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David Rock: Your Brain at Work — Google Talk

“I think that the leadership at Google has an intuitive understanding
of human nature, and the way attention is a limited resource.”

—David Rock.


When it comes to creating positive organizational cultures, small things may count more than we realize.

This talk is a summary of David’s Book: Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long.

David’s visit to the Google campus led to some interesting discoveries.

Some of their more quirky ideas, while being sometimes laughed about in the media, are actually based in science. Here’s what I came to discover on my tour of the Googleplex.

Google also organizes their environment around making fewer decisions.

The formula at Club Med is to include pretty much everything in the price, activities, food, even drinks, giving you fewer decisions to make. Now I know the research on decision making, and how making any conscious decision uses a measurable amount of glucose, but I wasn’t prepared for how relaxing it was not having to think anywhere near as much, even about simple things. It turned out to be a remarkably restful holiday.

When you work at google, you get to save your limited mental resoures for the most important decisions. As Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt said, “Let’s face it: programmers want to program, they don’t want to do their laundry. So we make it easy for them to do both.”

…Other companies could do well to do the same, noticing what their employees end up wasting their attention on, and doing something about it. It’s sure making me rethink my own company’s benefits policies.

…as well as minimizing distractions and respecting attention, Google does other things to help it’s people be more productive, in particular being more productive at complex problem solving.

On the value of being happy at work

There is some very good research showing that people experiencing happy emotions solve more problems, especially ones that require non-linear thinking. Mark Beeman has done some great research on the brain around this, showing ‘positive mood alters preparatory activity in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, biasing participants to engage in processing conducive to insight solving. This result suggests that positive mood enhances insight, at least in part, by modulating attention and cognitive control mechanisms via ACC, perhaps enhancing sensitivity to detect non-prepotent solution candidates.’

In other words, when you are happy, you are more able to notice subtle signals, the tickle at the back of your mind with a possible solution to a problem. At Google I noticed this first hand: During my talk I gave the group a puzzle I’ve given to several thousand other smart people, at some of the leading investment banks and other top firms around the US. Normally I may get at best one person out of 100 solve this puzzle. It’s an insight puzzle that requires flexible thinking. At Google, they answered all the puzzles as fast as I could read them out, with many in the group calling out the answers.