Think better – Neuroscience: the next competitive advantage

It’s fast becoming a deeply-embedded yearning of our time. In workplaces throughout the world, there’s awareness that we’re not performing to our full potential and too many distractions are to blame. While the diagnosis may seem clear, most people feel helpless to do anything about it other than to keep working harder at staying focused. But neuroscience research is now shedding new light on the fundamental problem, offering decipherable clues for how to better support attention at work. By integrating the discoveries of neuroscience with their own investigations into worker behaviours and the changing nature of work, the Steelcase WorkSpace Futures team offers new insights and ideas for how workplaces can be reimagined in innovative ways to optimise brain performance.

Yet another urgent text will come in, you’ll get a string of new email alerts, you’ll overhear a colleague at the next workstation mention your name during a videoconference so you’ll turn your attention to what that’s all about, you’ll still be trying to catch up on your emails when your boss will stop by to ask about that proposal you’ve been trying to finish all week, which will prompt you to go online to browse for some more information and then, since you’re online anyway and didn’t take a lunch break and starting to feel really resentful about the impossible amount of the work you’re expected to do and how hard it is to focus, you’ll stop off at Facebook and notice that today is the birthday of your best friend from uni, so you’ll read the 73 messages she’s received so far and then decide, what the heck, you’ll give her a call while you’re still catching up on email and then, before you know it, you’re almost late for your third meeting of the day and feeling more stressed than ever, so you’ll get a large black coffee with an extra shot of espresso and try to work on the proposal during the meeting.


3 minutes – How frequently the average office worker is interrupted or distracted.
University of California, Irvine.

8 - Average number of windows open on worker’s computer at the same time.
“The Overflowing Brain: Information overload and the limits of working memory,” Torkel Klingberg.

30 - Average number of times per hour an office worker checks their email inbox.
National Center for Biotechnology Information.


Part of the problem of our distraction, and the solution, lies in ourselves. By changing our existing habits, we can gain more control of our brains—and our lives. As we become more knowledgeable about how our brains work and more attuned to the ebb and flow of our attention, it becomes easier to recognise what our brains need. Steelcase researchers and designers have identified three brain modes that each requires distinct behaviours and settings:

Focus: When we need to deeply focus on something, it’s important to avoid unwelcome distractions. Whether the distractions are external or internal, every time we switch our attention we burn through finite neural resources and increase opportunities for the limbic system to hijack our focus. Whether it’s turning off our phones for a while or completely overhauling how we manage our day or just getting more sleep, a widening circle of expert authors are offering a steady stream of helpful tips in books, magazine articles, interviews and online media, suggesting various behaviours that we can adopt to focus our brains more productively.

Regenerate and Inspire: Although self-regulation is necessary for controlled attention it’s important to recognise that distractions can be opportunities to give our brain the timeout it needs and then let our minds go where they will. Although daydreaming has taken on generally negative connotations in the work world, as it turns out our brains are still working when they wander, even though we feel like we’re not. The neurons are forging new pathways versus focusing on what you already know. And that’s when insights really start developing,” says Donna Flynn, vice president of the WorkSpace Futures team. “That old adage about focusing too hard so you can’t see the forest through the trees and the stereotype of ‘aha’ moments in the shower or driving to work—now we know that those really have a scientific component. Neuroscience helps us understand that often the best way to solve a problem is to walk away from it and let your brain do the work subconsciously.”

Activate: When we need to activate our arousal, moving our bodies is the key. Although we may have learned otherwise in school, static sitting sabotages our ability to concentrate. Numerous studies have proven that movement boosts attention by pumping oxygen and fresh blood through the brain and triggering the release of enhancing hormones. While the physical and emotional benefits of movement are well established, neuroscience has proven it also enhances cognition.

Harvard’s John Ratey comprehensively explores the connection between exercise and the brain in his book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.” He explains that when our bodies are moving, we stimulate production of the protein BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which he describes as “Miracle-Gro for the brain,” fuelling the birth of new neurons. Another very recent validation of the benefits of movement: A study recently published in Computers in Human Behavior concluded that students who read something at a treadmill desk were 34.9 percent more likely to answer a question about it correctly than their sitting counterparts. They also reported paying more attention to their work, and their electroencephalography readings showed more signs of attentiveness and better memory.

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Designfarm are the authorised dealer for leading, global furniture provider Steelcase in Western Australia.


Austin, TX
With so many possible tips to avoid distractions and improve work performance, I'm glad the article mentions Sleep, because modern work culture has evolved to value workaholism (i.e. busy work). Recent studies have shown a strong connect between good sleep and productivity because it affects alertness, attention, concentration, creativity, decision-making, energy & efficiency, focus, and so much more -- all attributes we look for in advancing careers.

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