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Strategies for Higher Level Brainpower in the Public Sector

By Troy Holt

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Anti-government critics often ask why public agencies can’t run like a business. While there are many reasons, from transparency to social justice, there is an area where government should run like a business or at least those businesses that take seriously the strategies for higher-level brainpower that allow their employees to be more productive, more creative, more innovative, and generate positive organizational cultures.

These strategies are easily adapted from the private to public sector, and in most cases are cost neutral. However, they can pay great dividends to those agencies and employees that carefully consider approaches for higher-level brainpower.

Strategies for Higher Level Brain Power

  • Wear your thinking cap early in the day – The brain is not as efficient as we think. The neocortex areas responsible for planning, goal attainment, rational thought and inhibiting impulse tire easily. The brain runs most activity in the efficient older areas (the limbic system and brain stem). Our brains quickly fatigue when they are required to make many decisions which leads to poor judgment. This means we should plan creative or difficult tasks early in the day and save routine work, such as answering emails, for the afternoon when our brains are fatigued and less creative. How many late afternoon meetings result in the most creative ideas or solutions? 
  • Work smarter, but fewer, hours – In her article, Why Men Work So Many Hours, Hastings College of the Law Professor Joan C. Williams states that 50 years ago, Americans signaled status by displaying their leisure (e.g., banker’s hours of 9 to 3). Today, people signal to each other how significant they are by talking about their extreme schedules. “I’m slammed” is a socially acceptable way of saying “I am important.”  Working longer hours, at the expense of rejuvenating sleep or social and family activities, is counterproductive. Don’t wait until you retire (if you live that long) to realize that it is not necessary to allow work to devour you. 
  • Distract yourself – In the 2012 Psychology Science research report titled, “Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation,” a group of scientists found that distractions could lead to creativity. However, it must be the right type of distraction.  Specifically, distractions should involve non-demanding tasks that are unrelated to the problem you’re trying to solve. For example, if writer’s block is preventing you from crafting the perfect report or letter, skip the crossword puzzle during your break and instead try a game of ping-pong.  Similarly, in a 2013 Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience article titled, “Neural reactivation links unconscious thought to decision-making performance,” Carnegie Mellon neuroscientist David Creswell wrote that periods of deliberate distraction can facilitate decision making when faced with a problem that would otherwise be too difficult for the conscious mind to solve. Creswell discovered that brain regions that are active when making a new decision reactivate while the brain coordinates responses to an unrelated task and this unconscious neural reactivation is associated with better decision-making performance. The technological platform SelfEcho has even created a website, UpJoy.Me, for positive and motivational video imagery. UpJoy will learn what works best for you and tailor its images and videos accordingly to create the perfect distraction to help you achieve your next great burst of creativity.  
  • Walk and work – According to Tom Rath in his 2013 book, Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes, our brains work better with exercise. Rath points out that sitting for long periods is an enemy to both overall health and high-functioning brain performance. The 2011 CNNMoney article, “Silicon Valley’s different kind of power walk,” mentioned that Steve Jobs preferred walking meetings because he could think better when he walked. Business innovator Nilofer Merchant discussed the concept of walking meetings in a 2013 TED TalkTry a standing desk or a treadmill desk for better health and a more creative brain. Use these free plans to build a standing desk for less than $25. Exercise is a critical component to operating our brains at high capacity, and maintaining a great organizational culture with healthy, happy employees. 
  • SleepRath states, “Sleep less, achieve less.” A whole night of sleep loss is equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.19 percent. Rath calls this “working while intoxicated.” The cognitive impairment is staggering, causing you to make poor decisions and perform at a much lower level. In a 1993 Psychological Review study, ”The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” K. Anders Ericsson found that getting at least 8 hours and 36 minutes of sleep each night significantly improved peak performance. 
  • Limitations of the brain – In his 2009 book, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, David Rock states, “there are limitations to the number of concepts that can be held in mind at one time, the fewer you hold in mind at once the better. The ideal number of new ideas to try to comprehend at once seems to be just one.” Multi-tasking is a myth that leads to decreased productivity and reduced cognitive functioning. Rarely can a person hold two or more active and evolving ideas and/or tasks in their brains. The result is usually poor performance in one or both of the tasks.  
  • The 10-Minute rule – In the 2009 book, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, University of Washington scientist John Medina states that people don’t pay attention to boring things. The brain begins to shift attention after 10 minutes. Think about the typical PowerPoint presentation. Media writes, “You’ve got seconds to grab someone’s attention and only 10 minutes to keep it. At 9 minutes and 59 seconds, something must be done to regain attention and restart the clock — something emotional and relevant.” The more attention the brain pays to a given stimulus, the more elaborately the information will be encoded and retained. The next time you are leading a meeting or giving a presentation, break up the message into 10-minute segments that cover single core concepts — always large, always general, always filled with “gist,” and always explainable in one minute. Use the other nine minutes to provide a detailed description of that single general concept. The trick is to ensure that each detail can be easily traced back to the general concept with minimal intellectual effort. Regularly take time out from content to explain the relationship between the detail and the core concept in clear and explicit terms. How do you get to the next 10-minute segment? Medina suggests using an ECS (emotionally competent stimuli) which he calls a “hook” to link to the next segment.  

Citizen Investment in Brain Power

Citizens should demand that government agencies maximize the value of tax dollars by constantly looking for better ways to utilize the brainpower of their employees. While government agencies may not fully operate like businesses, there is no excuse why cost-neutral solutions that harness higher-level brainpower are not part of the everyday operation of public agencies. Any business executive would agree that happy, healthy and engaged employees who are dedicated to finding new and creative solutions throughout the workday are far more likely to produce a high-yield return on a shareholder (or taxpayer) investment. Ask your local government leaders what they are doing to encourage and facilitate their employees (your investments) to operate with the highest possible brain power.


ASPA member Troy Holt, MPA, has twenty-four years of public agency management experience in departments ranging from Police, Public Works, Transportation, Administrative Services and the City Manager’s Office.  He is a graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government Senior Executives in State and Local Government program, and he is currently the Director of Communications and Government Relations for the City of Rancho Cordova, CA, the first local government agency to earn the distinction as a Fortune Great Place to Work.  He can be reached via email at [email protected], followed on Twitter at @TroyGHolt, and LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/tgholt.

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