Jaan Aru: Less is more – the modern working environment can paralyse the brain

The human brain is the most creative and flexible computing device in the known universe. Unfortunately, the modern working environment often turns this magical machine into a pocket calculator, writes Estonian researcher Jaan Aru.

Intuitively, it seems that being a workaholic is nowadays a key prerequisite for success, given the overabundance of information. We want to be on top of things; therefore, multitasking has become standard: several files open at the same time, Facebook and a newspaper open in the web browser. We also like to be accessible all the time (“always on”), to be able to react immediately to every e-mail or text message. And since there is always more information than there is time, workdays tend to be longer and longer.

This lifestyle is addictive, and, on the surface, it seems ultra-efficient. In reality, these are all bad practices if you want to get the most out of your brain and be creative.

Multitasking is mostly an illusion

The brain is by nature a really clumsy multitasker, and this is one of the greatest problems of today’s workplace. When the tasks at hand require some thinking, the brain performs them one by one – serially, not simultaneously. Thus, effective multitasking is mostly an illusion. Each time there is a work-related call or a beep from the phone, a notification from social media, the brain has to switch from one task to another. Importantly, there is a cost involved every time you switch tasks, as switching eats up some of your thinking resources.

The problem is, the brain has only limited resources available for thinking. Mental work is subjectively hard, and it is also hard for the brain. Thus, the brain is able to think creatively only for a certain amount of time. Conscious thinking is crucial for working out creative solutions and completing tasks that need attention. But as the resource of thinking is limited, one better use it wisely.

Work in peace

In this light, the following advice seems reasonable: when you need to solve a concrete task, concentrate only on this task and nothing else. When working, you should get rid of all distractions: close the web browser, Facebook, mailbox, smartphone, an annoying co-worker, and disable all updates and notifications. Work in peace.

“When you need to solve a concrete task, concentrate only on this task and nothing else.”

This suggestion might seem silly and wrong – “There are so many things going on at once; I have to be informed and quickly switch between tasks when needed”. That is understandable, and I am not suggesting that you would have to focus on one task for hours or decades – not at all. Concentrate on one task, but by all means take breaks.

As soon as you feel that your concentration is fading, leave the desk. A well-known rule of thumb is to work for 25 minutes and then rest for five. This means concentrating on a single task for 25 minutes; after that you can scan through your e-mails and peek at your phone for a couple of minutes. For the next 25 minutes, you may do something totally different altogether. For example, two sessions of mental work and one session of answering e-mails would be a good cycle.

Involve creativity

Another predictable objection might be that performing just one task at a time is an outdated way to work: “In ten years, all that focusing and pondering is not really needed anymore – a successful person will be the one who can analyse a lot of information fast and then react in the right way.” Fortunately or unfortunately, artificial intelligence algorithms are already better able to “analyse a lot of information fast, then react correctly” than humans in some fields. Ten years from now humans will not be required to perform those assignments. Multitasking at work will increase your chance of being unemployed in a decade.

“Multitasking at work will increase your chance of being unemployed in a decade.”

Therefore, we have to ask, in which aspects will humans still be better than machines in a decade? Which working habits should be taught to our children so that they can get a job in 10-20 years?

Simply put, machines are better than people for tasks where many variables have to be considered at once (ie, deciding which goods to order to be stored in a warehouse, taking into account the data from previous months and years). However, our brain currently outperforms each and every machine when it comes to jobs that involve creativity – finding innovative connections between different variables so that meaningful creative solutions can be reached (ie, coming up with concepts for Skype, Transferwise, Starship, or Mooncascade, just to name a few).

Crucially, coming up with creative solutions takes some delving into a problem (“deep thinking”), not just knowing a lot of facts superficially. This is because in our brains it always takes time and effort to first learn and then combine complex ideas. Any creative solution is represented in the brain as a neural activity pattern, but to create it, many smaller patterns need to be chained and combined in the right way. This takes time.

Bed, Bus and Bath

Also, perhaps a bit surprisingly, the answers don’t seem to appear more likely when one is working overtime and constantly “plugged in”. As the intellectual and scientific history of the world has shown, solutions for work-related problems quite often come while resting! If you want to be creative, keep in mind the three B’s that are related to solutions and answers – Bed, Bus and Bath. You need to master the topics at hand, do deep thinking, but then relax and give your brain a chance to do some magic.

“As the intellectual and scientific history of the world has shown, solutions for work-related problems quite often come while resting.”

Thus, based on neuroscience, when the goal is to have more innovation and more big ideas, all workers who need to think a lot should work less. In order to come up with new solutions, the focus should be on a single task at time. Instead of 12-hour workdays, there should be 12 minutes of dozing off in the middle of an eight-hour workday.


The opinions in this article are those of the author. The Estonian version of this post was originally written for Estonian newspaper, Äripäev, and appeared on Jaan Aru’s personal blog. The English version was originally published by the University of Tartu blog. Cover image by Carin Blass.

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