How to Control Your Brain for Optimal Functioning
Ways of making that mighty three-pound organ work for you instead of against you.
When we are preparing for significant events in our careers, we tend to focus on preparation. If we have a big presentation to do, we practice until we are comfortable. If we have an interview for a new job, we research the company and its key players to ensure we have answers to obvious questions. If we have a project deadline, we manage our time and our team to ensure the best results. When we take this approach, however, we are only doing half the work of being effective and successful.
How often do you take the time to prepare your brain? What do you do to ensure that you keep that pivotal organ in the game, not just your body and actions? It’s fair to say that physical preparation is what controls the brain, but there are specific things you can do to ensure that it is as prepared as your body for those important career situations.
The role of thoughts
Many people have the misconception that emotions just happen, that we have no ability to control how we feel. This leaves us at their whim, reacting purely based upon feelings. The problem with this is that emotions are subjective and don’t typically allow for logical or strategic thinking.
The truth is that you can manage emotions, but that starts with controlling thoughts. Every emotion we experience comes from a thought, which occurs consciously or unconsciously, then we experience one or more emotions based upon it. A challenge you (like pretty much all of us) likely have is that you recognize the emotion, but don’t take the time to identify the thought creating it.
In business this can be detrimental at best, dangerous at worst. If you are reacting from emotion, you might not make the best decision or choose the most effective path. You might be distracted, unable to focus your energy and attention on productive actions. Instead of functioning from peak performance level, you get pulled into a whirlpool that leaves you feeling out of control and depleted.
To avoid this, embrace the following process:
1. Clearly identify the emotion that you are experiencing, then ask yourself if that emotion serves your goal. For example, you might experience a heightened level of anxiety regarding a professional presentation. Instead of sinking into that anxiety, ask yourself if it facilitates a goal of doing well in the task.
2. If the emotion(s) don't serve a goal, identify the thoughts that are creating it. Thoughts creating anxiety regarding the above presentation might include not wanting to make a fool of yourself, coming off as a fraud or simply that people will be staring at you and judging you. This anxiety isn’t just because you don’t like public speaking: it’s coming from specific thoughts that you have now identified.
3. Take the time to break down these thoughts by replacing them with data. By asking yourself specific questions, you can replace detrimental and anxiety-provoking thoughts with information. Consider how many times you've given successful presentations, for example, and/or do a quick mental scan of your resume to remind yourself of all the accomplishments, training and education that makes you qualified to give this presentation. You can also consider the people in your audience and identify allies who will support you. When you provide your brain with evidence and facts, it doesn’t have to fill in uncertainty with “What if?”. By reminding your brain that you have the skills to take on this task — that you do have the background to be credible on the topic — your brain will create emotions that align with these thoughts, replacing anxiety with confidence.
Related: How to Be More Confident
The role of words
As a professional, you are likely aware of the power of words. These can be used to motivate or demoralize, strengthen or undermine, but how often do you think about the ones you use on yourself? Such words might be the conscious ones you say to yourself as well as unconscious or whispered things. I find that it’s helpful to ask, “Would I say the same things to fellow colleagues or to my team?” For many professionals, words that they say to empower others are not directed at themselves.
The problem, once again, is that words create thoughts, followed by emotions that can be detrimental to optimal functioning. These may be obvious, such as calling yourself an “idiot” for making a mistake, or telling yourself that you “aren’t as skilled as others think.” You might catch yourself thinking that you are likely to fail at something important. These words create undermining thoughts, which in turn generate emotions aligned with them.
There are also smaller words that can create an internal climate that sabotages your goals. Examples include “should,” “have to,” “need to” and “must” — which create thoughts of not doing enough, not being enough, or of falling behind peers. They also create the illusion that you are being forced to do certain things. And again, these words generate emotions: You might experience pressure, stress or guilt, and might then make decisions out of desperation to prove yourself, which will not allow you to function in an optimal or healthy way.
To avoid creating an internal climate of negative thoughts and emotions, replace these pressure words with power words — options like “want” and “will” can change an internal dialogue and put control back in your hands. For example, instead of telling yourself that you should go into work to review practice for the presentation so you don’t mess up, the internal dialogue becomes, “I will go into work to practice because I want to be confident about the presentation.” Changing the pressure word of “should” to “will” and “want,” and shifting the focus from making a mistake to building confidence puts you back in control of thoughts and emotions.
The role of the brain
Ultimately, your brain is lazy: It will focus on whatever you tell it to. Consider this: The last time you were looking to buy a car, you likely came down to one or two styles that appealed. Most likely, you began seeing these styles everywhere you went. Was there suddenly an uptick in the amount of these models being purchased in your area? Not likely. Then why were you seeing these around you when you never noticed them before? That impression is arrived at through a process called priming. We prime our brains to search for evidence and examples of whatever we tell it to. When you told yours the types of cars you were interested in, it found as many examples as possible to support this focus.
How can you use this same approach when it comes to professional functioning? One way is to decide what perspective you want to have regarding work. If you tell your brain that you hate your job, it will search for and provide evidence of why you should feel that way — all you will see is data aligned with that thought. So, how do you apply priming so that it works for you instead of against you?
It may be true that you do not like your job, but you can tell your brain that you appreciate earning money while you look for new opportunities. It will then search for examples that support that idea of appreciation, and will also search for areas of opportunity. You don’t have to create an inaccurate statement about your job and lie to your brain, but you can decide which aspect of the situation it spends time and energy on. This strategy allows you to function at your optimal level instead of being drained of focus and power.
The role of choice
When you work on a project for your organization, do you plan to complete fifty percent of it and hope the rest will come together on its own? Of course not, but it’s likely that this is how you’ve been functioning if you only engage in physical preparation for your professional role. Overall, how you function is your choice: You can determine what thoughts you want to encourage to create beneficial emotions, which will then get you closer to peak performance. You can decide what words will generate behaviors and actions that align with goal attainment, and can tell your brain where to direct focus and energy in order to get the results you want. These strategies help the brain become your greatest tool, rather than biggest obstacle.
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