5 Brain Benefits from Creating Routines

I’m reading a great book called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. In one chapter on ‘flow’ he describes the routine Michael Phelps has practiced before every race. For years he has kept the same routine… from the same time he shows up before a race… to the same number of warmup laps he swims… to the same time he removes the infamous ear buds from his ears. His routines have contributed to both his Olympic golds and his world records. Routines not only benefit Olympic athletes, but can benefit us as well. Consider these 5 brain benefits to creating routines.

Routine Word Odometer Letters Repetitive Everyday Ordinary Same
  1. Routines help minimize uncertainty.
    • Our brains don’t like uncertainty. Uncertainty engages the fight-flight-freeze-appease part of our brains (the amygdala) which can stifle clear thinking. Routines, however, help give you a greater sense of control which creates certainty, what the brain loves.
  2. Routines make space for clearer thinking.
    • In the front part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex, executive functions like planning, abstract thinking, social intuition, and emotional control occur. However, that part of our brain tires easily. The more we use it, the more it tires which can affect our ability to think clearly, make wise decisions, and relate to others well. However, when we create routines and habits, the brain stores those routines in our habit centers (basal ganglia). As a result, routines free up working space in our pre-frontal cortex so that we can think and concentrate better on new tasks and relationships.
  3. Routines can reduce the drain on our daily energy.
    • Ego depletion refers to the concept that we all possess a limited pool of mental resources available for self-control and willpower. And it gets used up during the day. If we spend that resource on activities that could be routinized, we waste energy that we otherwise could dedicate to more important tasks and relationships. Routines help conserve our energy for what’s most important.
  4. Routines help us focus and maintain attention.
    • The ability to pay attention to what’s important is a key to successful living, leading, and learning. When we are scattered (Where did I leave those keys?) attention gets diluted. Routines, however, can help you direct your attention where you truly need to direct it.
  5. Routines help quiet the tyranny of the urgent

    •  The tyranny of the urgent beckons us to worry about insignificant issues that seem important at the moment. The term rumination describes the mental process of rehearsing something that happened in the past or something that might happen in the future. The tyranny of the urgent breeds such rumination. McKeown writes that routines helps us focus on the life’s essentials rather than spending precious time trying to prioritize everything. Years ago Charles Hummel wrote a classic booklet Tyranny of the Urgent! If you’ve not read it, I strongly recommend it. It’s a real gem.

So, building routines into your life offers many practical benefits.

How have routines helped you?

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3 Thinking Errors Leaders often Commit

God gave us an amazing 3 pound dynamo called the brain. And although it weighs on average 2% of our body weight, it requires 20% of our body’s energy and blood flow. So, it follows that we should steward well our energy and consider what goes on in our brains. Great leaders recognize that great leadership demands great thinking.

Unfortunately, we often commit serious thinking errors that muddies thinking and hinders leadership. Ask yourself if you commit these thinking errors.

thinking error

Before I list them, it’s important to understand a concept called metacognition. It simply means to think about what you are thinking about. In other words, when we pay attention to our inner chatter, we’re more likely to catch ourselves in these critical thinking errors. Neuroscientists tell us that we have five times more negative networks in our brains than positive ones so we naturally default toward these errors.

Here are the three thinking errors.

  1. Catastrophizing: We assume the worse-case scenarios. We don’t get an email response from a critic and assume that they are causing trouble. It’s Chicken Little saying, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling.”
  2. Discounting: Because we biologically tend toward negative thinking, discounting minimizes the good. If you are a pastor, after a Sunday service you may have received several positive comments but the one negative comment casts a shadow over all the positive ones.
  3. Mind reading: We think we know what someone is thinking even though we have no real evidence. The fight-fight-freeze-appease structure in our brain, the amygdala, has twice as many neurons looking for the negative than the positive. As a result mind reading often results in negative assumptions.

So, how can we minimize these thinking errors. Consider using the STOP process, often used in mindfulness exercises. Here’s what it means.

S: Stop. When you feel anxiety rising, catch yourself before the emotion gets out of hand. Literally stop what you are doing to attend to yourself.

T: Take a breath. After you stop what you are doing, take several deep breaths. Studies show that deep breathing calms our sympathetic nervous system (the body’s response to an activated amygdala).

O: Observe. Observe and pay attention to the thoughts in your mind. What’s happening in your mind, in your body, or in your environment at this very moment? Don’t listen to the narratives in your mind about how bad everything is, how wrong he or she was, or what may happen at the meeting coming up. What negative emotions are you feeling? Pay attention to them. When we name them we actually reduce their intensity.

P: Proceed. By now you’ve probably paused for a few moments. You are ready to move forward, probably having caught some of these thinking errors.

The Apostle Paul understood how we easily get caught in these thinking errors. To counter that tendency, he counsels us with these words in Philippians 4.8.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.

Which thinking error challenges you the most?

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Are you a Brain-Savvy Leader? 7 Posts that Show you How

One of my passions is to bring the conversation about how brain insight can help us love and serve God better. My blog tag line is even titled, NeuroMinistry: Leveraging Brain-Based Insight for Kingdom Impact. I’m serious about this as I’m completing an executive masters in the neuroscience of leadership (May) and wrote a book focusing on that topic that hits the shelves in May, Brain-Savvy Leaders: The Science of Significant Ministry. I’ve written a bunch of blogs on this subject and I’ve included my top 7 most read posts in 2014 that relate to brain insight.

brain child
  1. 8 Signs of the Emotionally Anxious Pastor
  2. 10 Subtle Signs You have Hit you Stress Red Zone
  3. 6 Brain Barriers to Healthy Church Change
  4. 5 Ways to Get People to Pay Attention to your Sermons
  5. 6 Ways Leaders Can Keep Their Brains Sharp
  6. 4 Legal Drugs Every Leader should Know about and Use
  7. Pastor, are you Addicted to This?

What brain insight would you like me to write about this year?

6 Ways Leaders can Keep their Brains Sharp

This December I will hit the big “6-0.” Yep, that’s 60 years old. And I’ve been a pastor over half of those years. Some restaurants now even offer senior discounts since they consider me a “senior.” I can’t take them. I still pay full price. I’m not yet ready to be called a “senior.” Getting a “senior discount” on coffee at McDonalds is one thing. Keeping your brain mentally sharp is another. As our bodies age, so do our brains. Are we doomed to irreplaceable cognitive decline? Or, can we make some choices to keep mentally sharp? Fortunately, we don’t have to let our brains atrophy as we age. Here are some choices we can make to help keep them sharp.

Brain Aging

First, a few facts about the brain and aging.

  1. After age forty we lose about 5% of our brain mass each decade.
  2. The insulation around the axon or tail of a neuron (a brain cell) is called myelin and as we age it gets thinner. The thicker the myelin, the faster we process things. And the opposite also holds true. The thinner the myelin, the slower we process things.
  3. Dendrites, the little tentacles at the ends of our neurons that allow cells to talk to each other decline as we age. Think of a rose bush that gets pruned for winter. Although not as severe as a pruned rose bush, aging thins those tentacles.

Given these facts, how can we keep our brains sharp? Neuroscientists are now learning that we can stay cognitively healthy well into our later years. The term for our mind’s protecting our brains from decline is called cognitive reserve. The more we practice these habits now, the more cognitive reserve we take into our later years.

  1. Exercise. 30 minutes of aerobic exercise each day has proven to slow cognitive decline.
  2. Learn something new. Mentally stimulate your brain. Stay curious. When we stimulate our brains and learn new things, we increase blood flow which helps keep our brains healthy.
  3. Keep healthy relationships. God created us to be in community with each other. Close, healthy relationships are not only good for the soul, but for the brain as well.
  4. Maintain a strong devotional life. At the end of our chromosomes lie protective caps called telomeres that are linked to longevity. Apparently the longer your telomeres, all else being equal, the longer you live. Long-term stress shortens them and devotional practices such as meditation apparently helps lengthen them.
  5. Don’t veg in front of the TV. Scientists are now learning that too much TV watching can accelerate our mental decline. So, go easy on the TV.
  6.  Eat your spinach. Studies show that older people who eat lots of fruits and veggies, especially the dark green leafy kinds keep their brains healthy. Omega-3 fatty acids (i.e., fish oil) also helps.

I’m encouraged by Peter Drucker, the father of modern day management. He wrote 39 books during his lifetime. He wrote 29 of them after he turned 60. He kept his brain sharp and it paid off.

What do you do to keep your brain healthy?

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The Moody Leader: 4 Reasons NOT to be One

Churches, non-profits, and businesses require emotionally healthy and aware leaders. While competency, good management skills, and vision casting ability certainly matter, research now shows that emotional intelligence (EQ) profoundly impacts leadership effectiveness as well. One aspect of EQ, knowing our emotions, reinforces the idea that leaders must never be moody ones. Neuroscience gives us four reasons why.

Range of Emotions - Mad to Happy

Before I list the reasons why leaders should never be moody, here’s how I describe a moody leader.

  • Employes and followers aren’t sure what kind of mood he will bring to work.
  • When he feels anxious, which is often, he’s short with others and demanding.
  • He thrives on drama in the workplace.
  • He lacks self-awareness of how he comes across when he’s emotional.

So, here’s how neuroscience informs us about the downsides of moody leaders.

  1. Emotional contagion. Emotional contagion is the term that describes how others catch our emotions. If a leader is often moody, sour, or negative, that attitude will permeate that organization or church. I was once treated very rudely when I ordered a hamburger and fries at a hamburger joint. A few minutes later the cook yelled at the person who waited on me. At that point I realized who actually waited on me, the owner of the restaurant. His employees had ‘caught’ his bad attitude. I never returned.
  2. Uncertainty. Our brains don’t like uncertainty. When we sense it (“I wonder what kind of mood the boss will be in today?”), it sets up an avoidance response in us. Or flight-fight-freeze-appease center (the limbic system) ratchets up which results in fear, less team cooperation, and less creativity in the workplace. Moody leaders infuse uncertainty into the workplace. (My blog here describes our brain’s 3 leadership systems we should be aware of.)
  3. Mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a specialized group of brain cells that cause us to mimic goal directed behavior. For example, when we see someone yawn or smile, we tend to subconsciously yawn or smile. But such behavior is not limited to yawns and smiles. If a leader constantly frowns or furrows his brow in a disapproving way, it sets a negative tone in the workplace or the church. Yet, genuine smiles can do the opposite by encouraging a positive, productive work setting.
  4. Theory of mind. Theory of mind is a concept that says our minds can somewhat intuit what others are thinking and feeling. Although not mind reading, the process called mentalizing, helps us understand another’s mental states. Mentalizing helps us imagine and interpret their needs, desires, feelings, and goals. When a leader brings moodiness into relationships, he inadvertently leads others to intuit negative intents, purposes, or desires which that leader probably does not want his followers or employees to think or believe.

So you can see that moody leadership does not contribute to healthy teams, trust, creativity, leadership effectiveness, or cooperation.

If you think you may be a moody leader, ask someone who truly cares about you to gently remind you when you start acting moody.

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