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.


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.

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