You take the same route to get to work, you order “the usual” from your neighborhood coffee shop, you arrive to the office at the same time every day, sit in the same desk, take a lunch break at the same time every day and chat with the same coworkers. While these routines may be comforting, Benedict Carey, author of the new book How We Learn says our routines limit our brain’s ability to build skills and knowledge.
While Carey acknowledges a little bit of structure is important, changing up our work environment and daily movements–taking a different route to work, for example–can maximize the brain’s effectiveness, allowing you to retain more information and be more successful.
Carey says many of our work routines come from modern educational institutions. “Schools impose structure on students. That tradition has been absorbed in our language and influences the way we think about managing our time,” says Carey. While many of us create office environments that minimize distractions and block off set times for performing certain tasks, these rigid structures can stand in the way of the brain’s ability to retain and recall information.
Try these routine-shifting activities:
Breaking up periods of intense concentration can help you to recall more info at a later date. “Research has shown that students who split two hours of study time in half–studying one hour today and one hour tomorrow–remember two times as much on a test a week later,” says Carey. By splitting up your learning time, you’re not working any harder or spending any more time on the task; but, Carey says, you’re doing something far more important–you’re telling your brain that the information you learned is indeed useful.
The brain only wants to remember information that is useful. Imagine if you hit the books for two hours at night and you close them and don’t think about what you’ve read after that. “From the brain’s point of view, that information is trivial because you haven’t used it. You haven’t revisited it,” says Carey. By breaking up study time, you’re now thinking about that information in between study sessions and perhaps you’re even talking about it with a friend, incorporating the information into your life. “You’ve no longer isolated it, so the information, as far as the brain’s concerned, must be useful because now you’ve revisited it a few times,” says Carey.
Take your work to the local coffee shop, or move around the office–from your desk to a communal space such as the lunchroom or a meeting room. The change in venue could help you recall more than if you stay chained to your desk all day. Why? By changing your environment, your brain is now retrieving information in different places and will now see the information as more useful and worth holding onto.
Stuck on a problem? Active distractions such as going for a jog, watching a movie, or calling a friend to chat may be the key to finding a solution. What causes us to get stuck on a problem, says Carey, are the many assumptions that we make that prevent us from finding a solution. Carey gives the example of a riddle that stumped many in his parents’ generation. “A doctor in Boston has a brother who is a doctor in Chicago, but the doctor in Chicago doesn’t have a brother at all”. If we assume that both of the doctors are men, we’ll be stumped on the riddle, but if you remove that assumption, you can see that the doctor in Boston must be a woman and therefore, the riddle makes perfect sense.
“If you distract yourself, it allows the brain to loosen some of the initial assumptions you made that pulled you in the wrong direction,” says Carey. So, next time you’re stuck on a problem, get up from the desk, take a walk, talk to a colleague, or play a game on your iPhone and allow your mind to open up to new solutions.