5 Brain-Savvy Tips that Improve Team Creativity

Great ministry teams are creative. They generate new ideas to solve current ministry problems. Because our world is changing so rapidly, we must constantly seek to generate new God-prompted ideas. In my fourth book, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry, I write about how to generate creativity and insight. I include a portion of that chapter below with these 5 tips.

  1. Daydreaming: Insight often comes when we daydream and allow our minds to wander (Christoff et al., 2009). Teach your team how daydreaming can help them solve problems. Encourage your team to schedule times to daydream and to allow their minds to wander rather than always actively trying to solve problems. Help them realize that thinking less about a problem may actually bring the solution. In fact, some companies such as Google, Intuit, and Twitter expect their employees to take time for daydreaming about projects other that than those they’re working on (Waytz & Mason, 2013).
  2. Mood: When we are in a positive mood, problem solving often comes more easily (Subramaniam et al., 2008). Yet when we’re anxious, we solve fewer problems because the anxiety uses up brain resources. So if you’re facing a dilemma in your organization, it might help if the team watched a funny movie to stir the creative juices.
  3. Location: Encourage your team to discover the kinds of activities that help put them into an insight state. Two settings have helped me generate insight. Ideas pop into my mind when I read and walk at a reasonable pace on my stationary bike. Insight also comes more readily when our family leaves for vacation while it’s still dark. I’m the driver and I’m usually the only one awake that early in the morning. With little roadside distraction, my brain has generated many good ideas during those three or four hours of solitude.
  4. Application: Although insight gives us a nice dopamine rush (the feel good neurotransmitter), we all know that the feeling eventually wears off. Remind your team to record their insights in an easy-to-remember location so that they won’t forget them. Even if your team member can’t immediately act on an insight, getting him to commit to acting on it at a later time can help translate the insight into action (Rock, 2007, p. 108).
  5. Speed: If you’re working with a team member who is trying to find a solution to a problem, don’t rush the process. Give her time to engage her brain. Allow space in conversations and encourage her to carve out some down time to give her brain a break.

What has helped foster creativity in your team?

If you’d like a free chapter of my book, you can get it here when you sign up for my twice weekly blog postings. And, the book is available now on multiple on-line sites and through your local bookstore.

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(re-printed by permission)

Sources:

Christoff, K., Gordon, A.M., Smallwood, J., Smith, R. & Schooler, J.W. (2009) Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (21), pp.8719–8724.

Rock, D. (2007) Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work. Reprint. HarperBusiness.

Subramaniam, K., Kounios, J., Parrish, T.B. & Jung-Beeman, M. (2008) A Brain Mechanism for Facilitation of Insight by Positive Affect. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 21 (3), pp.415–432.

Waytz, A. & Mason, M. (2013) Your Brain at Work [Internet]. Available from: <http://hbr.org/2013/07/your-brain-at-work/ar/1> [Accessed 26 June 2013].

3 Simple Brain Boosts for a Healthy Brain

Pastors and leaders need healthy brains to lead well. A healthy brain helps us become more resilient, be more present for those we lead, think more clearly, and, well, lead better. Neuroscientists can peer into our brains and are learning what makes them tick and how we can take better care of them. Here are 3 simple brain boosts anybody can practice.

3 Simple Brain Boosts for a Healthy Brain.

  1. Fertilize your brain with your brain’s Miracle-Gro. The brain’s Miracle-Gro chemical, BDNF, short for brain derived neurotrophic factor, literally fertilizes your brain. It promotes growth of brain cells and strengthens their connections. One of the best ways to boost this chemical is by exercising. So, get on your bike or put on your running shoes and walk, jog, or bike three to four times a week. Your brain will love it. More here and here about exercise and the brain.
  2. Improve your memory by getting some extra sleep. We live in a sleep deprived world. The latest figures say indicate that 35% of the population gets 7 hours of sleep or less. And we actually need more like eight. In fact, Dr. Daniel Gartenberg, one of the world’s most renowned sleep expert says that 8.5 hours is now the new 8 hours. A good night’s sleep helps the brain discard unneeded information and solidify those memories we need to store, a process called consolidation. So, start going to bed 30 minutes earlier. Your brain will love that too. Take this quiz to find out if you are sleep deprived.
  3. Calm your emotions with mindful breaks throughout the day. Ancient monks practiced something called statio. It was a mini-pause between one task and the next. It served as a transition to leave what they were doing and mentally and spiritually prepare for the next task. Today it’s called mindfulness, a practice that helps us be fully present in the moment and calm our anxious emotions. My next book comes out in March and it deals with mindfulness from a Christian perspective. More about that in the months ahead. You can learn more about mindfulness here. Again, your brain will love it.

So, pick one of these and try it out next week.

 

Have you Overlooked this Brain-based Insight that Improves Public Speaking and Teaching?

My teaching has included 1,500 talks, sermons, speeches, and Bible studies during my 37 years in ministry. Sometimes when I’ve spoken I’ve felt like I was in the zone. At other times I didn’t. Only in the last few years have I discovered perhaps the single greatest key that has helped keep my mind sharp during a talk and improve its effectiveness. What was it? Exercise. Specifically, exercise within two to three hours of my talk. Here’s what I’ve learned about the brain and exercise that has improved my speaking.

Scientists increasingly see exercise as a powerful way to keep your brain healthy. Neuroscientist Dr. John Ratey wrote an entire book on the subject called SPARK, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. He explains that exercise increases a key protein necessary for a healthy brain, BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor). Brain derived means that the brain makes it and neurotrophic implies that it helps make neurons (brain cells) strong. It’s considered the master molecule of learning (Ratey, p. 38) that he calls ‘Miracle-Gro for the brain.’

This brain fertilizer benefits the brain in many ways.

  • It protects neurons from premature death.
  • It improves their function.
  • It enhances communication between them.
  • It stimulates their growth (neurogenesis).
  • It provides a key link between emotions and thoughts (Ratey, 2013, p 40).

In one study Dr. Ratey writes about neuroscientist Arthur Kramer who divided fifty-nine sedentary senior adults into two groups (p. 226). One group simply did stretching exercises for six months while the other group exercised for six months three times a week on a treadmill. MRI scans showed that their frontal and temporal lobes actually increased in volume, a surprising finding. And, their brains looked two to three years younger than the brains of the stretch only group.

Another study showed that even one 35-minute workout on a treadmill at 60-70% of maximum heart rate can improve our brain’s processing speed and cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is a term that describes your brain’s ability to shift its thinking and to create new ideas.

Dr. Ratey also studied students in a school system in the Chicago suburbs. The school began a before hours exercise program called Zero Hour P.E. Students who participated in the program improved their mood and their reading comprehension compared to students who didn’t participate. He directly attributed this improvement to exercise.

Although for years I’ve regularly exercised during the week, I usually didn’t do so on Sundays since I had to arrive at church early. However, when I learned about this insight, I began to exercise 20-30 minutes early each Sunday morning. I now ride a stationary recumbent bike to get my heart rate to 60-70% of its maximum. When I began my Sunday morning exercise routine, I quickly realized these benefits.

  • I was less anxious about my message.
  • My memory improved and I more easily recalled the sermon’s points as I spoke.
  • I felt more physically energized than when I didn’t exercise.
  • I was more relaxed around others.
  • My overall mood was much better.

So, if you regularly preach or teach, consider exercising 20-30 minutes 2-3 hours prior to your teaching. I believe you’ll experience some of the same benefits I did.

What has helped improve your preaching/teaching?

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5 Biggest Mistakes Pastors Make on Sundays (and how to avoid them)

For pastors, Sunday can be the most draining day of the week. Intense people interaction, teaching or preaching, seeing our critics, trying to remember names, and attempting to put our own problems aside to listen to other peoples’ problems add up to a stress-filled day. The very day we want to be at our best requires more from us than any other day. As a result, we can easily make one or more of the 5 biggest mistakes pastors make on Sundays. Evaluate this list to find out how many you make. I follow the list with some suggestions on how to avoid them.

5 Biggest Mistakes Pastors Make on Sundays

  1. Failure to recognize 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. If we don’t manage our stress during the week, we will limit our ability to function at our best on Sundays.
  2. Too much emotional labor.
    • Psychologists call the emotional work necessary for any job emotional labor. It’s the effort required to put on a public face when we interact with others. Unless you’re a grump or you hole up in your office until right before the Sunday service, your role requires considerable emotional labor as you interact with people on Sundays. However, when we surface act too much, put on a fake smile, we’ll quickly use up the energy stores God gave us for the day.
  3. People pleasing.
    • I based my third book, People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership, on extensive research of over 2000 pastors. I discovered that over 70%  of pastors self-assessed themselves as being affected in some way by people pleasing. As humans, we have a basic drive to be liked. Rejection actually physically hurts because social pain registers in the same part of our brains as does physical pain. On Sunday when we get sucked into trying to make everybody happy (by saying yes too much and/or saying what people want to hear) we will quickly get drained.
  4. The sacrifice syndrome.
    • Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, authors of Resonant Leadership, coined a concept called power stress 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 churches that we get caught in a vicious cycle of unhealthy sacrifice for others that leads to burnout. And often that weight drains us on Sundays.
  5. Continuous partial attention (CPA).
    •  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 upon which to focus our attention. It happens when we ‘skim,’ and pay attention, only partially. When this happens to you, you won’t focus on the most important tasks at hand and will get further behind on mission critical issues. Then, you must rush to get the important things done which in turn contributes to chronic stress. On Sundays when we are listening to someone and we try to scan the crowd to see who else may want to talk to us (CPA), our energy stores get burned up faster than if we paid full attention to one person.

So what can we do to avoid these Sunday traps? I’m still learning to wisely manage myself on Sundays, but I’ve found that 4 practices help me avoid those 5 mistakes.

  1. Exercise on Sunday morning.
    • 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. Exercise also releases pain dampening neurotransmitters, endorphins, which trigger positive feelings in our bodies, similar to what morphine does. On Sunday mornings I usually exercise 30 minutes about two hours before our service begins. This positive mood benefit can last a few hours.
  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. Try to practice this between tasks and interactions with people on Sunday mornings. When I remember to do it, my racing mind calms down. Read this post by Daniel Schroeder to learn more about statio.
  3. Adequate sleep the night before.
    • “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  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). I can’t overestimate the benefits of getting a good night’s sleep the night before. It works wonders in my ability to be at my best on Sundays.
  4. Strategic use of caffeine.
    • Yep, I wrote caffeine. Moderate use of caffeine brings several benefits including blocking the sleep neurotransmitter adenosine (that’s the mechanism behind caffeine as a waker upper), increased energy, and a better mood. You can read my post here about caffeine.

Sunday is great day because it reminds us that Jesus rose from the dead. Yet, it’s also a draining day. Consider applying one or two of these pointers this Sunday and see if it helps you be your best.

What has helped you be your best on Sundays?

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Are you a Pastor Stuck on Hurry?

Two experiences several years ago caused me one day to pause not only my body, but my mind as well. So often as a pastor I get stuck on ‘hurry’ mode which makes me miss moments in life God intended that I pay attention to. Here are those two sobering experiences and what I learned.

This first occurred at a local diner as I ate breakfast with a friend. The booth I choose gave me a view of the exterior entrance to the diner. Out of my peripheral vision, I noticed a middle-aged man walk up to the glass door. Nothing unusual until he reached for the door handle. He missed it, by about a foot. For about fifteen seconds he kept fumbling with his right hand to find the handle. I thought that a bit odd at first. He finally opened the door. The view from where I sat also allowed me to see the inside entrance. As he walked in, the waitress spoke to him. Then she gently held his arm and directed him to a table. He was almost blind.

In an instant I felt both compassion toward this man and gratefulness for my vision. I could have missed that moment had I been in a mental rush. Hurry is an enemy of learning. 

When I arrived at the office an hour later, the second experience forced me again to push my mental pause button.

The older daughter of one of the admin staff at the church took care of a young boy confined to a wheelchair. His body is broken, he can’t speak, he drools, but his mind remains intact. She had left him alone in his wheelchair for a few moments while she went into the office conference room. I stood at the end of the hall and noticed him alone. I walked up to him, patted him on shoulder and said something like, “You’re a bit wet. That rain is a mess out there, isn’t it?” As drool dripped off his lips, he responded was a loud grunt, the best his body would allow him to articulate.

As I reflected on these two experiences, I was reminded of a concept that author Phil Yancey described in one of his books as ‘time between time,’ a concept also called statio (read more about statio here). He explained that he tries to discipline himself to mentally pause between each day’s activity to reflect over what he just experienced and to prepare his heart for what comes next.

My encounter with a blind man and a boy with a broken body reminded me of those moments in time, statio, the ‘time between time,’ that are often pregnant with meaning, if I don’t rush through them.

Leaders are always looking ahead for the next hill to climb. But sometimes we must pause and make ourselves fully present in the moment so we don’t miss God’s subtle, but important lessons.

How have you learned to keep hurry from robbing you of those special moments?

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