The SHARP Solution: A Brain-Based Approach for Optimal Performance by Heidi Hanna (Wiley, 2013)
My brother knows my predilection for brain training, health, organizational, and similar self-improvement books; therefore he kindly lent me The SHARP Solution. If I'm not as enthusiastic as I (and perhaps he) had hoped, it may be because I've read so many such books already. As I found with Gretchen Rubin's Better than Before, prior familiarity with the material breeds contempt for foibles I'm otherwise inclined to overlook.
What are the annoying foibles in The SHARP Solution? Number one for me is that the book tries to be scientific but keeps slipping into touchy-feely. For example, the author repeatedly contrasts the brain and the heart, but while the brain is treated as a physical organ, its interconnected neurons subject to chemical influences and evolutionary biology, the heart is viewed as metaphorical, not the living, beating blood pump in our chests. Second on the fingernails-on-the-blackboard list is the harping on meditation as a magic bullet for whatever ails us. And while I do acknowledge the important of social interactions and support, Hanna clearly writes from an extrovert's perspective, which makes that section of the book less helpful to me.
That said, there are some good points, and I do have an assortment of quotations this time:
One of the key insights to come recently from cognitive science tells us that when we multitask, we tend to drop out of high-level rational decision-making, and slip into monkey-brain reactions in our various split activities. [The oft-repeated term "monkey brain" is also high on my list of annoyances.] Because we have so many things going on, we operate mostly on automatic pilot, rather than reflecting on our decisions and actions. Multitasking often prompts us to make mindless decisions that may end up causing serious problems with important responsibilities or relationships.
Remember: Your brain wants to conserve energy for possible threats during the day. Therefore, it prefers to use automatic pilot mode as often as possible. Habits save us a great amount of mental energy. ... [Habits] enable us to get much more done during the day than would be possible if we had to concentrate our full conscious attention on tasks like tying our shoes and brushing our teeth. Habits are patterns of thought and behavior that we've performed so often and so successfully that they become programmed into our auto-minds and no longer require our full attention.
Of course, it may be unavoidable to encounter certain situations that require multitasking. ... A parent with more than one child certainly knows how important it is to be able to split focus.... [I would add that even one child can put a parent in that position.] We're often able to tone our multitasking muscles through practice, stress management, and a good self-care regimen.... "It doesn't mean you can't do several things at the same time," says Dr. Marcel Just, co-director of Carnegie Mellon University's Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging. "But we're kidding ourselves if we think we can do so without cost." Your attention comes at a cost: your energy.
Whereas adrenaline prepares you for fight or flight, cortisol prepares you to hunker down and protect yourself Instead of needing a quick spurt of energy, cortisol works to increase glucose in the bloodstream and store it away for future needs. This is one of the reasons why stress has been linked to excess fat storage: It not only stimulates a desire for comfort and distraction, but also pushes the brain into energy-storage mode.
If we are to train our brains to be more versatile, flexible, and resilient, we must ultimately be able to shift out of thinking and problem-solving mode and into reflective, insight mode. Of course, this requires that we set aside time and mental space to practice our ability to do nothing at all.
I occasionally become too focused on my work, and so I look forward to massage in order to help me with my writing. I often feel my stress levels growing when I strive to be creative, since I become increasingly stumped for new ideas. However, when I concentrate on quieting my mind and relaxing my body, without judging myself or my thoughts, that's when I discover new solutions, fresh ideas, and a boost in my creativity. I believe in this concept so much I even made it company policy that all members of our team get monthly massage (or other spa service) every month—my treat! [Her typo, not mine.]
I always warn against preaching about healthy living. Even though they are passionate about improving their loved ones' health and longevity, having someone lecture you about all the things you already know you should be doing but haven't been able to do in the past is not helpful. In fact, the only thing it definitely will do is make them more stressed, and no doubt increase your stress levels at the same time.
One of the difficulties with changing behavior is that it often takes a lot of energy just to get started. ... One important strategy that will help make healthy choices a regular part of your life is to decrease what's called activation energy. In physics, activation energy is the stimulus required to cause some sort of reaction; in human behavior, it's the energy we must expend in order to do something new. In his book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor talks about his experience with activation energy when he was trying to practice guitar more frequently. In his description of what he calls the 20-Second Rule, Achor put the guitar closer to the couch and moved the television remote further away—about 20 seconds away, to be exact. "What I had done here, essentially, was put the desired behavior on the path of least resistance, so it actually took less energy for me to pick up and practice the guitar than to avoid it." He calls it the 20-Second Rule, "because lowering the barrier to change by just 20 seconds was all it took to help me form a new life habit."