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10 Tips From Neuroscientists to Survive Work Days

Jonathan Ferng, MD, MBA, MS
Jonathan Ferng is an internal medicine physician who has a wide range of interests spanning healthcare, business, consulting, research, and music. He enjoys meditating, learning new skills, and sharing positivity with the world.
Published: September 25, 2022
Here's 10 helpful tips from Neuroscientists to survive the workday.
Rather than sitting down for several hours of uninterrupted work, neuroscientists recommend a mix of purposeful activities and breaks during the day. (Image: George Milton via Pexels)

With countless hours spent on screens, back-to-back meetings, and at a desk, how do neuroscientists tackle a typical workday? Bloomberg sought out the advice of multiple neuroscientists in a recent article.

Productivity pearls

Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, said, “How do I get stuff done? Well, I’m not killing myself cognitively, and I’m certainly not working 15-hour days.” 

Instead of forcing ourselves to work long hours without any breaks, such as with uninterrupted work sessions or serial conference calls, we should be breaking our day up. For many people, this means a “mix of deep work, meetings, light tasks, and specialized activities.”

Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University, stated, “When you have a million different meetings, you will likely go to a place of deluge and get overwhelmed.”

While top business executives routinely fill their days with meetings, they are also seasoned professionals who have had years of training to handle high social loads. Others likely require a period of time to build themselves up to the same level.

Michael Platt, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “If they’re true leaders, they’ve been exercising their social brain for years and are probably operating at a capacity that your average person can’t. If you stack meetings up, by the time you get to 2 p.m., your brain is mush.”

Ten tips from neuroscientists

1. Exercise in the mornings. Zak takes 15-minute morning walks with his dog while sipping coffee, with his phone at the ready for notes. A treadmill or treadmill desk can also work. 

“In 20 minutes I’ve gotten some exercise, had my coffee, and gotten my day planned,” Zak says. “You want to get that heart pumping and that brain infused with fresh oxygen.”

2. Meditate. Research has shown that not only does meditation reduce stress and alter brain activity, but also it reduces the levels of inflammation in the body. Platt says, “We’re less clear on the mechanisms, but it turns down your arousal systems, which makes you less likely to make mistakes or rash decisions. It doesn’t need to be very long.”

3. Start days early. Bloomberg reports while most workers feel sharp between 5 and 10 a.m., hours are often wasted on morning routines and less important meetings. Zak recommends taking the first 90 minutes of the day to complete your two most critical tasks.

He says, “I get to my desk before my family is awake, so I’ve got a couple of hours to be superfocused.” 

Important duties can be shifted to later times for those who are most productive in the afternoon or night.

4. Work in 20-minute blocks. People often struggle to stay immersed in tasks for long stretches of time, Zak says. Instead, with the exception of activities requiring more time like deep work, people should schedule tasks and meetings in blocks of 20 minutes or shorter.

5. Take “brainwashing” breaks. Zak recommends quick breaks to refresh the brain to hydrate, walk around, and look outside. “They help you rinse out and get rid of all the stuff you’re focused on,” he says. Ten minutes is optimal, but shorter is fine as well.

“There are two opposing systems in your brain—one that gets the job done and a network that supports creativity and exploration,” Platt says. Creativity is “totally suppressed” when the get-the-job-done part is in charge.

6. Have on-the-go meetings. Work meetings can be conducted while walking, standing, or even trimming plants in the backyard. “You’re getting that heart rate up, and after a while your feet start to hurt, so people get to the point and move on,” Zak says. Platt is also a fan of walking meetings.

Both neuroscientists prefer to avoid videoconferences “where the brain works hard to glean the micro expressions, pupil dilation, and eyelines of attendees compressed into two-dimensional boxes.” Instead, people can make phone calls or have brief introductions on video before switching cameras off.

7. Answer emails in bursts. Rather than being available via email all day, which can serve as a constant distraction from other tasks, emails can be addressed in bursts of 10 to 30 minutes several times a day. This doubles as a buffer between meetings.

“Just knock out emails as if you’re crossing off things on your list. Try to be efficient with it. Otherwise you get overwhelmed and overburdened with an overflowing inbox,” Platt says.

8. Purposeful breaks and exercise. Feeling tired after lunch is a common phenomenon known as postprandial somnolence. Zak suggests drinking coffee before a 20-minute nap. “Lean in to your body’s own rhythms of taking a break after you eat to digest.” Alternatively, he says it’s “perfectly fine to have an espresso or a coffee after lunch to fight [fatigue]. It raises your heart rate.”

Although fitting in time for exercise can be challenging, Platt says, “It’s not the time, but the intensity. Seven minutes of high-intensity interval training is fantastic, or even just simple resistance training—stuff you can do in your office.”

9. Bond with co-workers. Meetings can be started with short games or prompts to facilitate deeper conversations and to get everyone on the same frequency. “Positive social interactions are really important for both individual well-being and building a culture of empathy, trust, and cooperation. They don’t involve a lot of money or effort, but the impacts can really be felt,” Platt says.

10. Schedule time for yourself. People often forget to account for personal time in their calendars, which can lead to exhausting back-to-back obligations. Bike rides, hikes, calling someone to catch up, or simply relaxing at home can help us recharge. Platt says, “Take time for yourself. Many of us don’t do enough of that.”