Can neuroscience help you take control of your working day?

Chris Baréz-Brown is a speaker, author and leadership consultant. The founder of Upping Your Elvis, he’s worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on cultural change; last year he entered the app space with mental health start-up Talk it Out. In an event for members of The Drum Network, he spoke about getting the most out of your day, boosting creativity, and how to get your brain off autopilot.

If you’re familiar with the motivational speaking circuit, nuts-and-bolts practical advice is probably the last thing you’d expect from an hour with one of its leading lights.

But the hyper-successful are obsessed with nothing more than their daily routines – and Chris Baréz-Brown has spent more time than most talking with business leaders about how to optimize their day-to-day. And, right before the end of his conversation with members of The Drum Network, he shared his one piece of advice for everyone, everywhere: take control of the things you do right after you wake up. It’s the period of the day when your brain is “most malleable to set it for a good intention”, so it’s a period with an outsize impact on your day as a whole.

Here are Chris’s dos and don’ts of the early morning:

  • Don’t set an alarm on your phone; don’t look at your phone when you open your eyes – in fact, don’t even keep your phone in your bedroom. Buy an alarm clock instead.

  • Drink a pint of water right as you get up – ideally with a little sea salt for the electrolytes.

  • Get your heart rate up: walk the dog, go to the gym, or maybe do a few squats.

  • Spend five minutes thinking about one big thing to get done that day, and block it into your diary.

Changes like that, he says, have quite literally changed clients’ lives: he recalls one stats-minded tech leader who claimed that they made him 500% more effective.

For the skeptical, it’s worth noting that all of this is based in neuroscience - Baréz-Brown doesn’t claim to be an expert himself but does recall a scientist approaching him after a talk and declaring his neuroscientific claims “correct but a little simple”.

The core understanding these tips rely on is the difference between the conscious and the unconscious brain, a two-system dichotomy will be familiar to anyone who’s read Daniel Kahneman’s bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow. The conscious brain is more attentive and reliable, but uses so much energy that we can only use it for around 5% of the time; the rest of the time, we fall back on the unconscious brain, which is good for passive information processing, but less attentive and creative.

We spend most of our lives, in other words, on autopilot. But in our industry, survival and success rely on the kind of creative, divergent thinking that the unconscious brain simply can’t handle:“if you rely on doing what you’ve done before, the game is over – so we have to learn how to get off of autopilot if we’re going to do great work.”

That problem has only been exacerbated by lockdowns and remote working: “because we’re not able to break habits in the ways we usually are – we’re in the same room looking at the same screen doing the same old stuff”.

So making the most of the conscious brain’s limited resources is, for Chris, pretty much the whole deal when it comes to marshalling the creative forces within us that can make us successful, or not.

Another key is to be aware of and realistic about your own natural rhythms – poets may have occasional visits from the muse; for the rest of us, a daily spell of decent concentration is the best we can hope for.

“One of the disastrous things we do is to see our day in equal increments of 60 minutes,” Chris says. “They’re absolutely not equal. My 9 am is nothing like my 4 am”.

A quick poll of those present reveals that no two people share an hour where they feel most productive; noticing when your good hours are and organizing around them – “playing with the ebbs and flows of your day” – is a step in the right direction.

That’s where those five minutes thinking about a goal for the day ahead come in: if you bookend your day with another five minutes at the end to pause and review “what have I learned? What worked and what didn’t? What am I going to do differently tomorrow?”, you can start to understand your rhythms and build your day around them, rather than wasting your best hours on admin or trawling through your inbox.

This idea also informs Chris’s most recent new venture: the app and “creative tool” Talk it Out, which aims to “take the subconscious out into the light of day”. By allowing users to capture and replay their thoughts, Chris says, it allows them to be a little more intentional with the limited resources of the conscious brain. And if we can be more intentional, just maybe we can remake our days (and therefore our lives) with a little more harmony between our working selves our evolutionary selves.

“We spent two million years on this planet as hunter gatherers – business is quite a recent concept. We spend all our time trying to make ourselves fit business. My beliefs is that if we can make business fit us, we’ll do a better job.”