4 Brain Hacks that can Make You a Better Leader

I love leadership and I love learning about the brain. I just finished an executive masters in the Neuroscience of Leadership. And a few months ago my fourth book was published, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry. As I’ve immersed myself in learning how our brain affects life and leadership, I’ve learned a few short cuts, or hacks that have helped me lead better. Consider these 4 brain hacks that just might make you a better leader.

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Brain Hacks that can Make You a Better Leader

  1. Minimize multi-tasking.
    • Research has shown that multi-tasking, trying to accomplish multiple tasks at once, is a myth. We can’t truly pay attention to two things at once, even though we may think we can.

      Actually, when we think we are being efficient by multitasking (answering email while working on a project or presentation while checking a text) the opposite happens. Every time we switch from one task to the next, our attention does not immediately follow. A bit of our attention remains with the previous task. It’s called attention residue. However, when we work on a single task a longer time without switching back and forth, we perform better (see number 4 below). You can read more about multi-tasking here.

  2. Complete a mini-goal.
    • God wired our brains to repeat behaviors that give us pleasure. When we eat a piece of chocolate cake, learn something new, or check something off our to-do list, they feel good because the brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain’s pleasure center (the nucleus accumbuns). When we feel good we want to repeat what made us feel good which provides a boost of motivation. Sometimes we experience a lull in our daily routine. When that happens, find something to do that you can complete in a short time. It might be to clean off your desk, send that email you’ve been delaying, or make a call you need to make. When you accomplish such a task, you’ll get a nice boost of dopamine which can help get your motivation back on track for the day.
  3. Strategically use caffeine.
    • In this post I explain how caffeine works and how if used in moderation, it can help us be more effective as leaders. Although some people are addicted to it (not good), if you use it strategically, science has proven that it blocks a neurotransmitter that makes us tired (adenosine) and increases dopamine and adrenaline that can boost both motivation and attention.
  4. Strive for ‘deep work’ 4 hours a day. 
    • Cal Newport, author, professor at Georgetown University, and a really smart dude, recently wrote the bestselling book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. In his book he uses science to back up his assertion that truly productive people focus about four hours of their work day on their most important tasks. The unimportant ones, like surfing Facebook and answering emails, get too much of our time. He says the brain is able to focus about four hours a day on ‘deep work,’ what he describes as meaningful work with a minimum of interruptions. So, calendar your day to reflect four hours of your ‘deep work.’

What brain hacks have helped you be a better leader?

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How Caffeine Might Make you a Better Leader

I’m a leader. I want to maximize my brain power. And I care about how I treat my body. I don’t drink coffee or tea, yet I do strategically use caffeine with diet caffeine drinks and 5-Hour Energy (Disclaimer: I am in no way related to the company who produces 5-Hour Energy). I believe my strategic use of caffeine has helped enhance my cognitive resources as a leader. In this post I look at three areas: what caffeine does to your brain, cautions about its use, and how to strategically use it.

Colorful info-graphics: caffeine production and usage.

Caffeine is the most widely used stimulant in the world, consumed primarily through coffee consumption. The National Coffee Association says that nearly 2/3’s of Americans drink coffee. We also consume it through tea, weight-loss pills, chocolate, and energy drinks. It has gained the moniker as a,’waker-upper.’

How does caffeine work? It affects the brain in three ways.

  1. It blocks a neurotransmitter that makes us tired (adenosine). Neurons have tiny receptors where adenosine binds. Think of adenosine (or any other neurotransmitter) like a key and a receptor like a lock. So, when it ‘binds’ the ‘key’ goes into the ‘lock’ to create the tiredness effect by slowing down brain cell firing.
  2. It stimulates the brain to tell the adrenal glands to release adrenaline which gives us a boost of energy and increases attention.
  3. It improves mood by increasing the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a brain chemical related to pleasure, attention, and motivation. It also helps dopamine hang around longer in our brain.

What cautions should you consider?

  1. You can become addicted to it. It’s addictive because dopamine feels good and when we get addicted to it, we want more and more caffeine to maintain the same pleasure level. You will know you’re addicted when your try to stop because for a few days you may experience a dull headache, lethargy, sleepiness, and even depression. Most experts say the average person can manage 400 milligrams of caffeine each day, the equivalent of four cups of coffee. A bottle of 5-Hour Energy has about 200 mg.
  2. You can develop a tolerance for it. Regular caffeine use actually creates a need for even more caffeine because it increases adenosine receptors in your brain. Thus, you need more caffeine to block the tired effects of adenosine.
  3. Too much caffeine (more than 500 mg) can really mess up your body by causing such issues as muscle tremors, sleep difficulty, upset stomach, nervousness, and dizziness.
  4. Caffeine too late in the day can disrupt your sleep patterns. Its half-life (how long it takes the body to eliminate 1/2 of it) is 3-5 hours and its effect can last 8-12 hours.

How can you strategically use caffeine?

  1. First, I never use caffeine to wake me up in the morning. I try to get sufficient sleep so that I don’t use caffeine as a fall back for lack of sleep. I live in Canada and the winters can be brutal and overcast so I’m now using light therapy in the morning which appears to give me a nice natural wake up boost. I use a portable Philips blue light to give me 20 minutes of light when I wake up.
  2. Consider a nap first. A 10-20 minute nap can clear out adenosine and give you a nice mental boost without caffeine. If you can’t take a nap at work, perhaps these other suggestions below will work for you.
  3. Consider a nap-caffeine combination. It takes caffeine about 20 minutes to get into your gastrointestinal track and bloodstream. So, a cup of coffee or tea, a diet soda, or 5-Hour Energy just before your nap can give you a one-two punch.
  4. When I’m studying to put a sermon together, I find that 1/2 bottle of 5-Hour Energy about mid-morning gives me a nice mental boost. About 2 hours later I will finish the bottle off so that I’m only getting about 200 mg per day.
  5. About 30 minutes before I speak on Sunday mornings I drink a half of a bottle. I find it helps give me a bit more mental focus during my sermon.
  6. On days when I need lots of mental focus in meetings, I will split a bottle of 5-Hour Energy between mid-morning and early afternoon. I find that I’m more focused later in the afternoon to give those in my meetings my full attention.
  7. I seldom if ever use it after 3:30. Remember, it can stay in your system many hours.

I recognize that many readers may prefer to stay away from any caffeine. I respect that as I used to avoid anything with caffeine in it. Only in the last few years have I discovered that moderate use has helped improve my attention, concentration, and ability to think more clearly.

How have you used caffeine in a strategic way?

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5 Proven Ways to a Better Brain in 2016

God created a magnificent part of our body, the brain, as our command and control center. With 100 billion brain cells, it weighs a mere two to three pounds, yet it require 20% of our body’s energy. Since God expects us to take care of bodies (1 Corinthians 6.19-20) it naturally follows that we should take care of our brain, since it’s part of our body. How do we do that? As you think about how to make 2016 a great year, consider these 5 proven ways to a better brain in 2016.

the brain with hands and utensils in front of an empty plate

5 Proven Ways to a Better Brain in 2016

  1. Fertilize it with the brain’s Miracle-Grow.
    • For years research has shown that exercise benefits our body. But recent research has discovered that it benefits our brains as well. When we exercise it causes our brains to release a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which has been called the Miracle-Gro for the brain. It encourages new neuronal growth and protects brain cells from stress. To maximize BDNF, the experts recommend that you exercise at 60-75% of your maximum heart rate for 30 minutes 3-5 times each week.
  2. Strengthen your brain’s muscles with mental stimulation.
    • The brain is like a muscle. The old adage, ‘use or lose it’ applies to our brains as well as to our physical muscles. And the best way to strengthen it is to challenge yourself mentally, outside your normal mental challenges. As a pastor, I read a lot of biblically based books. Although that challenges my mind, I also read in other fields, specifically neuroscience, which challenges my thinking. So to maximally exercise your brain, chose mental tasks that are novel or outside your normal mental routines.
  3. Sleep your way to a better brain.
    • Often we try to get more out of our day by skimping on sleep. But sleep is a powerful brian booster. It benefits us by improving mood, enhancing creativity, increasing our ability to pay attention, and by clearing out our brain’s toxins while we sleep. Read more about the benefits of sleep here.
  4. Stomp out excessive amounts of the brain shrinker, cortisol.
    • Cortisol is called the stress hormone and is secreted by our adrenal glands that lie atop our kidneys. We need cortisol to help us deal with challenges and crises and to help us pay attention. But when we live under constant stress, cortisol actually causes part of our brains to shrink, especially the memory center called the hippocampus. So, managing stress if vital to a healthy brain. Learn here 10 ways to manage stress.
  5. Feed it with a brain healthy diet.
    • Too much sugar and fat can actually inhibit production of BDNF (see number 1 above). However, a healthy diet that limits refined sugar and saturated can benefit your brain. While a brain healthy diet limits those two, it should also include elements of what is now called the MIND diet proven to help keep your brain healthy: lean proteins, healthy fats, beans, whole grains, and fruits and nuts. Taking a fish oil supplement can also help.

So, as you look to make 2016 a great year, why not resolve to keep a healthy brain.

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How to Deal with Ministry Pain

We all carry baggage not only from our family of origin, but also from our previous ministry experiences. For some, that baggage may feel like a light daypack. For others, it may feel like a 100-pound duffle bag. How can we deal with this pain so that it doesn’t affect our families, ourselves, and our ministries? Consider these insights.

young desperate man suffering with hands on head in deep depression, pain , emotional disorder, grief and desperation concept isolated on black background with grunge studio lighting in black and white

First, recognize that these factors influence how heavy your baggage feels.

  • Your overall emotional health. If it’s not good, you’ll ‘spill over’ more easily when jostled by ministry demands and conflict.
  • Your personality type influence by your genetic makeup. Some people are more genetically pre-disposed toward anxiety and depression than others. Our genetic makeup accounts for about 1/3 of our ability to be happy and enjoy life.[1] The remaining 2/3’s, however, gives us lots of leverage to change, manage stress, and bounce back from difficulties. 
  • Your previous ministry setting.

Second, look to Jesus.

If dealing with your pain seems self serving, look to the words of Jesus Himself. In response to a Pharisee’s question about the greatest commandment, Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matt 22.37-39, NIV) So Jesus’ own words remind us we should love ourselves and be kind to ourselves which encompasses processing our own hurts and pain. Research indicates that pastors who are kinder to themselves when they fail or don’t meet others’ expectations, are less prone to burnout.[2]

I learned this insight several years ago when I transitioned to a church in California from a church in Atlanta. After we moved I was surprised when I began to grieve. I recall one day as I assembled an outdoor tool shed how deep feelings of sadness swept over me. I wasn’t sad about my new role as teaching pastor. The new possibilities exited me. However, my emotions reminded me that I must deal with my feelings of loss from leaving the church that my wife and I had planted 14 years earlier.

Third, admit that some leftover baggage from your prior ministry may still be weighing you down.

These questions may help bring to the surface unresolved issues that could potentially derail your new start.

  1. With whom did you experience the greatest conflict or the greatest hurt?
  2. How did you deal with those conflicts? Passively, aggressively, biblically?
  3. When you think of that person(s) do you feel significant anger, rage, or bitterness rise to your awareness? Or are the emotions more like mild disappointment or sadness?
  4. Do you feel that any of those conflictual relationships lie unresolved and that resolution remains possible? Or do you feel that you did what you could to resolve the issues?
  5. How would you rate where you stand in relation to this person(s)/issue(s): distraught, hurting but managing, coping OK, or in good shape with occasional twinges of loss or pain?
  6. Is God prompting you to do anything to resolve this pain?

 Fourth, take specific steps to deal with the emotional baggage.

When I’ve faced ministry pain, I’ve sought professional help though psychologists and hired coaches who have helped me process my woundedness. An objective third party can help you see issues to which you may be blind. 

As you process your pain, God may want you to initiate an act of kindness toward the person(s) who may have hurt you in your prior ministry. God prompted me to do that after I heard a sermon from a pastor friend.

Years ago I heard a sermon that dealt with turning the other cheek toward your enemies and loving them despite the pain they may have caused you. Like a lightning bolt, I felt God impress me to send a restaurant gift card to two leaders who had hurt me in a prior church. I included a nice note with each card. After I took that simple obedient step, I felt God begin to close that painful chapter in my life, although sometimes I can still feel a tinge of emotion when I recall those experiences.

God has used my pain to teach me much. He can use your pain to teach you as well. However, we must never allow pain to fester in our souls. I encourage you to inventory your life and bring out into the open any stuffed or hidden pain and process it. If you don’t deal with it now, it will leak out, insidiously drain you, and quite possible derail you and your ministry.

What has helped you process your ministry pain?

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[1] “Can Happiness Be Genetic?,” Psychology Today, accessed November 20, 2015, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/media-spotlight/201302/can-happiness-be-genetic.

[2] Laura K. Barnard and John F. Curry, “The Relationship of Clergy Burnout to Self-Compassion and Other Personality Dimensions,” Pastoral Psychology 61, no. 2 (May 21, 2011): 149–63, doi:10.1007/s11089-011-0377-0.

The Causes and Cure for Leadership Burnout

Leadership is tough. Good leaders understand this and manage their lives and leadership demands to avoid burnout. Sometimes, however, even the best leaders get burned out. If you’re now facing it, examine the cause list below to see what factors may be contributing to it. Then, take one proactive step this week from the cures list to take better care of yourself.

Hand holding a match burning at both ends

4 Causes of Leadership Burnout:

1. Allostatic load.

This term describes the wear and tear on our body from chronic stress. Our bodies have limits. Yet, when we are under stress for long periods of time, our bodies suffer. Prolonged stress causes sustained high levels of the stress hormone cortisol which, along with an overabundance of other neurotransmitters and hormones, can cause heart problems, weight gain, impaired immunity, decreased memory due to brain cell atrophy, and diminished brain functioning. 

2. Power stress.

Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, authors of Resonant Leadership, coined this phrase to describe a kind of stress unique to leaders. “Power stress is part of the experience that results from the exercise of influence and sense of responsibility felt in leadership positions.” McKee and Boyatzis explain that when the demands of leadership get so high and leaders fail to manage it, they risk becoming trapped in what they call the Sacrifice Syndrome. Sometimes we leaders feel so overly responsible for the success of our organizations or churches that we get caught in a vicious cycle of unhealthy sacrifice for others that leads to burnout.

3. Continuous partial attention. 

Linda Stone, author and consultant, developed this phrase to describe the mental trap we easily fall into when we constantly scan our surroundings to look for the best opportunities to spend our time on. It happens when we ‘skim,’ and pay attention, only partially. When this happens to a leader, he will fail to focus on the most important tasks at hand and get further behind on mission critical issues. Then, he must rush to get the important things done which contributes to chronic stress.

4. Multi-tasking. 

“Many leaders have convinced themselves that multitasking leads to greater productivity. However, researchers have shown that when we try to process two mental tasks at once, our mental capacity can drop from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an eight-year-old. And it can reduce our mental capacities as if we missed a night’s sleep or smoked pot (Rock, 2009, pp. 34– 36). Multitasking can also diminish long-term memory (Foerde et al., 2006). Even college students who multitasked with their laptops while in a class scored lower on tests than did students who didn’t multitask. And students who could see others multitasking also scored lower. So multitasking decreases others’ productivity as well as our own (Sana et al., 2013).” (from People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership by Charles Stone).

In fact, research shows that multitasking can add up to a 40% loss of productivity in a day. This decrease in productivity is called task switch cost. 

So, what can we do to combat these factors that lead to burnout? Consider these steps.

4 Cures of Leadership Burnout:

1. Exercise.

For years research has shown that exercise benefits our body. But recent research has discovered that it benefits our brains as well. When we exercise it causes our brains to release a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which has been called the Miracle-Gro for the brain. It encourages new neuronal growth and protects brain cells from stress. The better we take care of our brains, the better leaders we will be. 

2. Statio.

Statio describes a Christian monastic practice that we might call a mini-transition between events of the day. It’s a moment between moments when we pause from once task before going to the next. It allows us to break our hurry, obtain closure from the prior task, and prepare our hearts and minds for what comes next. Leaders who practice this can turn down their body’s fight-flight system (the sympathetic nervous system) and engage the rest and digest system (the parasympathetic system) which makes us calmer. Read this post by Daniel Schroeder to learn more about statio.

3. Sleep.

“When we don’t get enough sleep, we rob our brains of important neural functions because the brain is actually very active during sleep. Although the brain never really shuts down, it’s only truly at rest during non-REM sleep, which accounts for only 20 percent of our normal sleep cycle. During the other 80 percent, sleep helps the brain encode, strengthen, stabilize, and consolidate our memories from the day. Our brain replays what we have learned during the day (Medina, 2009, p. 164) to make our memories stick. Sleep also plays an important role in learning.” (from Brain-Savvy Leaders: The Science of Significant Ministry by Charles Stone (Kindle Locations 1671-1675))

4. Get off the grid.

In our 24-7 connected world, our smart phones can actually keep us on high alert and in stress mode. I find that if I choose a 24-hour period (my Sabbath) when I don’t check email, I’m much more at peace. Getting off the grid helps disengage my mind and slow my internal pace. I’d also encourage you to turn off the automatic notifications function on your smart phone and on your computer.

What has helped you avoid burnout as a leader?

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