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Book Review: Your Brain at Work, by David Rock

by Tom Johnson on Nov 27, 2012
categories: book-reviews technical-writing

Your Brain at Work, by David RockI recently listened to Your Brain at Work, a productivity/neuroscience book by David Rock. Rock's main argument is that by better understanding your brain, you can align the way you work with your brain's tendencies, patterns, and instincts to be more productive and successful.

Rock keeps your attention throughout by implementing  a narrative conceit involving two people, Paul and Emily, in before-and-after scenarios. Paul and Emily make poor decisions at first, and then later, when they understand better how the brain works, they make better decisions and find more success in the mock situations.

I found Rock's book particularly interesting, not only for the helpful productivity tips but also because of the insights into the brain.

The Stage Metaphor

To explain how the brain works, Rock compares the brain to a stage. The stage can only accommodate so many actors before the play starts to get chaotic. When we multitask, we place more actors on our stage, and if we have too many actors, we become overloaded. The actors bump into each other and can't move about in graceful harmony. It's chaos. This translates into stress and frustration.

Rock says our brain can't multitask when the tasks involve the prefrontal cortex — an area of the brain that requires high attention and focus. Instead, we only task-switch between multiple activities. Only when one activity is so familiar and routine that our basal ganglia can handle it almost unconsciously can we perform multiple tasks at once.

For example, if you're used to driving the same route to work, it's not difficult to drive that familiar route while listening to an audio book that requires a moderate level of concentration. In this case, you can multitask because your prefrontal cortex handles the audio listening while your basal ganglia handles the driving. However, if you were driving in downtown Manhattan for the first time — an act requiring a high degree of concentration and alertness — there's no way you could successfully perform two prefrontal cortex tasks with equal competence.

In fact, Rock cites studies showing that our IQ dramatically falls when we attempt to multi-task, such as switching between an iPhone and a meeting. Studies show that a Harvard-level educated person can be reduced to a third-grade equivalent when multi-tasking.

Constant interruptions that compel us to continue switching tasks removes our chance at productivity. Important tasks that require deep immersion in thought are compromised when we fail to focus with enough uninterrupted study to reach a "continuous flow state," as it's sometimes called.

When actors on our stage keep coming and going, appearing and disappearing, and when the play keeps changing scripts and scenes, the brain can't be productive. We need an uninterrupted focus with just a few actors on stage.

The first tip for productivity, then, is to allow for longer periods of uninterrupted thought and focus as you tackle high priority problems. Turn off the distractions and allow yourself to engage for a while with a problem. Identify your priority for the day early in the morning, and carve out time to tackle it. Avoid social media, meetings, phone calls, and other distractions that take you away from a state of focus.

The Science of Insight

Beyond encouraging single tasking, Rock also touches on the neuroscience of insight. He says when you get stuck on a problem, it's helpful to step back and look inward for a few moments. He says our brain has a unique ability to enter states of self-awareness, or mindfulness, where our "director," as he calls it, observes itself in action.

This is the metacognitive ability we have to step outside of our thought processes and observe ourselves thinking, to see ourselves acting in the moment almost as if we were another person. Philosophers have reflected on this director in the mind for centuries, he says.

Scientists who study insight find that insights come most frequently when people look inward with a quiet contemplation. To arrive at insights, he encourages a model called ARIA: Attention, Reflection, Insight, and Action. When faced with a problem, narrow your attention by removing extraneous actors from the stage and focusing inward. Then reflect, perhaps looking at the issue from different perspectives. More often than not, insights will come.

If they don't, Rock mentions a few other strategies for insights as well. If you're stuck at an impasse, give yourself a break. It's easy for the brain to get stuck continuing down the same path over and over. You need to rest and shift your attention for a while to something else, and then return to the problem with a fresh perspective later. You'll find you're no longer stuck in the same rut as before, and you may see the solution much more clearly and easily.

He also recommends simplifying complex problems into smaller parts. Instead of trying to wrap your mind around a problem with multiple stages, various components, workflows, and related issues, chunk the issue into simpler parts that you can tackle individually.

Finally, he recommends incorporating more visuals to tackle the problems. Visuals make it easier to process complex information. Drawing pictures of the problem, or incorporating some other visual stimuli to think and interact with the problem may lead you to insights more quickly.


In the second half of the book, Rock dives into five key attributes the brain cares deeply about: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness, or SCARF for short. Our brain treats these attributes almost as intensely as survival instincts. When we interact with others, we will have more success by remembering to account for these attributes.

For example, with fairness, studies have shown that when two people are to split $10, if one person decides to take $7 and give the other $3, the person getting the smaller amount will feel such an incredible unfairness, he or she often will choose for no one to receive money at all rather than be slighted with the lesser amount. The sense of fairness is at times stronger than the desire for reward.

Autonomy is another huge trait the brain gravitates toward. In leadership roles, it's much better to help people find solutions themselves rather than force others to accept solutions and decisions you make for them. We love to have independence in our work, and when it's taken away and we are compelled toward specific ends, we reject it fiercely.

With status, slight another person in front of others, giving new projects to someone with little experience instead of to a senior-level team member, and this shift in status can demotivate. The same strategy works at home in managing children. The older children enjoy a higher level status, and when you take that status away, or put the older child on equal ground with the younger, it sends the older child into rebellion for the loss of status.

What does relatedness mean? People respond better when you try to relate to their frustrations, challenges, and experiences. Relating to another person can help build trusting, solid relationships, which will help you have more successful interactions.

Certainty is also a state the brain craves. Kids love to have routines, because routines encourage a world of certainty. People don't like uncertain futures. Will you be able to meet the project deadline? Will the company go under? Uncertainty breeds fear and a sense of doubt.


Your Brain at Work has a lot of helpful ideas to increase productivity.  Here are a few of my takeaways:

  • Identify your priority at the start of  your work day.
  • Focus on a single task for a solid duration of time and avoid distractions.
  • If you find yourself feeling overloaded, remove some of the actors on your stage.
  • When you need insight to solve a problem, change your attention and heighten your reflection, looking inward with mindfulness.
  • If you still need insight, take breaks to change your perspective, chunk complex problems into smaller parts, and use visuals such as drawing.
  • Remember the importance of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness when interacting with people. If something goes wrong, analyze the situation based on these elements.



About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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