Leadership Insights Blog with Shelley Row

We didn’t know where to go so we followed the throng of people. We jostled through the streets of Monaco under a blazing blue sky. We were traveling in southern France, and to our surprise we learned about the qualifying time trials that were taking place for the Monaco Grand Prix. We serendipitously bought tickets from a kind man whose friends couldn’t make it. And, there we were in the stands, sitting in front of a challenging hairpin curve in the track, pit row was on our right and the Mediterranean Sea sparkling on the left. We heard the Vaaarrrrrrooooooom of the engines as they started! Eeeeeeeyyyyow – the Formula One cars screamed past us as they accelerated out of the curve. The high-performance engines were tuned to perfection taking in a near perfect ratio of fuel and air. It’s the same kind of ratio with your brain.

Your brain needs a just-right blend of neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and dopamine to perform at its best. Just as the Formula One engineers set the fuel/air ratio to maximize the horsepower of the engine, you are the engineer in control of the ratio of neurotransmitters in your brain. Rather than a computer, you control the ratio by your behavior, focus, stress level and relaxation. Too little focus and your brain slacks off; too much focus creates stress and the brain stalls. Neither is optimal.

Here’s how it works. For optimal functioning, norepinephrine (NE) and dopamine (DA) are like the fuel/air ratio in the finely-tuned engine. Norepinephrine excites connections in the brain that promote focus. Dopamine (DA) inhibits connections in order to block irrelevant distractions. Each neuron has about 100,000 connections. The number of connections are active at a given time depend on the NE and DA mixture. Here are your options:

Unfocused: If you are tired or bored there are low levels of NE and DA in the brain. You are disengaged and unfocused. You can’t perform best with this mixture.

Creative focus: To be at your most creative, you want both NE and DA released at a level that create many connections. Not too much or too little. That just-right neurotransmitter balance happens best when you take a brain break. Relax and do something that takes your mind away from the problem at hand. Hold the issue in the back of your mind and lightly in your consciousness. It’s as though you view your issue through a soft focus lens. It drifts in and out as you let your mind wander so that the brain connections happen.

Focused: When you are focused on a specific task, your brain experiences bursts of NE and DA based on our subject of focus. NE makes connections relevant to the task and DA blocks distractions. It’s a great combination for getting high-quality work performed.

Stressed: But suddenly, there are too many tasks to be done, or the deadline feels over-whelming. You begin to ruminate on your inevitable failure (or so it seems). You find yourself doing something meaningless like rearranging your desk drawer. Stress causes your brain to release massive amounts of both NE and DA. Like a high-performance automobile engine, your brain floods with neurotransmitters and the connections no longer work effectively.

As an example, let’s say that you have a project to be completed by a specific deadline like a hypothetical article for your weekly newsletter (…ok, it’s not hypothetical but it is a good example). Here’s how it evolved for me. Think about how this can work for you so that you can engineer the level of focus you need.

Unfocused. Last week, the article deadline was too far away. The low NE and DA resulted in little focus on the task.

Focused. Two days before the due date, I tell myself that it’s time. I need a topic for the article. By intentionally increasing the pressure to find a topic, more NE was released in my brain. Here’s the tricky part.

Stressed. Without conscious intervention, the pressure to find a topic would grow, and stress about finishing the article on time would build, unleashing a flood of NE and DA. The flooded brain can seize with analysis paralysis.

Creative focus. Instead, a moment of creativity was needed to find the topic and concept. Creativity needs a little more NE and DA than the unfocused state but less than the focused state. That in-between balance allows many connections to be made. This is where a brain break is needed. For me, that happens best when I run. As I started out the door for a morning run, I quickly reviewed notes from an old lecture on the brain, told myself to come up with a concept and then I put it out of my mind and enjoyed an energizing run along the Annapolis waterfront. Running allows NE and DA to balance appropriately.

Focus. Sure enough, the automobile engine analogy appears out of the blue and I remembered the Grand Prix. Now it was time to write. I set aside the morning (my highest energy time of the day). Increased amounts of NE and DO provided enhanced focus and blocked distractions of street noise, people talking, my husband banging around in the kitchen and the rumble in my stomach. The result is this article.

Of course, it doesn’t always go this smoothly. There are plenty of times when the stress builds, the brain gets flooded with neurotransmitters and progress stops.
You, too, can intentionally “engineer” brain chemicals appropriate for the level of focus you need in that moment. When faced with your next deadline or challenge, think about the level of focus you need for the next step. Do you need attention to execute a task? If so, you want focus with enough NE to excite the brain and enough DA to inhibit distractions. Do you need a new idea or new approach? If so, you want creative focus. Scan all the inputs and take a brain break to allow the chemicals to balance and make lots of connections. Are you stressed? If so, it’s another time for a brain break to allow the stress to subside. It’s hard to take a break when you feel the pressures of a deadline and yet that’s exactly what is needed to enable the chemical mixture in your brain to return to optimal. Otherwise, your brain is flooded and, for sure, you won’t be able to focus on the task at hand. The next time you feel the pressure and stress threatens to flood out your brain, how can you take a brain break for even a few minutes?

Also, you can wisely use the natural fluctuations of your brain’s energy. Do critical work and handle sensitive situations when your brain is rested and calm. Do minor tasks (like returning email and phone calls) when your energy is running low. Stop by a friend’s desk or call your spouse for a quick pick-me-up to restore the balance of DA and NE.

You have control and can learn how to work skillfully with your brain’s chemistry. Like the engineers at the Grand Prix, you can make your brain go vaaarrrrrrooooooom!