimum performance, she suggests a simple remedy, regardless of your workday setup: Keep a productivity log, beginning with a test sample of five work days. At two-hour intervals, make an active note or set an alarm to quickly jot down your physical and mental status. Chances are, you’ll find a pattern of peak performance, or sluggishness, and be able to carve out your day around that.

Understand multitasking is a myth

A good deal of empowering your mind to perform at its best depends on simple time management hacks. Step one, Yousef says, is to ignore your inbox — within good reason. The steady drip of constant email is a productivity killer, often because it’s imbued with a sense of false urgency. It can be hard to prioritize tasks with your attention divided across various apps. Add to that list Slack, unnecessary meetings, and calls, and the day often leaves little time to complete the complex work you’ve actually been hired to do. “Most people I know don’t have a workday anymore. They have these little pockets of time, between meetings and calls and answering emails, where they have 15 minutes here, 30 minutes here, 45 minutes there, and that’s their workday,” Yousef says. “Now, that’s where they’re actually doing this thing that they were hired to do: The creative work, the cognitively intensive, high-value work that’s actually going to move the needle forward for their company and for their team.”

To retrain your brain’s stamina for critical thinking and focused, concentrated work — and to manage coworker or client expectations — Yousef recommends flipping the script: Set aside one or two times a day to regularly check and respond to all your messages and emails, then close the inbox for the rest of the day. Whenever possible, structure the rest of your day in one- to two-hour chunks of focused work. And in the event of an actual emergency from a colleague or client, be a proponent for a simple proactive change in office culture. Introduce a clear protocol for colleagues to contact one another in case of an actual emergency, such as a simple phone call on your cell, and make sure you stay accountable for that agreed-upon method to establish trust. Ensuring a system for being easily reached when urgently needed, she says, can alleviate the nervous or email-happy supervisor and free up your day for actually getting things done.

Build new associations

“Our brains are constantly changing, they’re adapting, they’re learning, they’re dynamic,” Yousef says. “It’s truly a canvas, and you can change and manipulate, depending on what you’re exposing your brain to. You can create different associations.” Yousef suggests these mind-body associations can be strategically manipulated to advantageous times and places. Take for example, your desk: If you constantly find that you can only get your focused work done in the early morning at the kitchen table, before going to the office, or during moments when you manage to hide away in the quiet of the conference room, if you’re the only one there — you’re essentially telling your brain that your desk is the last place to get your work done. 

Think strategically about what environment you work best in and protect any other associations from leaking into that environment. If you’re sitting at your desk and find yourself distracted and wanting to surf the internet or browse your phone, get up and leave your desk and do that elsewhere. “What is important here is intentionality in the environments we choose to do specific types of activities. That way your mind has a preset expectation about what kind of activities and what kind of thought patterns are associated with each environment. This is especially important for remote workers — be mindful of having a work zone that is only for work and don’t take your work to other areas of your home.”

Feed your mind—literally

Good mental function comes down to biology, which is why Yousef reminds us that above all, it’s important for everyone to practice basic elements of self-care, with plenty of hydration, a healthy diet, and regular exercise to keep blood flowing to your brain. Instead of turning to caffeine or sugar for a spike of energy, graze on small snacks throughout the day to keep your energy levels consistent. Above all, it’s crucial that everyone, early birds and night owls alike, get a proper and restful night’s sleep.

“One of my mottos is that there’s no ‘on’ without ‘off.’ It comes back to intentionality for me,” says Yousef. “It’s about having a ‘work hard, play hard’ attitude. When you’re at work, focus that brain: Be that brain Olympian, be that mind athlete, respect the way it’s meant to work. Fuel it and protect it. Then have intentional off-periods where you’re relaxing, you’re not processing more information, and you’re truly resting and rejuvenating.” 


Aileen Kwun is a Korean-American writer and editor covering art, design, culture, and travel. The author of Twenty Over Eighty: Conversations on a Lifetime in Design, an anthology of oral histories with living design legends, she was also formerly a senior editor at Dwell and Surface magazines, and has contributed to dozens of publications internationally.

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