Top critical review
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Tough to Get Your Brain Round 'Your Brain'
on 27 January 2012
I had a difficult time getting into and through this book. Unfortunately, I really can't tell you why. I think the main problem is that the writing style simply doesn't appeal to me. I don't mind stories; however, I like to have an overview of the information I'm supposed to learn from an example, before the example. So when Scene 1 starts off "It's 7:30, Monday morning. Emily gets up from..." I'm already feeling a bit left out and unsure of why I'm supposed to care. I would rather have the discussion about the brain first and then move into the stories. I fully acknowledge that this is simply a personal preference, but it made it difficult for me to press through the reading.
Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long tries very hard to take current neuroscience research on the human brain, explain it at a very basic level, and make it actionable by the general population. It appears to do a decent job of that. It is, however, very difficult to take research that is often focused on answering a single question, proving or disproving a hypothesis and generalizing that to a wider question or a larger population. Since I have not had the time to dig up and read all of the research used, this is my biggest concern about the book. Does the research really apply as broadly as the author implies?
David Rock spends much of the book boiling down to the idea of being mindful and present. There were a couple of places the book reminded me of GTD, mostly in the aspect of making sure you don't try to keep too much in your mind. The book stresses having only a limited number of things "on stage", whereas GTD stresses a "mind like water" where you keep absolutely nothing extra in your mind. The concepts are similar but worded differently and the book does give a variety of ideas to help implement the concepts.
If all the careers advice world is a stage, Your Brain at Work is a meddling producer trying to get the most out of "The Director"
If all the careers advice world is a stage, Your Brain at Work is a meddling producer trying to get the most out of "The Director".
The author chooses to divide the book into acts and scenes instead of sections and chapters. This terminology fits well with the analogy used about the mind being like a stage with actors and a director. A major aim of the book is to help the reader develop and strengthen his or her own director and to take control of the stage of the mind.
Physically, the book is divided into 4 Acts and 14 Scenes with an Intermission and an Encore.
Act I: Problems and Decisions
More and more people are being paid to be knowledge workers, that is, much of their job involves problem solving and creativity. Many jobs no longer involve mostly repetitive tasks. Because of this fact, people need to learn about their brain and ways to help it function most effectively.
Scene 1: The Morning Email Overwhelm
Scene 2: A Project that Hurts to Think About
Scene 3: Juggling Five Things at Once
Scene 4: Saying No to Distractions
Scene 5: Searching for the Zone of Peak Performance
Scene 6: Getting Past a Roadblock
The intermission introduces the concept of a director, keeping with the theater theme in the book. "The director" is the ability to take a step back and observe your own mental functions. It helps you develop the ability to alter your mental states and reactions to achieve the best performance that you can.
Act II: Stay Cool Under Pressure
The brain is for more than logical thinking. The actual purpose of the brain is to keep you alive. This thought does help put some behavior into perspective.
Scene 7: Derailed by Drama
Scene 8: Drowning amid Uncertainty
Scene 9: When Expectations Get Out of Control
Act III: Collaborate with Others
Very few people work in isolation. Developing skills in collaboration is vital to success. Collaboration, of course, requires social interaction and skills. Yet social interaction is a major source of conflict. Conflict can be reduced, in part, by realizing that social needs are a basic human need like food, water, shelter and certainty.
Scene 10: Turning Enemies into Friends
Scene 11: When Everything Seems Unfair
Scene 12: The Battle for Status
Act IV: Facilitate Change
Change is hard. Facilitating change in others is harder. Enough said.
Scene 13: When Other People Lose the Plot
Scene 14: The Culture That Needs to Transform
The encore is a short, helpful summary of the key points of the book.
In the story we follow Emily and Paul through a day of their life. They are a married couple with two teenage children. During the day we see things that are happening and the way that Emily, Paul and the people around them react to fairly normal life stresses and occurrences.
Emily is a recently promoted executive in an event-planning business. She is dealing with a variety of stresses that come with a new position, in addition to the stress of normal day-to-day survival in the information age. We see her dealing with email, meetings, being put on the spot and working with new and former colleagues and employees.
Paul is a software consultant. His background is software development and now he is on his own his own trying to handle everything. He has to deal with clients, suppliers, budgets and presentations. We get to watch his pain as he tries to navigate the world and keep business.
Each scene follows a similar script:
Initial (bad) events
Summary of the science related to the behavior
A better way to handle the event, based on the science presented
A brief summary
I won't go into details on each scene, but I do want to point out some the "surprises about the brain" and "things to try" from the end of the chapters.
Many of the items listed in the chapter summaries "surprises about the brain", weren't surprises to me. If you follow any kind of human behavior writing you will have heard of many of them. However, some that caught my eye are:
Every time the brain works on an idea consciously, it uses a measurable and limited resource.
The less you hold in your mind at once the better. (Full disclosure, this was not a surprise at all, but being a fan of GTD I always reiterate the need to get everything out of your head!)
Switching between tasks uses energy; if you do this a lot you can make more mistakes.
If you do multiple conscious tasks at once you will experience a big drop-off in accuracy or performance.
Having explicit language for mental patterns gives you a greater ability to stop patterns emerging early on, before they take over.
Peak mental performance requires just the right level of stress, not minimal stress.
It's astonishingly easy to get stuck on the small set of solutions to a problem, called the impasse phenomenon.
The brain has an overarching organizing principle to minimize danger and maximize reward.
The away response can reduce cognitive resources, making it harder to think about your thinking, make you more defensive, and mistakenly class certain situations as threats.
Expectations alter the data your brain perceives.
It's common to fit incoming data into expectations and to ignore data that don't fit.
Social connections are a primary need, as important as food and water at times.
A sense of fairness can be a primary reward.
Status is a significant driver of behavior at work and across life experiences.
Giving feedback often creates an intense threat response that doesn't help people improve performance.
While human change appears hard, change in the brain is constant.
Focused attention changes the brain.
Things to try
These sections provide a summary of the techniques described and modeled in each chapter. Like the "surprises" it's likely you have heard of some of them before. The ones that stood out to me are:
Think of conscious thinking as a precious resource to conserve.
Schedule blocks of time for different modes of thinking.
Practice getting your most important actors onstage first, not just the ones that easiest.
Catch yourself trying to do two things at once and slow down instead.
Reduce the likelihood of internal distractions by clearing your mind before embarking on difficult tasks.
Inhibit distractions early before they take on momentum.
Practice being aware of your levels of alertness and interest throughout the day.
Take a break and do something light and interesting, to see if an answer emerges.
Practice noticing emotions as they arise, the get better at sensing their presence earlier.
Practice noticing what your expectations are in any given situation.
Watch out for people's status being threatened.
Catch yourself when you go to give feedback, problem solve, or provide solutions.
Help people think about their own thinking by focusing them on their own subtle internal thoughts, without getting into too much detail.
What did the book do well?
I really liked the way the chapters ended with a summary of "Surprises about the Brain" and "Some Things to Try". Many of them are seriously worth considering and trying.
The book presents ideas that will help people focus on the reality of what's happening around them and we some people react the way that they do. There are good ideas in the book that will help you to perform better IF you are willing to do the work to make the techniques a part of your life.
The author provides two acronyms/models that can help with certain problems. The first is the ARIA model to help with increasing insight. ARIA stands for Awareness, Reflection, Insight, and Action. According to the model these are the stages it takes to increase the likelihood of gaining an insight.
The second is the SCARF model. This acronym stands for the five areas of social experience that the brain treats as survival issues. SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. Keeping this model in mind can help you maintain control if you realize that an emotional response is natural when you are challenged in these areas.
What could have been better
Many of the conversations, descriptions and internal dialogues are difficult to read. They are not difficult conversations, but I cringed at some of the lines. I really don't care how mindful I'm being, I will never think that I feel brain chemicals changing. I may feel my mood improving, but I will not think about chemical changes.
One part that really struck me was an example of hailing a cab. Without using the techniques the author describes you failing miserably! By using his techniques the world is suddenly filled with sunshine, butterflies and unicorns! Or at least you get the cab you desperately need to get to the airport to meet the client. I understand that it's easier to illustrate examples with extremes, but at least for me, I simply don't look at life in extremes and this makes many of the examples a little tough to pay attention to.
I strongly dislike the way the author references many facts throughout the book with no support cited. I really dislike that there are no footnotes/references within the text of book. The references at the end do line up reasonably well with the text, but it's easier to verify that the claim is supported by the reference if you can tell exactly what claim is supported by what reference. I strongly suspect that many of the references have been over-generalized.
The book is worth a read for the techniques it describes to help you focus. It doesn't need to move to the top of your reading list.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Patrick Wagman, PMP, serves as IT Program Manager at University of Georgia and an Adnjunct Computer Information Systems Instructor at Park University. A decorated Air Force captain and former Airman of the Year, Patrick holds a Six Sigma Green Belt, is a certified CA Clarity r8 Functional Administrator, and participates in the Atlanta Chapter of the Project Management Institute (PMI), which honored Patrick with the 2008 Project of the Year Award.