The secret to workplace success? Sit less - it might be a good start.
There are numerous ways to boost brain power - and employers are starting to take note
The latest health campaign in the UK, after all, pitches “sitting as the new smoking”
In the 1987 film, the Secret of My Success, fitness-mad chief executive Howard Prescott runs his overweight, frazzled team of executives on the rooftop running track of the Pemrose Corporation where they talk stock price and strategy.
In a decade intrigued with big American business, Prescott’s character represented corporate culture gone mad; a Gordon Gekko-style obsessive, eccentrically combining strenuous workouts with management meetings.
But almost 30 years later, people are starting to think he may just have been on to something.
“Totally,” agrees Dr Tara Swart, one of those leading the charge in a new era of performance optimisation. “I like to work with people [on the] physical, mental, emotional and spiritual [level]. These things all have to be integrated in the end to really get success in life and work but you must start with physical.”
Dr Swart is a former psychiatrist with a PhD in neuropharmacology and is at the vanguard of efforts to apply the benefits of neuroscience to working life. Chief executive of the Unlimited Mind consultancy, she lectures at Stanford, MIT and Oxford.
In Dublin recently, she addressed the Deloitte Best Managed Companies symposium on how all of this drives success.
Misunderstood Even from this supremely qualified perspective, she might agree that Howard Prescott was a man misunderstood in his own time.
Already a big fan of the “treadmill desk”, she recalls one of her client companies with “a big open space on the ground floor of their building. I said: why don’t you just paste down a pretend athletic track there and people can walk round on their phones having their calls?”
The latest health campaign in the UK, after all, pitches “sitting as the new smoking”. Mark Zuckerberg is a big fan of the walking meeting, as was the late Steve Jobs. At Stanford, says Dr Swart, they call them “twalks”.
“A walking meeting is much better than sitting around a board table.”
But neuroscientific understanding isn’t all just about optimum physical health. Increasingly, it is helping us understand how to get the best out of ourselves in the workplace.
“At every level in society, people understand that what you eat and drink directly contribute to your physical health, but it’s still a leap to understand that it actually affects the quality of your thinking.”
Dr Swart explains the theory of three bandwidths for the human brain, a sort of divine trinity for successful life, incorporating financial poverty, food poverty (malnutrition) and social poverty (loneliness).
“If you are compromised on any one of those three you make bad decisions on the other two. So if you eat badly, you are more likely to be in debt or be in a bad relationship. If you are lonely, you might not take care of yourself in terms of your nutrition.
“We are so much more driven emotionally than we think we are.”
The physical requisites are to the fore of improving work performance. Dr Swart is so convinced of this she even endorsed a cold-pressed “brain food juice” made by a UK firm containing all the things she eats to “boost my brain power”.
These include cucumber juice, cashew milk, matcha green tea powder, coconut oil and dates which, at £12 (€17) for half a litre, represents a dedication to self-improvement (Dr Swart doesn’t profit from sales, she points out).
Napping too is beneficial, if undervalued. She knows a professor of sleep neuroscience who naps every single day for 90 minutes, the duration of the natural sleep cycle.
“It will improve your memory; it will embed any new learning and it will create the connections that lead to more creativity,” she says.
There are more fun things one can do to expand mental capacity than simply going to sleep. Learning a musical instrument as an adult is hugely beneficial, while Dr Swart says embracing culture and creativity is also highly recommended.
“Just reading a novel, let alone things like going to the theatre or the ballet or the opera, actually improves other parts of your brain. Some of which can mean that you get improved emotional intelligence.
“The implications of having more art and culture in your life, whoever you are, are actually really huge.”
Choice reduction is a technique often adopted (consciously or otherwise) by those with focused minds.
Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama always appear to wear the same thing. Dr Swart explains that reducing choice is helpful to optimise brain power in other areas, although stimulating the mind is important in downtime.
Companies, rather than simply individual workers, are becoming more aware of these neuroscientific paths to progress.
Last year, Richard Branson suggested some of his Virgin staff could take as much time off as they liked. The notion raised a few eyebrows in the traditional business world, but was he embracing scientific knowhow?
Absenteeism Dr Swart considers the idea before quoting research on the subject which found that “people don’t actually take more than what the national average is anyway”.
“What you are doing there is giving people autonomy and saying that you trust them. And most people under those circumstances will perform better.
“What we do know happens is that when you have trust flowing through an organisation, that correlates with a chemical in your brain called oxytocin and that hormone means that you are more likely to lower your guard, you are more likely to collaborate, you are more likely to go into a state of mind where your mind wanders and starts to have more creative thoughts.”
We all know about absenteeism and its costs to the economy, but Dr Swart points out that “presenteeism” is something to consider.
“That is when somebody is well enough to get up in the morning and come and sit at their desk and look like they are doing their work but for some reason, whether it’s stress or threat of redundancy or bad relationships at work or whatever, they are not really very productive.”
Other leaps and gains in this hybrid world of science and labour are a little more alarming.
If we can agree memory and concentration are key to performance, we can surely also agree taking someone else’s dementia medication or a child’s Ritalin (used to treat attention deficit disorder) is not the best way to sharpen up. And yet people do, according to Dr Swart, who certainly advises against it, but sees a future in which the idea may be developed legitimately.
“There is a class of drugs called nootropics. They are cognitive enhancers. We know that people abuse them,” she says.
“So what I see as the future is [the availability of] a supplement, but probably a pharmaceutical strength supplement, that can help you to perform better, whether it’s memory or concentration. I think that is going to happen.”
Whether the future is pill-popping executives on treadmills or simply health conscious office workers expanding mental capacity through diet and exercise, there is a new 21st century world of self-improvement techniques, emanating from the scientific community. Can it get you to the top?
“People always think it’s about getting to the top, but actually staying at the top is even harder. You have to manage your own brain and body to stay resilient,” says Dr Swart.
“You want to give people enough opportunity to think differently, bring their thoughts to the table and support them in taking some risks. Because then you get innovation.”
Previously published in The Irish Times.
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