E-Notes: On Alpha Waves, Single-Tasking, and Rewiring Your Brain

This week we’re exploring the brain and how to change its abilities. Let’s dive right in!

The inspiration for this post came from two articles posted in Atlassian’s blog, Work Life. The first article, “Alpha State of Mind,” explores different brain wave frequencies and the purposes they serve. The author describes alpha waves as the gold standard of brain waves and shares how you can increase your alpha wave activity. The second article’s title, “9 Neuroplasticity Exercises to Boost Productivity,” explains it all. But, wait! What’s neuroplasticity again? Keep reading to learn more!

Alpha Waves

According to the “Alpha State of Mind” article:

  • Delta waves are slow and dominate when you are sleeping
  • Theta waves take over when you are between sleeping and waking
  • Beta waves are your alert waves that help with problem-solving and decision-making
  • Gamma waves are in charge of your adrenaline fueled frenetic energy when rushing around
  • Alpha waves aid in information absorption, increased creativity, and humming along in flow

Think of this state as a kind of work hypnosis, where you’re fully engaged with your subject matter, yet completely happy and relaxed as you calmly and deftly decimate deadlines. 

Jonathan Thompson, author of “Alpha State of Mind”

Most of you have probably experienced flow at some point when doing something you enjoy. Think of artists and artisans working for hours in a studio, drawing, painting, cutting wood, fitting pieces together just right, and they barely notice the sun has gone down or that they worked through a meal. Others might experience flow when cooking, gardening, or playing chess as you give your undivided attention to something. The same experience can happen while doing a project at work. However, it takes schedule manipulation, boundary setting, and often support from coworkers and supervisors to pull off.

Single-Tasking (all the cool kids are doing it!)

Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World talks about the benefits of single-tasking rather than multi-tasking. (Deep Work includes numerous strategies that I adopted to be more productive. Check it out!) The point is to give your focused attention to one task for a prolonged amount of time. This lets you be more productive and turn out higher quality work.

When constantly switching between tasks, you experience attention residue each time you change tasks. You may think you’re focused on the new task but your brain is still lingering on the last task or topic. You can feel it happening. You’ve switched to reviewing data in a report on your screen but Oh no! Your brain still has a few things to say about that email message you just read. Your internal monologue is still churning away on a quippy reply and the data in front of you is taking extra effort to understand and focus on.

As a research university faculty member, Cal has more opportunity for deep work than other types of workers but we can still steal many of his secrets. Instead of full “thinking” days or large chunks of time, try to block off 90 minutes once a week. Then keep carving from there. I used to trade a few hours on other days to work a long Wednesday in exchange. That gave me a 12-hour day midweek and complete solitude from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday nights to really dig into something.

So why should you care about alpha brain waves? Because they help you get into flow, increase your productivity and performance, while barely feeling like effort at the same time. Bonus! According to this article you can increase your alpha waves!

Below are 7 tactics the author shares for increasing your alpha waves. Be sure to read the full article for more details. This stuff is pure gold and will…change…your…life!

  1. Create a mental cue
  2. Eliminate all distractions
  3. Work at your biological peak time
  4. Listen to (the right kind of) music
  5. Strategically consume caffeine
  6. Focus on a single task
  7. Stay hydrated

What might this look like IRL:

This is my best example which I have since replicated for work projects to great success.

At the intense peak of my dissertation writing, I wrote every day for at least the last three months. I’d usually write for 3-4 hours in my office after work before heading home and writing more if needed. I rarely wanted to get started, but after a while I was chugging along and stopping to go home was hard.

  • Mental cues: Closed my office door. Closed the blinds (you’ll see why in a moment). Took off my shoes. Played “I Gotta Feeling” by The Black Eyed Peas. Danced and jumped around for the full 4 minutes and 28 seconds of the song. Sat down. Listened to “I Won’t Give Up” by Jason Mraz while taking some calming breathes.
  • Eliminate distractions: Undocked my laptop. Rotated my chair and put my laptop on the other side of my L-desk away from my monitor and other peripherals. Placed EVERYTHING ELSE non-school related on the chairs on the other side of my desk so nothing work related was in sight. I didn’t have a smartphone until April 2014 so phone distractions weren’t a thing yet.
  • Work at your biological peak time: I did my Ph.D. while working full-time. I discovered I did my best focused reading in the mornings and would go to the library from 7:30 to 9 a.m. to squeeze in pre-work reading. Then later in the process, all of my writing was done between 5 p.m. and 2 a.m. As a night owl, my brain gets into flow the easiest after dark.
  • Listen to the right kind of music: After my warm-up tunes, I only used music when I had writer’s block. I used sound combinations on Noisli to spark different moods. And Ingrid Michaelson’s song “Keep Breathing” on repeat. Sometimes lyric-less techno if I got sleepy.
  • Strategically use caffeine: I have to be careful about caffeine as I don’t need any help staying up at night so I generally wouldn’t have any.
  • Focus on a single task: Each day I would end my session by emailing my dissertation chair a quick update on what I did, how it went, and what I planned to do the next day. The emails were incredibly effective accountability tools and gave me my launching off point the next day. Open the email, see what I said I would work on. Get to work on the first thing.
  • Stay hydrated: I always kept a large water bottle next to me and would use bathroom breaks or water refills as natural opportunities to stand and take a quick break.

When you can build focus time into your schedule to allow for deep work, you’re able to get into flow. You get tunnel vision and tune out distractions around you. You forget that you haven’t checked your phone incessantly. The report that you were dreading suddenly feels like it is writing itself!

You don’t have to take your shoes off or jump around to a song. What mental cues could you create to tell your brain, “Now, it’s time to focus. See this cue I’m giving you every time I want you to focus, Brain?”

It isn’t easy building focus time or single-tasking when people and projects are constantly pulling on you. But it is worth exploring and experimenting because it will make you more productive and effective.

You’ll also get better at ignoring distracting thoughts as you strengthen your focusing skills. I love this line from the article,

Think of your mind like a park bench, where you can control which thoughts are allowed to sit down. You let all of the others just walk past.

Jonathan Thompson
A black and white photo of a wooden bench in a park with grass growing underneath it.
Photo by Paweu0142 L. on Pexels.com

Rewiring Your Brain

Nowww we can talk about neuroplasticity!

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and restructure itself, to learn and adapt. According to the article, recent research believes we may be able to improve our cognitive function as we get older. That’s exciting compared to the previous belief that after a certain age, we only lost cells and pathways.

Imagine your brain as a colossal power grid. Billions of pathways light up every time you think, feel, or do something. Putting neuroplasticity into action means carving new pathways, while strengthening the best of the existing ones – and not reinforcing the pathways you’d rather avoid. This is captured in an aphorism: “Neurons that fire together, wire together; neurons that fire out of synch, fail to link.” 

Jonathan Thompson, author of “9 Neuroplasticity Exercises to Boost Productivity”

How can you get started wiring together new neurons and firing off more synapses? Below are the 9 techniques cited in the article. Dig into the details by clicking the link to the article above.

9 Techniques to “Rewire” Your Brain

  1. Feed your brain
  2. Take naps
  3. Don’t let the work day linger
  4. Expand your vocabulary
  5. Use the “wrong” hand
  6. Learn to juggle
  7. Play chess
  8. Do mnemonic drills
  9. Be mindful, as a team

One way to be mindful as a team is with Thrive Reset. Check it out if you haven’t already!

Alright folks! That’s it until next week…unless you want to scroll a little further and read the cheesy tribute I wrote my old phone. Ha! Happy Wednesday!

A picture of a silver metal bar phone with the words "Good bye!" on the screen.

*My tribute to my phone on April 11, 2014. I really loved that thing!

Farewell my dear little Motorola L2 (Oct. 1, 2006 to April 9, 2014). I’d say we had good run. You’ve been there for me through two degrees and visited more countries than my husband. You’ve connected me to friends and family from as far as the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town. You helped me accept my job at Truman, share the news of my engagement, plan my wedding, and schedule my dissertation defense. We’ve been through so much together but sadly you’ve said “Hey pretty lady” to me for the last time. I know you are still on your original battery and the best phone that ever lived but it was just time to finally upgrade. You will be missed!

2 thoughts on “E-Notes: On Alpha Waves, Single-Tasking, and Rewiring Your Brain

  1. Erin,

    Wonderful reading for me during my lunch break! I really enjoy your writing and IRL experiences shared to relate.

    Have a great week my friend!

    Until next time, Andy Ward

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

    1. Andy, thank you for reading the post and the blog in general! I’m so glad you are finding value in all of it. Happy Wednesday!

      Like

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