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Over one hundred twenty years ago, Frederick Taylor developed some theories about work. Labeled scientific management, these ideas emerged as solutions to improve worker efficiency. In his approach to managing labor he equated humans with the machines used for production. Given the knowledge available at the time, he didn’t realize how little humans have in common with the machines they use.

Even though scientific management is not as popular as it was in the earlier days of the industrial revolution, the consistent push for efficiency and production from employees remains a dominant aspect of our work cultures. Work cultures still mostly fail to understand that the organic human brain works very differently from a machine, even a machine as complex as a computer.

How We Work

Using Your Brain | Marigold Associates

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A machine essentially has two settings — on and off. So too for employees, most people reason. You are either working or you are not. Most managers want to ensure their employees are clicked “on” during the workday and producing something tangible for every billable minute.

There’s an inherent problem with this consistent drive to work from the frame of the on-off switch. Simply, the human brain is not wired that way and operating as if it was depletes energy and creativity. The brain is organic and like most of the biological world it operates in cycles of work and rest. The ideal way for a brain to work is in a series of 90 minute focused cycles. Short breaks or switching across a variety of tasks keeps the brain operating at peak efficiency.

There is a better way to create a good working environment that takes into account a better understanding of the brain.

The way your brain works provides life-altering answers for how you should work. Just a few examples include the way you learn, the way sleep and stress influence you and the difficulty you have in remembering more than five or six items from a meeting.

In fact, learning to better use your brain will help you improve your performance and creativity.

Brains in Motion

Consider this, studies show the brain performs best in motion. You might have noticed that some of your best ideas have emerged when you were exercising. For most of human history, people spent their days in motion. Movement is the default setting for our brains.

Yet most of us now do sedentary work 8 hours a day at a desk or in front of a computer screen. As a result not only our health, but also our creativity has suffered.

Brains Asleep

Using Your Brain | Marigold Associates

Photo credit: Dierk Schaefer via Flickr/Creative Commons

Most of us believe that productivity and success coincide with the amount of hours you work. Have you noticed how much people take pride in the few hours they sleep and long hours that they work? There’s a consistent push for more time spent working. But this aspect of our culture contributes negatively to our well-being and our productivity. In fact, sleep is a critical part of creativity and strategic innovation. Research has demonstrated that workers who get fewer than 7-8 hours of sleep a night make more mistakes, have fewer creative ideas and worse, have very poor judgment about the quality of the work they are producing.

In fact, the way that the brain works during sleep helps unlock difficult problems of work. It is far more effective than burning the midnight oil in frustration.

The Shower Principle

Have you ever had a great idea while showering or jogging? While it might seem counterintuitive, “mindless” activity actually opens up the neural networks of the brain in entirely different ways than during focused activity. While it’s difficult to believe it, a period of rest, walking, drawing, meditation, or hitting golf balls might be what your team needs to unlock the big idea for the project. Especially during crisis points such as an impending deadline, it is tempting to fall into the trap of working longer hours under intense pressure. It is clear from everything we know from our study of worker productivity and creativity, that this is likely to produce the lowest quality product. This over emphasis on efficiency and time management has eradicated mindless time under the false assumption that it is not productive, once again illustrating our misunderstanding of the human person. The mind is not a machine.

Multi-Tasking

Many work environments extol the virtues of multi-tasking. Have you checked the job listings lately? Multitasking is almost always mentioned. From an efficiency perspective, wouldn’t you want an employee who can competently perform four tasks at once?

Well, multi-tasking is a myth. Our brains are unable to process more than one thing at a time. Meaning, the “best” multi-taskers are the people who are most capable of switching quickly from one item to another in quick succession.

Multi-tasking takes a physiological toil, however. Every time the brain needs to switch from one item to another, it burns energy as it fills in the gaps that were missed during the period of inattention. The more often you switch from item to item, the more energy is burned in switching and a decrease in performance occurs. Some studies have suggested that as much as 25% of our energy in a day is used up simply in the switching.

Ultimately, all of these aspects just scratch the surface of how we use our brain. We challenge you to begin to think about how you are using your most important work tool: your brain.

We look forward to addressing some of these ideas in more detail in the coming months.

Whether they know the science behind it, or they just believe it to be best practice, athletes with any competitive experience lean on the concept of mental preparation or visualization. The techniques typically involve imagining the complex tasks they must perform well to succeed in their sport. The quarterback recites the play calls and commands the huddle, in his mind. An episode from last year’s Hard Knocks depicts this visualization when backup quarterback T.J. Yates sits in an empty room pretending to run the Atlanta Falcon offense, successfully picking up the defense, audibling to the right play call, and torching the imaginary foe.

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But more than football, athletes of all kinds perform these visual mind games. A downhill skier will walk the course, imagining successful lines and fast times. A tennis player visualizes the perfect serve.

Beneath all of these visualizations is a core truth about positivity. Human beings respond well to positivity. They, in fact, thrive.

The Ratio

In fact, research suggests that human beings flourish much more consistently when they encounter 3 positive emotions for every negative emotion. This principle defines the positivity ratio.

The positivity ratio is, in fact, a calculation of an overall emotional state based on the emotions you are currently feeling. Have you felt silly, amused, or fun-loving? That’s a positive emotion. Have you felt guilty, repentant, or blameworthy? That’s a negative emotion. Over the course of 20 or so questions, you can begin to see where you stand on the positivity ratio.

What these athletes working through visualization are encountering is the benefits of positivity. In addition to the good feeling it provides, positivity can widen the scope of attention, broaden your behavioral repertoire, increase intuition, enhance creativity, speed up recovery from injury or disease, prevent stress-related disorders, provide resilience in adversity, and increase life span. So, in short, it’s a pretty big deal.

But an adequate positivity ratio is extremely rare. In fact, only 20% of Americans accomplish it.

The State of Nature

And intuitively, it makes sense. Everyone experiences good and bad emotions on a daily basis and our moods reflect that variety of positive and negative emotions. Brains have been wired to respond to threats against survival so we all tend to focus on that threat instead of seeing the positive things happening in life. When we experience positive and negative emotions at an equal level, the scale tips toward the negative and life feels unrewarding.

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These negative emotions trigger fight or flight behavior. While it might help us focus and increase our reaction time, it also challenges your health, especially if you work a desk job. Consistent stress can negatively influence your health rapidly. It can increase cholesterol production and decrease its rate of removal. It can position you to encounter a higher chance of blood clotting. It can take a toll on your immune system. It can even influence your memory.

Much of this negativity is a result of our own doing. As a society, we change jobs quickly. We are expected to take on high workloads. There’s a consistent stress on finances as we try to keep up with the Joneses. Generally, we’re too busy and our perfectionist ways lead to negative self-talk.

So how do you get there?

To start, take the test and take it often. You can find it at PositivityRatio.com. Secondly, find some balance through skills and hobbies that can relax and refresh you. This suggestion is especially important for people stuck in mid-level and entry-level roles where they don’t feel like they have much autonomy to change the system. Maybe it’s reading a book. Perhaps it’s joining a rec-league basketball team. Maybe it’s serving at an animal shelter.

If you’re in a management position, take steps towards creating a positive environment. Provide support, encouragement, and appreciation. Be an advocate for your team. But don’t avoid conflict, as an appropriate approach to conflict can be affirming as well, provided the end goal is collectively in mind.

So business people should take a page out of the sports playbook and think positively. It might mean visualizing a great day at work. It might mean harnessing the things you can control in your life to provide some balance. It could mean approaching team management a little bit differently. But shifting the ratio toward positivity, at least 3-1, but even higher is better, will be good for you, good for your team, and good for business.

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All it takes is some weekend channel surfing to see how society views improvement. Show after show illustrates a person in less than ideal circumstances. The entire purpose of the show is to bring these people to a new understanding about who they are and what they want. In many ways, it’s about addressing the problems in your life and making you better.

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What is the problem? How can one fix it? Just like a torn ligament requires surgery for a complete fix, depression needs methods to repair the human psyche, and a worker should gain the tools and mentoring to increase productivity and efficiency in her places of deficit.

However, this focus in our society on the problem creates a tendency toward negativity. Even though we need doctors, psychiatrists, and MBAs, could there be a better way to approaching improvement?

Positive Psychology

The ideas of positive psychology and flourishing offer a thoughtful perspective. Positive psychology looks at the strengths of an individual, the virtues that let people thrive in vibrant communities. Instead of focusing on the bad things, positive psychology looks to expand these strengths to help people live meaningful lives.

On Virtues

This view comes from a classic model of ethics that looks at virtues. Virtue is all about character. It looks at the items that make up good character and suggests that those are the principles to live by. A good life, then, is one that is lived in concert with the societal-agreed virtues.

What could these virtues be? It could constitute many principles. But many of the strengths on which positive psychology focuses provide good starting points. Some big ones include: love, work, compassion, and creativity. How these traits emerge in life, both at home and in the workplace, become the foundation for a flourishing life.

The Current Duality

As mentioned above, the principles of flourishing exist in stark contrast to the current trends of culture. We live in a world where negativity reigns supreme, in a world where dualism is a dominant view.

Dualism, in simple terms, suggests a separation between the physical world and the theoretical world. While the world of the mind is perfect, the physical world is incredibly imperfect. Because the world is imperfect, we focus on the negative and try our best to improve ourselves as much as possible in those places where we lack.

This view in the business world creates difficulty for the individual. If work is imperfect, then negativity will be everywhere in the workplace.

Why Not Thrive?

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But what if flourishing becomes the central tenet for organizations? What if a focus on virtues replaces a focus on dualism? It would mean looking at each individual and attempting to understand how to place everyone in a position to function optimally. And more importantly, a focus on flourishing benefits the organization and community at large.

Flourishing is a new mindset for the life of an individual. Why does it matter? Because a flourishing person contributes to a flourishing organization. A flourishing organization contributes to a flourishing community. A flourishing community creates a flourishing globe.