Brain Talk

Taylor on the Brain

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Your brain is your greatest resource—use it by design to help you achieve health, happiness, and success!

—Arlene R. Taylor PhD

Brenda Keefer from ISN & Insight Publishing asked Dr. Taylor to answer a set of questions on “extreme excellence” from the perspective of a professional speaker a brain-function specialist. Taylor's responses to those questions became a chapter

Managing the Big 'E'  in the book entitled:

Extreme Excellence -- Dynamic Interviews with America's Top 10 Performance Experts

ISBN 978-1-60013-337-4

Managing the Big “E”

©Arlene Taylor, PhD

Q.  As a brain-function specialist and as a professional speaker, what do the words Extreme Excellence mean to you?

Interestingly enough, my working title for this essay started out as The “Six E’s,” the words extreme and excellence being two of those. My definition for extreme is to an utmost degree; and for excellence, a form of superiority. The practical implication is to be the best example in your chosen field of endeavor, to the greatest degree possible for your brain.

In order to achieve that goal by design, it is absolutely essential to have some understanding of the human brain in general and yours in particular—especially in relation to how yours expends energy. With the advent of brain-imaging modalities (e.g., PET scans, MRI, fMRI), brain-function information is becoming more readily available, which makes this understanding easier to achieve. Because of this, some have referred to the brain as the last great frontier of the 21st Century.

Q.  What are some of your other “E” words?

No doubt many are familiar with a short-hand way to distinguish among three of the “E” words:

  • Effectiveness relates to getting things “done.” This can be positive or negative. Many things are done that are unhelpful or undesirable in the long term.
  • Efficiency relates to doing the “right” things. A goal of the industrial revolution was to develop processes that would enable the right things to be done consistently.
  • Efficacy relates to doing things “right.” However, there’s little point in doing things right unless you are doing the right things

Putting those three words together, I paraphrase: in order to achieve extreme excellence a person needs to be “doing” the “right” things in the “right” way and maintaining that process over time.

By the way, I have been fascinated with words from my earliest recollections. Since I joke about being born in the late 1800’s, those recollections are receding further and further into the dim past! My mother taught high-school English, French, and Latin and practiced on me at home. Before that, however, she reportedly read aloud to “me” for 30 minutes a day throughout her pregnancy. With what is now known about prenatal learning, she was ahead of her time. I benefited by her actions, reading to myself by the age of three.

Q.  And the sixth “E” word?

The sixth “E” word is energy. It refers to internal or inherent power; a potential for action. Every human being possesses it although it is routinely wasted, misunderstood, misapplied, mismanaged and consequently “run out of” in many cases.

There are many types of energy: physical, intellectual, emotional, creative, sexual, spiritual, social, and so on. I like to talk about “brain energy,” because it really underlies every other type of energy. Fortunately, PET scan studies have shed light on how the brain uses energy.

4 divisions of the cerebrumCurrently it is believed that most brains come with a built-in energy advantage in one of the four divisions of the cerebrum. Figuring out your innate energy advantage can jump-start learning how to manage your energy by design. A frequently requested seminar topic and consultative service I offer involves helping people identify their innate “brain lead” and learn how to thrive by matching the majority of their life’s activities with what their brain does energy efficiently.

Q.  How does this really matter?

Nothing in life is free. You generally give up something to get something. To do this interview you and I are giving up something else we could each have been doing. Distilled to the bottom line your basic medium of exchange is energy. Not money, not possessions, not birthright or position, not education or even talent. Energy! That’s the reason I prioritized it as the Big “E.”

According to Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, authors of The Power of Full Engagement, managing energy (not time) is the key to high performance. In order to live extreme excellence it is critical to manage your vital life force by design. That means spending the majority of your time in life doing the things that are best suited for your brain in a way that is best for your brain.

Time is what passes while you’re engaged in activities, in the process of living, in accomplishing tasks designed to make money. Money is what many cultures use to exchange for needed or wanted commodities and someone had to expend energy to make it in first place (even if you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth and that energy was expended generations ago).

It matters because every time you make a decision to “do” something, it will require energy. Oh yes, you may also have to give up some money (e.g., fee to play golf, fee to take the kids to the amusement park) but money is not really the basic medium of exchange. It’s energy!

Think of it this way, you arrive in life with an energy bank as part of the package. The amount of energy in your account is based on a host of factors including your genetic inheritance (nature), your experiences (nurture), and your innate preferences. Early in life your caregivers are largely responsible for monitoring and managing your energy bank. The sensitive caregiver observes the child and makes sure it gets food when it appears to be hungry, water when it appears to be thirsty, and rest when it appears to be tired. This is to help ensure that energy levels remain high and to prevent excessive withdrawals. Some caregivers may not be as tuned in to this as others and children can begin to experience energy drain very early in life.

At some point you reach maturity (or at least adulthood), and assume responsibility for managing your own energy bank. Imagine that you have a metaphorical bank book and your brain automatically enters all withdrawals of energy and all deposits. This tracking of energy continues 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for your entire life. You can withdraw energy at an optimum rate or at an excessive rate.

The difference in withdrawal rates depends upon the type of activities you engage in and the relative amount of energy each requires based on your own brain’s innate advantage. When you use your brain in an energy-efficient manner compare that to withdrawing a penny or two per second. When you use your brain in an energy-exhausting manner, oh my! The energy withdrawals can be compared to withdrawing a dollar or more per second!

Q.  Is managing one’s energy a relative new concept?

In some sense it is, certainly as it relates to brain energy. Many rarely think much about energy, much less about managing it, until they are temporarily flat out of it. Using a currency metaphor, Scott H. Young described energy management as a cyclical process. After you’ve spent it you need to replenish your supply in order to spend again. To do otherwise may plunge you into deficit. This metaphor works whether you’re speaking of money or brain energy.

Energy management begins by honing your conscious awareness of how much energy you typically have to spend—this can differ dramatically between individuals—and how you choose to expend it. For years I have worked in or consulted with healthcare institutions and have witnessed up close and personal the dire outcome of energy mismanagement. It’s not a pretty sight!

Think of energy as both global and specific. Global energy can be compared to the entire planet, specific energy to what’s happening on one continent. Or, if that’s to daunting, compare global energy to the United States, and specific energy to what’s happening in one State; or to Canada versus one of its provinces.

Many times individuals have a global sense of their energy levels, but to really get a handle on how you are expending yours and to make plans to manage it more effectively, you need to get specific. It’s the difference between being aware of the potential withdrawal as you write a check or hand over a credit card for any given transaction, versus reviewing the monthly bank statement or credit card itemization.

A more specific level of observational awareness allows you to course-correct in real time, much as you would alter your odometer speed during peak-hour traffic as indicated based on your surroundings.

In a similar manner, the more energy you give to thought or action (e.g., increased observational awareness of your energy expenditures), the more you can course-correct in the real time of everyday living.

Q.  How come we don’t know this earlier in life?

When I was born, my parents could not provide me with an owner’s manual for my brain. The brain-function information we take so much for granted in today’s world was unavailable to them. Oh they did their dead-level best to provide me with a plethora of verbal and written instructions according to the way in which they thought I should operate. But their best primarily involved their brains’ opinions of who I was or who I needed to be in order for them to be okay as parents, all of which were born out of their belief systems. Some of it worked for me and some of it was so far off the mark as to be ludicrous. Nor was this information available to me through the school systems, the majority of which still struggle to offer brain-compatible learning environments.

Even today a great deal of figuring out who you are, how to take care of yourself, how to maximize who you are innately, and how to make valuable contributions to your own life and to life on this planet is a process of trial and error. As my little French grandmother used to say with a huge sigh, we’re too soon old and too late smart. Unfortunately that often describes this figuring-out process.

Fortunately, the collective body of information about the brain has been growing by leaps and bounds. This knowledge is forming bits and pieces of an owner’s manual, if you will. But even there some of the information is conflicting and incomplete, or doesn’t apply to every individual based on the bell curve of distribution. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that the brain knows not only who you are but also who you were meant to be. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to figure out what your brain knows and how to use what it knows in the most energy-efficient manner possible.

Q.  What was the impetus for your interest in energy management by design?

Routine fluctuations in energy come and go like clockwork. They can be impacted by a veritable host of factors including: time of day or year, amount of sleep, individual biorhythm cycles, hormonal cycles, nutrition, interest in the specific task/activity, the way in which you manage your lifestyle, whether or not your environment is brain-friendly) to name just a few. The lack of energy with which to fluctuate is a different story. And it was mine!

For most people, learning to manage their energy by design involves a process. Some may innately know how to accomplish this or picked it up from caregivers who had already developed that skill. I didn’t. In fact, I first became really interested in energy, brain energy specifically, when I found myself flat on my back in bed, completely devoid of any internal power (except to keep breathing) or potential for action. Back then burnout was the label typically applied to my specific situation. And since I had always tried to do everything well, I arrived at burnout with a resounding crash. It was difficult to ignore an impetus of that magnitude!

For the next three months, as I first tried to just survive and then gradually moved up from there, I had plenty of time to think about energy. About what it was, its impact on health/success/longevity, and the critical importance of learning to manage it by design.

Q. How can you get a handle on relative energy expenditures?

Most people have heard comments such as, “I have so much fun at my job! I almost feel guilty taking a pay check!” Or, “You couldn’t pay me enough to do that job. I get exhausted just thinking about it!” The differences in comments typically relate to the person’s innate energy advantage and the specific tasks/activities involved at work.

To track energy expenditures, you first need to become aware of them. You can only manage effectively what you can identify and label. To some degree your energy expenditures are observable¾to others often, and to yourself once you become aware of tracking them. Even when you can’t “observe” your energy expenditures directly, you can still observe your relative energy levels in relation to or in response to specific activities.

By way of example, fold your hands, fingers interlocking, in your usual manner. Which thumb is on top? Right or left? Next, move your fingers one position that you fold your hands with the opposite thumb on top. How does that feel? The first time I folded my hands in this opposite manner it felt so unnatural I glanced down to see whose hand I was holding!

Repeat this action. Pay close attention to how difficult or easy it is to accomplish, and how comfortable or uncomfortable your hands feel depending on how they are folded. You can do the same thing with crossing your arms. Each style utilizes different amounts of energy. The same thing happens inside your brain. Some activities utilize miniscule amounts of energy; others require exhausting amounts.

Q.  I understand you have developed tools to assist people in evaluating energy expenditures.

I have created several such tools. This one, for example, is designed to help you evaluate energy expenditures for tasks related to your job or career. Remember that your “job” is whatever you do to earn money or to contribute to a partnership that earns money. Our culture often defines this far too narrowly and incompletely. The individual who stays in the home and handles child care, household tasks, and a hundred other errands is “working” just as is the individual who is “working” at a location outside home base.

To really hit pay dirt in terms of energy evaluation, you need to analyze specific tasks related to your work. Most jobs have a dozen key tasks that, when taken together, comprise the bulk of the job. To begin with, break these activities into three areas: pre-task, in-task, and post-task. After you have performed this evaluation a few times you will likely be able to do it with your mind’s eye.

Taylor’s Job Tasks Energy-Assessment Tool

First, answer the following set of Pre-Task/Activity questions to evaluate your energy levels as you think about a specific key task/activity that is required for your job. For each question that you answer with a definite “yes,” circle the numerical value in the right hand column. Total the circled numbers in the value column when you have finished the first set.

Set I

Pre-Task/Activity Questions

Value

 1.

Do I dread the proposed task/activity because I sense it will drain my energy or because it has in the past?

1

 2.

Do I try to delegate the task, or get someone else to do it for me?

1

3.

Do I procrastinate working on the task or reschedule it several times?

1

4.

Do I try to think up a plausible excuse in order to avoid the task altogether?

1

5.

Do I feel neutral about the task, neither negative or positive?

2

6.

Do I expect the task to be reasonable but don’t want to spend much time on it?

2

7.

Do I look forward to the task itself, or because it will be shared by a coworker I like to work with?

2

8.

Do I look forward to the task with some anticipation as long as episodes are infrequent?

2

9.

Can I hardly wait to get going on the task, and look forward to it with anticipation?

3

10.

If necessary, am I willing to rearrange my schedule (if possible) so I don’t miss working on that task?

3

11.

Do I look forward to spending time with the coworker as well as working on the task?

3

12.

Am I willing to give up something desirable in its own right in order to spend time on this task?

3

 

Total

 

Next, answer the following set of Inter-Task/Activity questions. For each question that you answer with a definite “yes,” circle the numerical value in the right hand column. Total the circled numbers in the value column when you have finished the second set.

Set II

Intra-Task/Activity Questions

Value

1.

Do I spend the bare minimum of time on the task and exit for almost any excuse (e.g., respond to my pager and gratefully define the interruption as an emergency)?

1

2.

Do I frequently sneak a look at my watch because time is dragging and I sense my energy is flagging?

1

3.

Do I make excuses, no matter how thin, to avoid working on that task (given I have that option)?

1

4.

Do I find myself swallowing retorts or biting back exclamations, or eating/drinking/smoking more than I know is good for me out of boredom or irritation?

1

5.

Do I enjoy some aspects of the tasks but truly dislike others?

2

6.

Do I sense that the task is essential and I’m glad to help even though it isn’t particularly rewarding for me?

2

7.

Do I list the benefits of or reasons for the task to help validate my need to keep doing it?

2

8.

Do I find the task interesting and stimulating even though the coworkers are energy neutral?

2

9.

Do I feel excited or even energized within minutes of beginning the task?

3

10.

Do I forget to look at my watch and can hardly believe how fast the time is flying by?

3

11.

Do I try to prolong working on that type of task, if at all possible?

3

12.

Do I find myself thinking about the next time I can work on a similar task, even before this one ends?

3

 

Total

 

Finally, answer the following set of Post-Encounter questions. For each question that you answer with a definite “yes,” circle the numerical value in the right hand column. Total the circled numbers in the value column when you have finished the second set.

Set III

Post-Task/Activity Questions

Value

1.

Do I wipe the proverbial sweat from my brow with relief that the task is finished?

1

2.

Do I go to bed early, or vegetate in front of the TV, or soak in the tub, because I’m so exhausted?

1

3.

Do I dread having to complete a similar task in the future?

1

4.

Do I wonder how I am going to jump-start my flagging energy so I can finish the task?

1

5.

Do I recall the task with a sense of neutrality (e.g., it wasn’t awful but it wasn’t great either)?

2

6.

Do I know how to do the task so well that I can think about something else (e.g., listen to books on tape or music) while I am working?

2

7.

Do I wish that others had been present to add some spice and variety, and then the task wouldn’t have seemed so boring?

2

8.

Do I applaud my choice to dig in and get the task finished because I recognize the benefits received by myself or others?

2

9.

Do I recall the task with pleasure, and with a sense of pride, accomplishment, or even nostalgia?

3

10.

Do I work on the task even when it isn’t absolutely required that I do so?

3

11.

Do I sense that I am more energetic overall than I was before beginning the task?

3

12.

Do I anticipate with pleasure getting to work on a similar task in the in the future?

3

 

Total

 

Transfer the totals for each set of questions to the following boxes.

Pre-Task

Intra-Task

Post-Task

 

Total ______

 

Total ______

 

Total ______

Explanation of scores:

Note your scores in each section.

  • A score between 0 and 4 in any section suggests that the task is an energy-drain to your brain.
  • A score between 5 and 8 in any section indicates that the task is probably energy neutral for your brain.
  • A score between 9 and 12 in any section indicates that the task is likely energy efficient for your brain. 

Add scores for all three columns for an overall score ______.

  • An overall score between 0 and 12. This suggests that the task is energy intensive for your brain. Is it a task that you must complete yourself, or do you have any option for delegating to someone for whom it would be at least energy neutral? If you need to continue completing that task, try to sandwich it between those that are energy neutral or energy efficient for your brain. If your entire job consists of energy-exhausting tasks, you may want to develop a game-plan that will enable you to move to another job where the majority of tasks match what your brain does easily. If that isn’t an option, you will need to get very centered about engaging in activities outside of work that match your brain’s innate giftedness. After all, you want to avoid shortening your potential longevity!
  • An overall score between 13 and 24. This indicates that the task is basically energy neutral. While it doesn’t drain your energy, it doesn’t boost it, either. Make conscious choices, whenever possible, about sandwiching the task between others that are easier for your brain to complete and more energy efficient.
  • A total score between 25 and 36. This is a strong indictor that the task is energy efficient for your brain. At times, working on the task may actually give you energy. You feel energized and affirmed. These are the types of tasks that you want to engage in the majority of the time (hopefully at least 51% of the time).

Q.  What is the benefit of using this tool?

The overall goal is to eventually achieve a match between the majority (at least 51%) of your job-related activities and your brain’s innate energy advantage. The outcome benefit is the opportunity to manage your energy by design.

If you recognize that there is a less-than-optimal match in your current job, ask yourself if there any way you can tweak some of the tasks to result in a better match with your brain’s energy advantage? Or could you collaborate with others to achieve a better match for each person’s brain.

If the answer to these questions is “yes,” however tentative, try it. If that attempt works, try another little tweak. You may be surprised at the latitude you have in many jobs to implement this strategy. Remember, your overall goal is to achieve a majority match between required tasks and what your brain does with energy efficiency.

This doesn’t mean you’ll ever have a job where you don’t have to work. That’s what employers pay for, work. But a 51% match is doable in many jobs. If at least 51% of the required tasks are energy efficient for your brain you may never want to retire. Just joking! Seriously, your work life can feel like forever if there isn’t a good match between who you are innately and the way in which your brain is forced to function. A mismatch is not a good recipe for achieving extreme excellence!

On the other hand, if the answer is a resounding “NO!” you may want to take steps toward an eventual job change. Sometimes that may mean following your bliss and finding a way to make money at it. Bernie Segal has been quoted as saying; don’t climb the ladder of success only to find it’s leaning against the wrong wall. That means you need to know your definition of “success.”

Recognizing that your current job is a mismatch with what your brain does energy-efficiently may be the impetus you need to take another look at your passion. It might even prompt you to create an internal picture of “your ideal job” and then either find a way to bring it into being. One of my favorite quotations along this line has been attributed to Vincent Van Gogh: Your profession is not what brings home your paycheck. Your profession is what you were put on earth to do with such passion and intensity that it becomes spiritual in calling.

Q.  Does this concept have implications for the workplace in general?

Studies have estimated that managers spend about 19% of their time on employee-related problems (up nearly 10% from a decade ago). This upward trend is cause for concern in the business community. “Time is money!” they say. Correction; energy is money!

The employee-problems often involve work that isn’t up to standard from the perspective of the manager or organization, or high rates of tardiness or absenteeism, or grouchiness, or too many breaks that often involve too much coffee with too many trips to the bathroom, or too little cooperation, or too much procrastination, or too many errors, or outright insubordination. You name it!

Many of these employee-problems relate to the fact that the required-work tasks are a less than desirable match with the employee’s own innate giftedness. The resulting energy drain actually underlies many of the so-called problems.

In general, the more that employees identify what activities match their own brain’s energy advantage, and the more that managers strive to place employees in positions where the majority of required tasks are a match with each employee’s energy advantages, the more the employees and the businesses will thrive.

Q.  How does this concept apply to public speaking?

Actually, it would probably be easier to ask “How does it NOT apply?” I love to share brain-function information with others: face-to-face, by DVDs, in print, or in seminar situations. Whether or not they agree with my brain’s perspective (and like fingerprints every brain is unique), my goal is to stimulate their thinking.

Because time is really the only truly unique gift that one person can give to another, I have a horror of wasting time. This means that in order to make the most of the time that seminar participants and readers give me I need to continually be honing my own “extreme excellence.”

Part of that involves living (role-modeling) the concepts I present. Part involves staying up-to-date with burgeoning brain-function research and finding innovative ways in which to practically apply the information. Part involves being enthusiastic about the topic and finding ways of transmitting some my enthusiasm to others. All of this utilizes energy! And as one speaker put it rather humorously, “If you don’t gots the energy you don’t gots the invites to speak!”

Q. Can figuring out how you expend your energy actually increase your likelihood of achieving extreme excellence?

Discovering who you really are and how you expend your energy is essential to success and to achieving extreme excellence. It is simple in concept but often complex in application. “Who Am I?” may be the quintessential question of all time. It’s certainly the question that only you can answer for yourself. It can take time for the internal chatter to quiet down. As someone once put it, in the silence of just being rather than doing, you can get to know yourself. When you can listen and hear what your brain offers, you can become the person you were designed to be and can learn to manage your energy by design.

Extreme ExcellenceManaging your energy by design is a concept that flies in the face of familiar expectations (spoken and often unspoken). It also involves your definition of success. Growing up, many were told that anything worth doing was worth doing well, no matter how hard you had to try. And, if you just tried hard enough and kept at it long enough you could become good at almost everything. Those beliefs aren’t holding up under the scrutiny of current brain-function research. Actually the reverse may be true.

There is a huge difference between having learned to do something well and doing it energy efficiently. It is the difference between the perception that you’re almost playing versus working very hard to accomplish a given task. If you invest large amounts of time and energy working on activities that are energy exhausting for your brain, average performance may be the best that you can achieve. On the other hand, if you invest the majority of your time and energy honing activities that are energy-efficient for your brain—for which it possesses an energy advantage—you can raise your performance from average to outstanding.

Learning to manage my energy expenditures by design has made a huge difference in my life and moved me closer to achieving extreme excellence. If I can learn to do this, anyone can!

 

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