Multi tasking will “chain your brains” !

Learn to disconnect to fully leverage your brain power

brainchainsI was very much looking forward to the arrival of the new book of Theo Compernolle. Five years of work resulted in quite frankly the most thorough recap of all the analysis around on the impact of digital technology on our brains.

The title “Brain Chains” sounds more pessimistic than the subtitle of the book i.e. “discover your brain and unleash its full potential in a hyper connected multi tasking world”.

As a technology optimist initially I was indeed hoping to read a lot more on the “unleashing the potential” (Heaven) rather than reading about the possible negative impact on the brain (Hell) (For reference to HellVen see previous post)

In heind zeit however I have come to realise that Theo’s book really put the light on a big blind spot of I’m sure many people. Clearly digital technology is proving a key enabler when used well however there are really some key watch out’s that are recapped below :

1. Professional don’t know how their brains works yet it is their most important tool to work with: professional success depends on our brainwork, but professionals don’t know how their brain works. We are living in a world where our success depends on the quantity and quality of our brainwork, but a majority of brainworkers unknowingly ruin their intellectual productivity because they have no clue about what the human brain can and can’t do. Isn’t it strange that you don’t know how your most important tool works ?

2. You need to know the difference between your fast “reflex” brain, your slow “reflecting” brain and your “archiving” brain

  • We have a slow reflecting brain that can think long-term, set long-term goals, be proactive and reflect (something that no other animal is capable of).  Reflection is sustained, focused critical thinking with a purpose. It is conscious, persistent, logical, critical thinking at an abstract level : manipulating concepts, mental images, memories, hypotheses and theories in the absence of the objects or the phenomena we are thinking about.
  • We have a fast primitive reflex brain that can process many inputs at the same time, it does not consume much energy and it is lightning fast because it works with many genetic and acquired shortcuts. The reflex brain traditionally reacts faster than our reflecting brain as this was important for our survival in the savannah, but that causes lots of problems for brainworkers today, as it’s attention is unconsciously captured by novel or sudden sensory changes, such as smells, sight and above all sounds.
  • We have an archiving brain waiting for a break of the other two brains to be able to order properly the billions of bits and bytes of information, to select what it wants to keep and to store it in such a way that it is available for future use.

3. We are NOT built to multi task but ironically we believe we are good at it : this is really the core of the book and for me the biggest AHA. We may have joked about the difference between men and women on multi tasking but the reality is our brains (men, women) CANNOT multi task. This is where digital devices, when misused in an “always on” mode, is clearly NOT helping our productivity. Fact : every time you are interrupted/distracted you need a couple of seconds to restart your reflecting

As a result we actually have significantly dropped in quality reflection : research has show that on average managers only have per week one period of 45minute stretch to be able to reflect and have new insight ! How inefficient is that ?

4. The fuel of our brains is SLEEP and we are getting too little of it – especially kids : the reflecting brain and the archiving brain are in balance: when one is activated, the other is deactivated and vice versa. They compete for time and space in our working memory, a part of our brain that can be compared with the central processor in a computer. That’s why the best time for the archiving brain to really work is when we sleep. Better archiving in its turn results in better reflexing.  Sustained sleep deprivation therefore impacts structurally our reflexing mode !

More alarming, the current younger generation is constantly multi tasking and sleeping much much less than we did. This was for me a real wake up call. Theo mathematically explains how this generation’s cognitive power is affected by that ! I’m not sure sufficient parents understand the risk of kids doing long night Facebook chats with their friends…

5. Finally,  we humans make the difference with machines because we have “insights”. But to have insights you need to learn to “disconnect” : our job as a professional is to digest, understand, process, produce and create information, knowledge and insights both for our company and for your personal development and career. Original concepts don’t come out of computers. They come out of the insight you have. Technology however can help to shape insights in many ways. But if used wrongly can significantly impact our thinking quality. So leverage your technology to leverage your brain power by learning to disconnect.

theo Suez Chair in Leadership and Personal Development at the Solvay Business  school, Adjunct Professor at INSEAD, Visiting Professor at the Vlerick School for Management and TIAS, Professor at the Free University of Amsterdam, department head at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, resident at the Universities of Leiden and Amsterdam.