We heard from Phil Dobson who shared his expertise on neuroscience to help us better understand our brains.

On Tuesday evening we were joined by Phil Dobson — founder of BrainWorkshops and author of The Brain Book — to discuss the neuroscience behind productivity, creativity and resilience, and how to apply these skills in the modern workplace. Informed by his experience as a coach and hypnotherapist, Phil works with businesses all around the world (from the BBC and MTV to Channel 4 and the Financial Times) to help people to think and work smarter. He's interested in challenging working practices, transforming thinking, and creating sustained shifts in behaviour.

Here's what we learned.

Work hard, but work smart

Phil began by asking us all a straightforward question, ‘are you busy?’ — most people raised their hands. Being busy is often associated with being successful but as Phil pointed out, there are fundamental flaws in how most people use their time. 

Not all tasks are equal. According to the Pareto principle, 20% of what you do will get you 80% of the way, and we spend most of our time and resources on the 80% that doesn’t matter as much. Spend some time identifying your MVT’s (most valuable tasks) — for example, personal development, relationship building or coaching others — as these all have a high positive return for our wellbeing, confidence and purpose. Make a choice not to prioritise your least valuable tasks, those which are often responding to others needs rather than your own. In other words, Phil explains, make a conscious effort to become more self-directed and less reactive. Make space in your calendar to have meetings with yourself, challenge your views and reflect on what you’ve learned.

Meet your Brain, Phil Dobson

Master your mental energy

‘If learning how to manage your time is like using your computer better, then brain fitness is about upgrading the whole system’, Phil told us. Your brain depends on two variables, energy and attention, to do something well and you need to consciously create the conditions for both of these variables to be high, in order for your brain to thrive. 

Generally speaking our mental energy is highest in the morning, followed by a few unproductive hours in the middle of the day, and later an afternoon peak. ‘Spend the first 60 minutes of your working day in a non-reactive state’, Phil suggested, as well as recommending more breaks (every 90 minutes at least), and taking worthwhile downtime to improve later productivity. 

It’s important to utilise this, imagine you need to delegate your work to three other people over the course of a working day, what tasks would you give them in the morning, over lunch, and in the afternoon? 

Meet your Brain, Phil Dobson

Defy your distractions

It takes around 20 minutes to refocus your brain after it’s been distracted. Phil identifies our external distractions as being your working environment, other people and most commonly, technology. ‘How many of you watch TV whilst using your phone?’ he asks us, comparing it to having a magazine open at the same time as reading your book. The relationship we have with our smartphones is training our brain to be distracted, inhibiting our creative minds, and not only that but is physically shrinking the muscles we have in our brain. 

But this can be reversed, he assured us. You can exercise your brain by learning something new, exposing yourself to unfamiliarity and doing something cognitively taxing. As well as this, it’s important to find states of non-distraction through mindful meditation, which relaxes your brain and improves your sustained absorption. Remove yourself from your work, plan downtime to allow your brain to wander and get inspired. 

Managing your internal distractions is also necessary; Phil recommends a weekly ‘brainsweep’, taking 5 minutes to empty your brain out of “stuff” (admin, upcoming events, errangs, tasks, you name it), to ‘externalise your internal distractions’.

Meet your Brain, Phil Dobson

Prioritise your energisers 

Doing what you love has a significantly positive impact on how you sustain these principles in the long term. By finding your energisers, and prioritising them, you will respond better to stress by being more optimistic and therefore more resourceful. Put them into your calendar, build them into your routines, make time for them. 

And identify your drainers, these are often out of our control so it’s not about eliminating these, but about reframing them. Take back control over how you view the world in order to change your relationship with the inevitable and become more of a problem solver. 


Head to 72 Rivington Street to borrow 'The Brain Book' from the YCN Library. Thanks to Sam Bush for his photographs. 

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