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THE FUTURE OF WORK

Leaders, rev your mental engines Add to ...

As an entrepreneur, I’m always looking for an edge. So when I learned last year about a new trend called biohacking – the practice of treating your body like a machine for optimal performance – I thought I’d test it out in the least-threatening way possible: by tinkering with my morning coffee.

Following other Silicon Valley types, I began “bulletproofing” my coffee – blending it with butter from grass-fed cows, adding a shot of medium-chain triglyceride oil and drinking it as a meal, as suggested by tech entrepreneur and diet book author Dave Asprey. It tasted great, but my natural skepticism and hankering for real food kept me from maintaining the approach.

Still, the desire to improve my physical and mental performance never waned, and after trying (and giving up on) overworking, embracing more exercise and scheduling regular mental time outs, I was left wondering what else I might do to take it to the next level.

Enter a relatively new, loosely defined discipline called neuroleadership. Its proponents aim to build better leaders by applying the findings of neuroscience to leadership and decision making.

While it’s a relatively new discipline and largely theoretical, the underlying premise is that, much like the rest of our bodies, our brains are designed for “biological motivation,” explained Brynn Winegard, principal of Winegard & Co., a Toronto-based management consultancy specializing in brain sciences as they apply to business.

“Whether it feels like it or not, just about everything you do is for the purposes of gaining access to resources, such as higher salary, better benefits, plentiful food, better health care, high-quality cars, desirable housing and comfortable furniture,” said Ms. Winegard, who holds a PhD in administrative sciences from the Schulich School of Business at York University. This in turn improves one’s social status, which is theoretically attractive to higher-calibre mates and more likely to result in successful progeny.

Since our brains, according to Ms. Winegard, were designed to respond to these motivations above everything else, the neural processing associated with them was brought to the subconscious brain in order to save time and energy.

This means that our brain makes decisions at a subconscious level about who to talk to, who to trust and how to act. Unfortunately, these short cuts can sometimes lead to inaccurate assumptions or decisions that can be detrimental to our professional lives.

A better understanding of these “fault lines,” Ms. Winegard argues, can give leaders more mastery over their decision making and leadership approach.

Few can truly appreciate the correlation between a healthy brain and professional success as much as Carey-Ann Oestreicher, chief engagement officer of Potential Unlimited, a Toronto-based leadership and career development firm.

Ms. Oestreicher suffered a freak accident in 2012 when, after fainting during an X-ray, she smashed her head on a concrete floor and suffered a severe concussion. Her recovery included days spent in a dark room with no stimulation at all and years of brain rehabilitation. The tricks she acquired through brain rehab worked so well, she said, she decided to try them on her clients.

“In many ways, it seems our workplaces are designed to work against the brain,” Ms. Oestreicher said, who added that fast-paced work and open-concept environments with lots of stimulation are becoming the norm. The rise of new technologies has also left the brain no time to unplug.

She advocates, among other tricks, at least 20 minutes of cardiovascular exercise several times a week, which she insists is as important as any meeting, in order to clear the mind and aid in mental recovery.

“The best way to ‘hack’ your brain to improve your performance is to pick a few healthy work habits that feel right for you, and then keep practising them,” Ms. Oestreicher said. For instance, stop multitasking.

“It will take you 25-per-cent longer to complete each individual task if you try to combine tasks versus making the time to work on one single task, preferably in a closed-door environment to minimize interruptions,” she said.

After completing the task, she recommends taking a break from e-mail before starting on the next task.

Ms. Oestreicher also advises against cramming too much “stuff” into our days.

“I know it seems impossible to cut back when you already feel stretched, but I have never worked with a leader that I couldn’t help to find areas to pull back on and give themselves more space,” she insisted. That includes stepping back to think about key areas that need your focus, building in “brain breaks” multiple times a day, finding space to work without distractions, and learning to set boundaries.

Once these practices become routine, Ms. Oestreicher said, mental performance in leaders improves.

“High-performance brains are like high-performance race cars; if you don’t stop for a pit stop, you won’t be able to win the race,” she said.

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a machine-learning, human capital search engine for enterprises @LeahEichler

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