What the Brain Wants

Emily and Paul are just trying to get some work done. But they don’t do it very well until they learn to understand their brains. Author David Rock uses their stories to illustrate how the brain works in the fascinating book “Your Brain at Work.”

To think and work effectively, it is important to understand the brain and be aware of our thought processes. In the first act of the book, the author uses a metaphor for what goes on in the brain. In this metaphor:

  • The Stage is our attention
  • The Actors are our thoughts
  • The Audience is the thoughts already in our brain

The Five Functions of Conscious Thought

  1. Understand: put new actors onstage and hold them long enough to see connections to audience.
  2. Decide: hold actors onstage and compare them to one another, making value judgments.
  3. Recall: bring audience members onstage to interact with actors. (it’s easier to get recent thoughts back onstage)
  4. Memorize: get actors offstage and into audience. (practice, practice, practice: go over connections frequently)
  5. Inhibit: keep actors offstage that aren’t contributing to the story.

All of these functions require a lot of resources. It is best to tackle these tasks at times when your energy levels are high, and to use strategies to focus, gain insight, eliminate distractions, and manage emotions. There is only room onstage for so many actors, so choose them wisely. (Yes, you are the director, as we learn in the intermission.)


To Focus: be aware of energy levels, and do tasks in the best order. This usually means doing important work first. Develop routines so attention reserves aren’t used up by non-essentials, and use that brainpower for more important thought.

To Gain Insight: add interest with some novelty, (but not too much) choose to be curious, know when to take a break, take a walk, change perspective, and use visuals.

To Manage Distractions: Novelty gets our attention, and the brain is easily distracted. (which is summed up beautifully in this clip from the movie “Adaptation.“) Distractions have a big energy cost, and vetoing distractions also takes energy. Practice braking by learning to veto impulses before they turn into action. Stop impulses so that distractions are kept off the stage before they get on it. Once they are on stage they like to stay there.

The Director

In the intermission part of the book, we learn about the director. Awareness: the ability to observe our own thought processes, is central to managing them.


Mind map of “Your Brain at Work” by David Rock created with mindmup. Click image to download.

The Brain is Social

After the intermission, we learn about five things that are powerful drivers in our social interactions. These are things that we want, and move toward. If we don’t get them, we feel pain and move away.

The SCARF model

  • Status-our relative position, confidence in our abilities
  • Certainty-the ability to predict what’s next
  • Autonomy-the ability to make choices
  • Relatedness-connection with others, belonging
  • Fairness-equal and just treatment

An increase in any of these is viewed as reward and desired. Loss of any of these is viewed as threat and avoided. To handle a loss of any of these, first label the emotion, then reappraise by looking at the situation from different perspectives. Handling threats is easier when you practice emotional awareness, reappraise, and have strong self-esteem. If you are tired or your attention is fragmented by many demands, it is harder to handle them.

To reappraise, ask: What’s going on with the other person? Are you interpreting the situation accurately? Are expectations realistic?

Reappraisal is the Killer App

  1. re-interpret (re-frame)
  2. normalize (for example, expect to experience stress when starting a new job)
  3. re-order (increase or decrease value placed)
  4. re-position (get a different perspective)

Things to do when working with others: start off with icebreakers to connect, be open and transparent about your goals, outline expectations upfront, make it visual, ask questions that will lead to insights, focus on solutions (rather than problems), use humor, use your strengths, play against yourself (rather than compete with others), take steps to correct unfairness like volunteering for a cause.

Knowing what the brain wants and how it works may be the best thing you’ve ever done for your productivity.

To learn more, read David Rock’s book and watch his TED Talk, Learning About the Brain Changes Everything.


I seek to create order from the chaos of complex information. Join me at the Daily PlanIt to gain insights, inspiration, and information to increase skills for a better life. I unlock the power of teaching reading with phonics in the pursuit of literacy at www.phonicspow.com. In my spare time I explore books and movies, often choosing titles available on both screen and page.

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