Not your average 4 tips for working from home…

... with added neuroscience!

Chantelle Hodson, Sponge’s Graduate Learning Designer, shares 4 top tips for home working and investigates the neuroscience behind why they work right now...

We’ve all seen helpful videos, articles and tips on working from home to maintain some sense of normality through these uncertain times. We accept that these pearls of wisdom make sense, but why? And how can we apply these to our learning solutions in these challenging times?  

After graduating with a degree in Psychology six months ago, I entered the world of elearning and learning design. Something I couldn’t have anticipated then was how neuroscience and the anatomy of the brain would suddenly become more relevant than ever. My job, and my passion, revolve around learning, and learning revolves around the brain.

Since joining Sponge as a Learning Designer, I have sought to apply the neuroscience of learning to client projects. During unprecedented times like these, where most of us are now working from home, I believe it has never been more important. 

I've chosen four top tips for working from home and investigated the neuroscience behind why they work for home workers right now.

1. Feed your brain the certainty it craves

Having a routine means maintaining a sense of normality, and ultimately means being more productive. But why does our brain crave routine? 

Our brains are uncomfortable with the feeling of uncertainty. The amygdala in the brain plays a crucial role in emotion and processing fear. The effects of uncertainty on the brain are very similar to that of fear; the amygdala is engaged as part of our fight-flight response and our ability to think clearly is impaired. 

Predictable and repetitive routines are calming and help us stay in control. Our executive functions (planning, motivation, forming memories and emotional regulation) typically occur in the frontal regions of the brain, which tire easily. 

By having a routine some executive functions become habitual, i.e. they occur in the brain’s habit centres, freeing up the frontal regions of the brain to concentrate on new tasks and direct our attention efficiently. 

But how do we apply this in learning? We design solutions with long-term behaviour change in mind. By focusing learning design on the learner and how they can apply what they learn to their lives and work, we build these connections into our learning to build learning into their lives.

2. Listen to your social wiring

People are struggling with ‘social distancing’ right now. Being thrown into a way of working, and a way of life, that feels unfamiliar and disconnected has made it more important than ever before to stay connected. So why does our brain need to feel connected to the outside world for us to be productive? 

Aside from the natural way that collaboration and discussing work helps us to be more productive in what we do, being social impacts our brains. 

We are all fundamentally driven by an innate motivation to stay connected. We are wired to be social. So naturally, social isolation and feelings of loneliness are inherently bad for our brains, causing symptoms of stress and depression. 

During times like this, the brain releases the hormone cortisol. With long-term exposure to high levels of cortisol, the neurons in the hippocampus can shrink. This impacts our memory, ability to make decisions and learn, which ultimately makes us less productive at work. 

So how can learning help? At Sponge, we make learning sociable. Where appropriate, we design blended learning solutions that encourage learners to collaborate. This can take the form of face-to-face training sessions via webinar that accompany online learning, or business simulations that encourage groups to work together when interacting with the solution.

3. Pause to stay focused

It may seem counter-intuitive but in order to stay focused when working from home, we need to take regular breaks from work and our screens. There are clear physical benefits to this, such as resting our eyes and stretching our legs, but how does it help our brains to stay productive? 

Taking breaks helps us commit information to memory and stay focused over long periods of time. When we carry out executive functions, the frontal regions of the brain grow tired over time, making us less effective at decision-making and less productive at work. By letting these frontal regions rest, we are setting ourselves up to be more productive in the long-term.   

So how can we apply this in learning? The spacing effect describes the phenomenon where information spaced over time is better remembered than the same information presented all at once. Spacing over time helps learners to maintain optimal levels of attention, strengthening both memory and recall. 

At Sponge, we design learning solutions using techniques that build natural breaks into learning. Microlearning is particularly powerful, as are games that are not cognitively demanding, to let those fontal regions rest.

4. Be guided by your brain’s associations

Separate work life from homelife. An effective way to achieve this is by having a dedicated workspace. We know this works, but why?

Our brains are very good at making associations. Neuro-associations are deep-rooted associations that our brains form between two things, typically based on past experiences. 

If your experiences in a particular space or location are about ‘getting work done’ as opposed to watching Netflix, you are more likely to be productive because you are programmed to pay attention. 

So how can we harness this mechanism in learning? Memories are stored in the brain in vast webs of associations. These associations are like muscles, the more we use them, the stronger they get. 

At Sponge, we pride ourselves on designing learning that encourages learners to generate these meaningful associations and strengthen their learning experience long-term. We challenge learners to respond actively and draw connections to their own experiences or knowledge to reinforce their learning.

Understanding your brain is so important. I encourage you to do your research on any of these tips, be curious and always ask why. There is a science to how these tips work but striving to uncover why something works is a great way to discover what will work for you.

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