Brain boost for alphas

Brain boost for alphas

It's not just a stale platitude. If you want to be at peak performance, you've simply got to get a handle on your sleeping, exercise, and dietary habits. This applies to business managers, especially those alphas who need to be at the top of their game all the time.

Innovation in the workplace is fuelled by good neuro-chemical balance in the brain. And this requires doing the right thing for your body.

The latest scientific research shows us that the brain operates along two different neural pathways.

One pathway takes it from a state of high physiological arousal provoked by stress, where emotions like fear and anxiety abound, and attempts to move it to a place of comfort. This pathway is governed by neuro-chemicals such as cortisol, the “stress” chemical, and serotonin, the “calming” chemical.

The other pathway takes the brain from a condition of low physiological arousal –– conditions like boredom and apathy –– and moves it in the direction of excitement. A neuro-moderator operating here is dopamine, the “stimulating” chemical. It provides the drive you need to get things done. Because these two pathways are instinctively wired in the brain, stress dampens people’s ability to be creative. When you’re pressured or anxious, your brain is high on cortisol. It seeks safety, which means it will keep you focused on the beaten path. This is not the road to innovation. The right neuro-chemical cocktail for your best creative work is a high level of both serotonin and dopamine. This will produce a condition in which you are calm but energized. And what’s the best way to get that combination? A good night’s sleep.

In a typical night, you’ll dream only part of the time. That’s what’s called rapid eye-movement, or REM sleep. The last two phases of non-REM portion of the evening are when all the neuro-moderators come back to normal levels. That’s what’s called “deep” or “restorative” sleep. Without a decent period of deep sleep, your cortisol, or “stress” chemical level, will remain high and that of serotonin, the “calming” chemical low. A minimum of 30 minutes, and up to two hours is good. But unfortunately, we tend to lose out on deep sleep as we age. Most of us could use better sleep, particularly when we’re wanting to be innovative.

So how do you know how much deep sleep you’re getting? Here’s where some of the latest technology can help. There are wristbands that track your sleep by monitoring how long your body is completely still –– the sign that you are in the deep phase. There are headbands with electrodes that you can wear at night to monitor your REM and non-REM periods. With a little getting used to, these kinds of devices can help you figure out where you are and where you need to go.

The best way to increase deep sleep time is to arrive in bed relaxed:
n  Take a hot shower or bath beforehand.
n  Don’t drink alcohol to wind down. Drinking less than two hours before bed reduces deep sleep dramatically.
n  Turn off all lights. And this includes the screens and buttons on any kind of electronic device. Light affects the pineal gland and tells you that it’s time to be awake.
n  Eat more lightly in the evening, and conclude the meal at least three to four hours before retiring. Digesting a big meal affects sleep.
n  No late nights, either, especially not before a day that will demand your creative attention.
Other Tips
n  To put the serotonin and dopamine to their best use in innovating, schedule morning meetings whenever possible.
n  Consider using video conferencing instead of stressing your body by traveling to another time zone.
n  Diet also affects your neuro-moderators. A high-protein breakfast is the best brain food. The proteins produced from it in the body are converted to the much-coveted serotonin and dopamine. A high-carbohydrate breakfast won’t have the same effect.

Serotonin makes you more creative and productive. Incidentally, exercise can also improve the quality of your sleep. Fortified with good sleep and food, be sure to get regular cardiovascular exercise. When the heart muscles start pumping faster they release a peptide that is considered to help produce serotonin. So if you have an afternoon meeting, take ten or fifteen minutes for a brisk walk. Or, better yet, walk and talk. Steve Jobs, for example, regularly held “walking” meetings; Mark Zuckerberg does, too.

Finally, a word about caffeine. Caffeine is a physiological arouser. It amplifies the emotion you are currently feeling. If you’re feeling motivated, it will help you. If you’re feeling stressed, it will simply make you feel agitated –– and that’s the last thing you want when you’re trying to innovate.

There’s no shortcut. The best way to “boost” the brain into its most creative and productive mode is to follow the ABCs of sleep, diet, and exercise.

(The writer is a professor of Management Science at Stanford Graduate School of Business)