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The brain cannot do its best productive work when overstressed, anxious, or under threat. 

Productivity, Stress and Flow Brain Model

A lot is written today about stress and anxiety. We know exercise, meditation, and good sleep help reduce stress. However, little is discussed about the effects of stress and anxiety on our productivity. In a nutshell, the brain cannot do its best productive work when overstressed, anxious, or under threat. (Excerpts from Chapter 3 of Productivity for How You’re Wired.)

Here’s the neuroscience:

Neuroscientist Paul MacLean’s Triune Brain Model provides a straightforward model to understand the impact of fear and stress on the brain in conjunction with evolution and the hierarchy of brain functions. MacLean describes the brain in terms of three regions:

Brain Stem: From an evolutionary perspective, the brain stem is the oldest part of the brain. It controls bodily functions without thought or effort. This part of our brain operates on “autopilot.”

Limbic System: Next in evolutionary age is the limbic system. This is the emotional center of our brain. It is home to the amygdala, the part of the brain that houses the fight, flight, or freeze response. We have some control over our emotions, but under threat or too much stress, the amygdala automatically “hijacks” our thinking brain and takes over.

Prefrontal Cortex: Newest, and least on autopilot, is our Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), our thinking brain. It is here we plan, anticipate, think, and learn. The PFC is where innovation and creative thought occur. It houses our working memory and supports our ability to organize information and draw conclusions.

The PFC and the amygdala compete for control of the brain. When we are our most productive selves, we are functioning from the PFC. However, when there is too much stress, anxiety, or fear, the emotionally driven amygdala kicks in. We move from thinking and being productive to a fight, flight, or freeze state.

When under treat, anxious, or overstressed, our productivity tanks because we’ve moved from our thinking brain to our emotional brain.

Flow

Doing one’s most effective work occurs when a person is in flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the architect of positive psychology’s flow state, defines flow as “a powerful and rewarding psychological state that makes extra effort seem worthwhile.”

When in flow work feels like play, time flies (and stands still,) and productivity soars. To be our most productive selves, to be in flow, we need to function from our PFC, our thinking brain.Finding Productivity Flow

When under too much stress, anxiety can be paralyzing. You may relate to that feeling when you get a note from the boss saying “come see me,” or a long-time client calls and says “can we talk?” Just when we need to be at our best, we freeze up and our emotional brain takes charge.

Without enough stress, the brain struggles to move into action. Waiting until the 11th hour to begin a project causes enough stress to move the brain into productivity flow.

Strategies for Getting and Staying in Productivity Flow

The emotional limbic brain almost always wins unless we learn how to manage it. To be in productivity flow we need to employ strategies to help us manage the stress.From overstressed to productive

Knowledge is power! When you start to feel anxious or lose focus, it’s empowering to stop and think — I know what’s going on here. When you realize that what is happening in your brain is the normal physiologic stress response, you can take back control. Deep breathing, a walk, or other calming activity can help, but sometimes simply understanding what is happening is enough to pull you back into productivity flow.

We’ve all gotten pretty good at squeezing in an email, quick call, or text in a moments time, however when we have project work or multi-step tasks it a bit more complicated. Both productivity and performance improve when we are in flow.

Daniel Goleman, the Father of Emotional Intelligence, describes FLOW as a state in which people become utterly absorbed in what they are doing and their awareness is merged with their actions. He says “you know when you are in flow; work becomes easy, you lose track of time, you feel happy, and joyful, and productive.

It makes sense that we would want to create the flow state for when we finally get to doing our really important work. For the brain to engage, work has to be challenging enough to stimulate the brain. The challenge itself is energizing and motivating.

However, there is more we can do to propel ourselves into flow:

  1. Clearly define the goal and create an outline or plan. Being specific minimizes your getting off task.
  2. Create your optimum environment by eliminating distractions. This can mean no noise, white noise, music with words, or music without words. Wear headphones so people know not to interrupt you, close your office door (if you’re so lucky to have one), or find a secluded place to work.
  3. Clear the decks. While some people can jump in and “eat the frog”, others need to get the little nudgy annoying tasks off their plate so they can concentrate and be completely engaged.
  4. Block off enough time. Some people can work in micro blocks – 15-30 minutes, and the next day pick up right where they left off. Others need 2 or 3 or 4 hour chunks so they don’t have to waste time ramping up to get to where they were the day before.
  5. Build in accountability and feedback. Outside support often helps to stay on task.

 

When I dig into a task this is what works for me:

  1. I write out my goal and put it in front of me. Then I outline the steps to reach the goal, often on post-its, organizing the process. And, it helps me stay motivated when I can throw away a completed post-it.
  2. My optimum environment includes finding a quiet spot where no one can talk to me. I turn off my phone, ALL social media, and often the internet. I prefer to have either white noise or music without words playing in the background
  3. I clear the decks almost 100%. My desk surface only has the current project – nothing else.  My critical email are completed, my phone calls are made, and I try to have completed as many  little annoying tasks as possible.  This enables me to solely focus on the important work.
  4. I block out time in big chunks, preferably 4 hours. I waste too much time remembering where I was and getting back to that point if I work in lesser amounts.  If I am working on a presentation or something with lots of moving parts, I may block out the entire day.
  5. My accountability to myself is enough for me, so engaging others isn’t helpful, but many clients and colleagues do benefit from knowing they will be reporting in on their progress.

 

The one most important thing to know about flow is that it happens when we are working on things we love doing. What do you love doing?  How can you create your environment to get to do the work you love more?