Foresight Mental Health
How to Increase WFH Productivity with Neuroscience
Updated: Apr 3
by Chay Tanchanco, LMFT
If you have worked with me or been paying attention to the blog, then you would know that I am typically doing my best to help my clients exercise anything else other than 'productivity' as a mindset, especially for those of us working from home, struggling with balancing priorities, or who are working overtime out in the community, balancing our day to day work duties as well as keeping ourselves safe and healthy. It is easy to fall into the trap of productivity being our distraction from our mental health--and it can also bring us a lot of shame when we feel like failures.
In order to increase productivity then, we need to think a bit differently about it and consider our sense of balance.
If we go through the typical "hustle culture" posts on social media, you'll see things like:
There is an increasing amount of awareness that this mindset is actually quite harmful, but it can be more embedded in our subconscious than we realize. If you have ever found yourself feeling anxious or depressed or stressed because you feel like you haven't done "enough" (whatever 'enough' really means!), then despite your best efforts not to be influenced by hustle culture, you have felt the social pressure of others progressing "further" or "more" in some way.. even though you have no idea who those "other" people are. Or maybe you see it in your friends or classmates or coworkers, making assumptions about their habits based on their grades or their work performance.
If you are experiencing anxiety/depression or have other mental health diagnoses, it is likely that work may be exacerbating if not causing many of your stressors. Productivity is the basis of a capitalist society, and in order to live here, we must make our way through it.
Dr. Sahar Yousef, a faculty member at Haas Business School at UC Berkeley, studies the neuroscience of productivity. She uses cognitive testing to improve performance and productivity of CEOs and consults for companies and corporations. Below is a summary of some of her tips to improve productivity, flavored with some of my mental health insights.
Mistake #1: Jumping into work too soon
One of the most common mistakes that Dr. Yousef sees: people jumping right from bed into work. It's too easy now to connect straight into our inboxes or our Slack channels, especially when it's on our phones.
I want you to try something for me: close your eyes, and imagine you're walking into one of your favorite places in the world. Maybe it's a friend's or family member's house; maybe it's a theme park; maybe it's a destination spot; maybe it's a place of worship; maybe it's a performance space. What cues tell you that it's your favorite place? The sights? The sounds? The smells? The energy of the people? The emptiness? The silence? The design of the space? The colors? The lights?
These are all cognitive triggers. And they may seem just like a natural occurrence, but they are created. When you walk into a Target store, there are cognitive triggers everywhere to signal that you are in a Target. There's a reason they all look very similar. It's the idea behind branding for any company - they want to associate your brain's desire to spend money with whatever they want to sell.
You can create cognitive triggers through your routine and your environment--you can design it yourself! In order to make this possible in our homes, we have to get creative. Design yourself a "commute" before work, even though you may not go very far. Your work space may be in your living room or your bedroom, and it can be hard to "turn off" work and it can cause you increased levels of stress because you're still in your bedroom, where your brain is craving rest and relaxation.
Tip #1: Put out certain objects to indicate that this is work space, and put them away at a designated time.
Dr. Yousef says that something as simple as a tablecloth or a scarf on the table where you work can trigger your brain into thinking "this is work space now"; I would also expand this to consider your other senses, smell in particular. You may not think about the smells in your environment much, but think about how soothing some smells are and energizing others can be. Experiment with them, and see if this makes even a small difference in your work day!
Mistake #2: Not realizing that your phone affects your productivity, even when it is off
Dr. Yousef cited pretty telling and kind of scary research study done out of the University of Texas, Austin. They tested over 800 participants and found that if your phone is present, EVEN IF IT IS OFF and even if it is in your purse or backpack, your brain has been shown to have reduced cognitive capacity. The most significant reduction in cognitive ability happened when the phone was on the table in front of them. Yes, if your phone is visible to you, you will perform with significantly less brain power than if it is in another room. The phone does not have to be ringing or buzzing or making any kind of noise at all. That kind of power and amount of cognitive drain is astounding, especially considering that if you're anything like me, your phone is with you throughout most of the day.
Tip #2: Limit notifications and put your phone in a designated place during focused work.
Every time you are interrupted, there is a cost to your energy, Dr. Yousef says. Your brain uses extra resources every time you switch gears. Think of how many times you get notifications and have to stop to answer an email, or a message, or find yourself scrolling on Instagram or Twitter because you're overwhelmed by your tasks, only to switch back and forth between them. If you can limit this in any way, whether it is turning off notifications for a certain set amount of time, or putting your phone in another room while you finish certain tasks, it can help you set up healthier digital habits.
Mistake #3: Working non-stop
We expect from ourselves what we want from the systems around us; we want them to work all the time. We constantly get messaging from that 'hustle culture' whether we realize it or not. There's always more content, more news, more tweets, more posts. The demand of American culture for "more" reflects back at us, and we find ourselves trying to achieve more and more and more without pausing to consider the cost, especially to our mental health.
Tip #3: Take a *true cognitive* break
Dr. Yousef says that taking a "true cognitive break" is absolutely key to your cognitive processing. What is a full cognitive break? It is a dedicated time where you are not processing information (aka no social media, no reading, no writing). Rehydrate, refuel, move your body, and get sunshine. Just like a plant! During this kind of break, your body and brain can create glucocorticoids (such as adrenaline, cortisol), which are necessary for you to continue working. If you've felt burnt out at all this year, your brain and your body have probably been aching for a full cognitive break for a long time. You physiologically, chemically, do not have the capacity to do more. You must give your body the chance to produce the energy you need throughout the day. This is just as true for any mental health condition as well; giving yourself the rest will allow your brain to rebalance the neurotransmitters (chemicals that brain cells release and uptake such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine) that you need to manage your emotions with more ease.
Main Takeaway: Do Focus Sprints
Possibly her most important piece of advice summarizes all of these tips into what she calls a "Focus Sprint". For her full description of Work-From-Home Productivity tips, see her video below. If you would like to skip to the section on focus sprints, start at 8:45.
I would like to thank Dr. Yousef for allowing me to share her work - I highly, highly recommend this video to everyone working from home.
Dr. Sahar Yousef's video has been summarized in this blog with permission.