PRODUCTIVITY

How to Be 5 Times More Productive: Tweak Your Brain Chemistry

Here's how to bring "flow"--a psychological state where people perform at their peak--into your office.
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If your employees' productivity levels are flagging, it may be time to pump up their neurochemicals. Fortunately that doesn't require electroshock treatment, pills, or experimental operations. All you need is to create the right environment that encourages a certain state of consciousness.

Steven Kotler, a journalist, director of the Flow Genome Project, and author of The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, writes about how businesses can tap into their productivity potential. Just like athletes and soldiers, Kotler writes in Harvard Business Review, companies can achieve a psychological state called "flow"--an "optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best,"

When you achieve flow, your actions and decisions occur seamlessly. Your focus is intensified and stays squarely on the task at hand. "Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self vanishes. Our sense of time distorts. And performance goes through the roof," he writes. In a 10-year McKinsey study, he says, top executives reported being five times more productive while in flow. The study's researchers said if you could increase the amount of time in flow by 20 percent, workplace productivity could double. 

Kotler explains the science behind flow--a flood of five neurochemicals course through your brain, tightening focus, blocking pain, increasing insight, and making you feel good. But the chemical cocktail will be released only through psychological, environmental, social, or creative triggers. Below, read his suggestions for creating an environment that will allow you and your employees to achieve flow.

Create consequences

One of the flow triggers is the existence of high consequences. Kotler says the idea is simple: "Flow follows focus, and consequences always catch our attention." In studying extreme athletes for his book, he found that physical risks captured their attention. In the office, risks can be intellectual, creative, social, or emotional. As your company's leader, you can provide these risks by creating a "fail forward" culture. "If employees don't have the space to fail, then they don't have the ability to take risks," Kotler writes. "And if you're not incentivizing risk, you're denying access to flow."

Strike a balance between boredom and anxiety

One psychological trigger is the challenge/skills ratio, Kotler writes. He explains that your attention is most engaged when there's a certain relationship between the difficulty of a task and your ability to perform that task. "If the challenge is too great, fear swamps the system. If the challenge is too easy, we stop paying attention," he says. "Flow appears near the emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety, in what scientists call the 'flow channel'--the spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch; not hard enough to make us snap." To reach this sweet spot, tasks must be new, different, and challenging. 

Push

Your employees need to be pushed just past their comfort levels. Kotler says the rule of thumb is to make the challenge four percent greater than the skills an employee brings to it. But be sure to make the task a stretch, not a leap. "A high performer will blow by four percent without noticing. They'll go for challenges far harder and miss the sweet spot and, without the motivational reward of flow (to say nothing of its performance boost), they'll burn out," he writes. "Underachievers miss because four percent is the point where one gets seriously uncomfortable. So while high performers must learn slow and steady wins this race, underachievers must learn the opposite: that being uncomfortable is a sign of progress, not a reason to run away."

Kotler says there are a total of 17 triggers you can use in your company, including uninterrupted concentration, clear goals, and immediate feedback. Find the right triggers for you and your employees and start flowing.

IMAGE: Blabac/jamiethomas.com
Last updated: May 6, 2014

WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com

Will Yakowicz is a reporter at Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and politics at Patch.com, and his work has been published in Tablet Magazine and The Brooklyn Paper. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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