Boost Your Business By Boosting Your Brain

p048-051-ABS#29-Entrepreneurship-1By Dr Helena Popovic MBBS.

Your most powerful business asset is your brain. By understanding how your brain works, you can work more productively, creatively and efficiently. You can learn how to think more incisively, focus more effectively and sustain your mental energy throughout the day. Here are some of the latest findings from neuroscience to help you boost both your brain and your business.

Two areas of the brain are essential to having a successful working life: the prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for all of your higher order thinking: making decisions, understanding new ideas, processing information and coming up with solutions to problems. Your basal ganglia enable you to do things you have done many times before without having to consciously think about them. The examples are endless – driving to work, brushing your teeth, tying your shoelaces and anything else you do on autopilot.

Knowing about these two regions of the brain resolves the debate about whether or not we can multitask. The answer is both yes and no, depending on what activities we are trying to do simultaneously. If you are doing something that is the domain of your basal ganglia – a routine that has been embedded in your brain through repetition – then you can do several different things at once because they do not require your conscious attention. An example would be eating while walking to the bus stop. You do not have to consciously think about either activity. You might enjoy your food and surroundings more if you paid conscious attention to them, but that is another issue. However, once you add an activity that uses your prefrontal cortex and requires you to focus on what you are doing, the brain is only capable of focussing on one thing at a time. Talking on the phone at the same time as typing a document, dramatically reduces our ability to do either activity effectively and accurately. Harold Pashler, professor of psychology at the University of California, demonstrated that the mental capacity of a Harvard University graduate can drop to that of an eight-year-old, when asked to do two cognitive tasks at once.

The brain can only pay attention to one thing at a time. We are unable to consciously take in information from two different sources simultaneously. If you are reading and talking on the phone, your brain is forced to rapidly switch attention between the two tasks. Each time your brain makes the switch, it loses information from one or the other source and increases the likelihood of you making a mistake. In addition, disengaging from one task to another consumes time and energy. Research has found that a person who is interrupted takes 50 per cent longer to finish the job and makes up to 50 per cent more errors. The scientific term for this is “dual-task interference” and the implications for business are enormous: if you want to increase your speed and accuracy, and reduce your mental fatigue, do not divide your attention. Do one thing at a time and put your full attention on what you are doing.

The other limitation of the prefrontal cortex is that it uses a lot of energy (glucose) every time it kicks into action, and glucose is a finite resource. Over a century ago, the scientist J C Welsh showed that when people engage in critical thinking or other demanding mental activities, like planning or memorising, their physical strength is reduced by as much as 50 per cent. The reverse is also true: if you are physically tired or hungry, it is harder to concentrate. And if you have just solved a difficult problem, it will be harder to solve the next problem unless you refuel or take a break. This biological fact underpins the importance of prioritising, planning and scheduling your day to optimise your brain power. Make a list of what needs to be done at the beginning of each week and schedule the most mentally demanding jobs for the start of each day. Intersperse mentally challenging activities with routine activities (that use up much less energy) to give your brain time to recharge. Allocate blocks of time for different types of thinking in the same way you would alternate upper and lower body exercises at the gym, and do not waste mental energy trying to remember things you can easily write down or record. Eat low GI foods that provide sustained fuel rather than sugar-rich snacks that only give short burst of energy and leave you even more depleted soon after.

An apparent contradiction to this is that the brain operates at its best in the first hour after we engage in any form of moderate physical activity, such as 20-60 minutes of brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming or skipping. One of the most significant scientific discoveries in the last two decades is that moving our muscles produces brain-building proteins, not just muscle-building proteins. A German study found that people learn new vocabulary words 20 per cent faster after 20 minutes of exercise. A Japanese study found that people’s problem solving skills improved after a 12-week physical exercise program. And a Western Australian study involving over 50 year-olds showed that a 30-minute walk a day keeps memory loss away.

Physical exercise has a direct impact on our ability to learn and process new information. If you went for a run this morning, you will remember more of what you read in this article than if you have been sitting down all day. Being a fast learner is an essential business survival skill because it enables us to adapt to constantly changing circumstances. The learning process involves making new connections between brain cells and this involves a critical molecule called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). BDNF acts like a fertiliser for brain cells – it activates brain cells to grow in size, number and connectivity, making us better learners and more creative thinkers. And the more we exercise, the more BDNF we produce. This is the mechanism behind the cognitive improvements demonstrated in the German, Japanese and Australian studies mentioned above.

The other important effect of physical exercise is that it increases the levels of feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine. These neurotransmitters are antidotes to anxiety, stress and depression, and also help us concentrate and consolidate learning. They go beyond improving our mood – they actually help us see the bigger picture, think outside the square and persist longer at a task. We can change our mental state and stamina simply by moving our bodies. Exercise is not just something we should do to stay healthy and live longer – it is an essential daily business survival tool. The businesses I have worked with report dramatic improvements in performance, productivity and morale, as well as significant reductions in stress, after incorporating physical exercise into their working day. When people get out of the office and get moving for 30-60 minutes a day, they do not lose valuable work time (everyone’s initial fear). Instead, everyone reports that they more than make up the ‘lost’ time through gains in productivity when they get back to their desk. One client reported, “My workload hasn’t decreased and the demands on me are more than ever before, but my ability to deal with things has measurably improved. I am coping better, getting things done more efficiently, and even interacting with my children more positively.”

It is very empowering to know that we can influence our own biology. We are not passive victims of our genes. The brain is not hardwired but is constantly re-wiring itself in response to what we do, what we think and how we behave. The choices you make on a daily basis can have a profound impact on the performance of your brain and the profitability of your business.

Dr Helena Popovic MBBS is a medical doctor, author and CEO of Choose Health – Better Living for Busy People, a consultancy built on the philosophy that education is more powerful than medication. She runs in-house and conference seminars on how to Boost Your Brain, Turn Stress into Success, Go From Burnout to Balance and Peak Health for Peak Performance. To receive free weekly Brain Boosters, please visit: To hire Helena as a consultant, keynote speaker or trainer, please email:



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