How to Keep Productive - Understanding your Brain

How to Keep Productive - Understanding your Brain


Everybody knows that productivity is important. You need a good grasp of productivity to progress towards your goals, after all. However, this is often easier said than done. The current pandemic especially has got many of us struggling to find that right productive balance and keep ourselves moving forwards.

For this reason, Dominique Ashby from neuro@work, was invited to speak at January’s instalment of the Flex Legal Virtual Lunch in partnership with LexisNexis and Crafty counsel. Dominique is a qualified lawyer and neuroscientist, and was able to offer us a scientific and law-centered look into the human brain and how we can maximise our day-to-day mental productivity.

We’ve broken down the main takeaways for you below:


What is the human brain?

If you want to maximise the productivity of your brain, it helps to first understand it. Think about the biological purpose of the human brain. Our primitive ancestors evolved them as a ‘survival prediction machine’. The brain scans the environment for risks, and makes decisions that will increase your chance of survival. This is why your brain has a ‘fight or flight’ mode, where it gets rushed with adrenaline and expends mental energy to make quicker decisions and improve your chances of survival.

Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about external threats like sabre-toothed tigers rushing us from the bushes anymore. However, the human brain is still hard-wired to process risks and decision-making in this way. If you want to maximise your brain’s productivity for the modern day, you need to accept that this is how your brain makes decisions and work with it, not against it.


How is the pandemic affecting our brains?

As mentioned, your brain expends mental energy when it perceives a threat. Unfortunately, global pandemics and constant daily uncertainty will be perceived as threat. This means your brain is likely expending much more energy than it usually would be, and is constantly trying to risk manage.

Your mental energy is finite, like charge in a phone battery. Existentially threatening situations are put a constant drain on that battery. In addition to this, lockdown living means you’ve probably not had as many opportunities to recharge as you previously did. An abnormally drained battery and less chances to recharge is not a recipe for success.

If you’ve been feeling really mentally drained over the course of this pandemic, this is why. To keep productive, you’ve got to manage your mental energy and recharge it where you can. It might sound counterintuitive (especially within the legal industry) but sometimes the best way to do more is to figure out where you can do less.


How to keep your brain productive

1) Write things down. There’s a lot of benefits to physically writing things down. Many psychological and neuroscientific studies have demonstrated that writing things down lessens your ‘cognitive load’ by giving your brain more room to focus. Save your mental energy for better or different things, and write stuff down.

2) Prioritise your to-do list. This helps for two reasons. Firstly, it simply helps structure your day, and more clearly see what your most important tasks are. Secondly, understanding your priorities increases your brain’s ‘certainty’. This minimises your fight or flight thinking, and reduces the amount of mental energy you expend juggling what to do. Don’t just write your tasks down – prioritise them.

3) Avoid multi-tasking. This one is particularly hard to do in the legal lines of work. Much has been written about multi-tasking being, basically, a myth. Your brain cannot actually focus on multiple things at once. It can focus on one thing, but flick between different tasks quickly. This expends a lot of mental energy. You can reduce this by minimising distractions, and focusing on one task at a time.

4) Smart schedule. Some tasks, simply, expend more mental energy than others. If you know you have a really mentally draining task to do, like a brainstorming session, schedule that at a time when your mental energy is high and can minimise distractions. For example, if you know you focus really well in the morning, do your mentally taxing tasks then. Figure out when you’re alert, and do schedule your most draining jobs for that time.

5) Laugh. Laughter is a universal language, and an innate part of the human experience. Studies have consistently demonstrated the positive impacts of laughter on your brain function. It releases endorphins, which in turn can relax your mind, make you think more clearly, and give you more fuel in the tank for your day. Find something funny to take your mind off things.

6) Conjure positive memories. Remembering good times and happy memories can give you some of the same benefits of actually experiencing them. Your brain will release the same chemicals as if you were there, albeit in a slightly reduced capacity, and help reset your brain and recharge your batteries.


Final thoughts

A lot of this, ultimately, comes down to remembering to rest your brain or reduce the load where possible. Remember, it’s perfectly understandable and even natural to feel stressed and drained at the current circumstances. The pandemic will have an impact on your brain and your ability to stay productive, so try to hold yourself to account for at least one thing per week to reduce your mental load and stay positive.

Remember, you’re trying to compose a harmony of mind. In a piece of music, the rests and breaks are just as important as the beats and crescendos. Your brain works the same way.


Upcoming Virtual Lunch Events - This topic was just one of many covered in our recurring Virtual Lunch series. We always keep more in the pipeline, and you can sign up to them here!


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About the author:

Sophie is Head of Learning & Development at F-LEX Legal - an award winning legal tech startup helping law firms and organisations manage a flexible work force and supporting lawyers to make smarter life/work choices. 

As part of her portfolio career Sophie runs various learning and development and networking forums for in-house lawyers and mentors junior lawyers.  These include Flying Solo for small and solo legal teams and Aspire for junior in-house lawyers which she runs for LexisNexis UK.  She also works with schools and organisations to promote social mobility within the legal profession, working with The Social Mobility Business Partnership and Aspiring Solicitors. 

She trained as a lawyer in the City and worked as an in-house lawyer for 10 years including as Head of Legal for Virgin Radio and Ginger Media Group.  

Outside of work she is happily married with three sons and enjoys morning walks along the beach with her two dogs.