Here’s How to Work Better from Home
By David Labno
By now, you’ve probably read dozens of articles on the best ways to work at home during a global pandemic. This one takes a different approach as it focuses on your own neuroscience-based personality traits.
Let’s start by comparing the incredible amount of neurodiversity in personality to the incredible amount of physical diversity between people. Most people have some characteristics in common: two legs, arms, eyes, a nose and so on. But even with these almost universal similarities between every person in every country of the world, there is much diversity in size, shape, build, and other details. You can easily see vast differences between people in general and even among siblings. The basic biological building blocks of personality are also universal and similarly, there is an enormous amount of individual variation when it comes to individual personalities.
Why should you care? Not everyone works the same way and when you know more about how your brain works, how you are wired and your deeper neurobiological motivations, you can take actions that will help you be happier and more productive in this tough time.
What’s the research behind this? In 2005, our co-founder, biological anthropologist and TED All-Star Dr. Helen Fisher looked at forty years of medical research in genetics, brain physiology, pharmaceutical studies, gender change and other research to determine if there was a link between any personality trait and any brain system. What she found was interesting in its simplicity. The personality traits clustered into constellations of behavior that connected to a brain system. And there were only four systems identified in hundreds and hundreds of studies. You might expect more but sometimes nature is simple – even DNA of every living thing on earth is constructed of only four proteins.
Dr. Fisher set out to design a new personality inventory based on her discovery – an inventory that would measure the degree to which you express the traits associated with each of the four brain systems found in her study. She was able to collect hundreds of thousands of responses in the first few months, refining the inventory so that she was able to make the inventory reliable and valid from a statistical perspective very quickly – and it matched what her discovery in the literature suggested. Later, along with colleagues, she gave people the inventory and put them in an fMRI scanner at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Her team was able to see physical results which confirmed what she found in her questionnaire. This info was published in the prestigious PLOS One journal. Since 2005, over 16 million people have taken her inventory and there have been over 1000 additional biological studies that include personality traits and they continue to confirm Dr. Fisher’s initial findings.
The Brain Systems
Let’s get to the brain systems! I’ll briefly discuss each brain system from the perspective of someone who strongly agrees with the traits associated with that system. I’ll also talk about a few things you can do if you also strongly agree with this system to be happier and more productive in this difficult time. It’s interesting and important to note that each of these brain systems is present in each of us to differing degrees, just as we have two arms, two legs and a mouth that look somewhat different. One person may strongly agree with the traits associated with a brain system and another person may strongly disagree with traits associated with that very same system – and disagreeing with traits associated with the system can say as much as agreeing when it comes to your personality. The intensity of traits in each of four systems combine together to make us who we are. Even if you have not yet completed the NeuroColor inventory, the following descriptors will likely make intuitive sense.
The purpose of this brain system from a bio-anthropological perspective as it relates to personality seems to be process and stability. Some of the traits associated with this system are: conscientiousness, calm, cautious (but not fearful), concrete, detail-oriented, loyal, measured, modest, precise, patient, prepared. Those who strongly agree with the traits are often thorough, like routines, schedules and the familiar, value tradition and social norms and typically are comfortable with rules and procedures.
Stress Solutions for serotonin-linked traits. When you are working from home in a time of crisis, planning, preparing and routine for your day may be different from those in the office but still necessary to maintain calm and produce consistent results. Without this structure and planning, for someone who strongly agrees with traits associated with the serotonin system, the stress can slow progress towards work goals and spill over into your personal life. Some requirements change when you’re at home but you can plan for these new requirements like checking in on your kids’ online learning, walking the dog and exercise at a new time. Find ways to do as many of the old routines and things you did previously, including time with your co-workers at breaks or lunch.
At the end of your workday, plan time to review your accomplishments, look for ways to further optimize your effectiveness going forward and plan for the next day. Additionally, take a walk or do something repetitive like knitting, yoga, prayer, woodworking or meditation. These boost serotonin and promote calm in the brain. Your approach can provide process and stability to others during this time as well, and the uncomfortable and uncertain disruption can allow you to build new processes for dealing with challenge in the future. If you disagree with many of the traits in this system like me, this section may still be helpful to you because boosting serotonin levels can be great for your mood. I’m not particularly calm or cautious in my daily life, but find that exercise like biking and short bursts of detailed activity are great for my mood and a welcome break from my regular approach.
From the personality perspective, this brain system seems to focus on opportunity and change. Some of the traits related to dopamine include energetic and restless; spontaneous and impulsive; risk-taking; curiosity; varied interests; optimistic; and enthusiastic. Those who strongly agree with the traits often like physical or mental exploration, crave variety, flexibility, are novelty seeking, have lots of ideas, seek out experiences and adventures, and are future- and possibility-oriented.
Stress Solutions for dopamine-related traits. At first, working from home in a crisis time might be different and exciting. Later, when you’re confined and unable to explore and be as spontaneous and adventurous as you normally would be, this could seem like a real drag. So, you’ll need to bring the excitement and possibilities home. Seek out and explore new ideas and possibilities from home. Take breaks to go outside, spontaneously work on something you’ve been putting off, do something fun and novel with others in your house. Cook something you’ve never tried, learn a new skill on YouTube. (I just learned how to sharpen a lawn mower blade and how to tap my maple trees to make homemade syrup.)
During work hours, make sure you still have methods of ideating and exploring new ideas with co-workers. Being away from work where opportunities come to you could be stagnating, so this is a great time to change, re-invent and make a new future. Be sure to set aside time to discuss and plan what will happen in the next few weeks and after the crisis ends. How might your company or personal life change for the better and be more successful in this period? The old saying is, “Necessity is the mother of invention” and if you strongly agree with traits in the dopamine system, you are a person who can contribute something new and novel in this challenging time. Even if you disagree with many of the traits in this system, this section can be helpful because trying something new and uncomfortable boosts dopamine and leads to positive change and can feel energizing.
Typically thought of as a gender hormone, testosterone is present in every person and in the area of personality, it seems to focus on results and systemizing. There are some very different traits associated with the testosterone system and we sometimes see people who display strong agreement with one and not much of another testosterone trait. Some traits associated with the system are: bold, decisive, confident and ambitious, debating, competitive and skeptical, focused on results over rules, have a deep and narrow focus on topics of interest, analytical – breaking down systems into objective parts and categorizations – especially in STEM-type roles.
Stress Solutions for testosterone-related traits. Working from home can be inefficient and require extra planning, patience and time to connect with colleagues. That slows things down, creates roadblocks and can lead to significant stress. New systems must be created to deal with the inefficiencies. To be successful, be prepared for interruptions you don’t normally have and yet, make sure you don’t run over anyone at home or in your virtual interactions. Some people are better at dealing with and accepting this approach than others and it is easy to forget this when you are working remotely. Make sure you set a few goals for your day to focus on and plan in the inevitable inefficiency that will occur. Identify and work around as many inefficiencies as possible now so you don’t need to worry about them as the weeks continue. Make sure to take time to exercise or find other ways to balance your energy on a daily basis.
Like testosterone, most people associate the estrogen system with gender, but this isn’t accurate. Everyone has some degree of estrogen present. Some of the traits associated with this system are compassion; diplomacy; inclusive and intuitive; trusting; and harmonious. Those who strongly agree with the traits often easily relate to others feelings, are good at reading body language, imaginative, want to know the context, read deeper meanings into situations, comments and behaviors and emotions linger.
Stress Solutions for estrogen-related traits. Separation from the personal connections at your workplace can be one of the most difficult parts of remote work. Looking someone in the eye, reading their full body language and fully listening are important to those who strongly agree with these traits and it’s hard to do that when you aren’t in the same physical space. It’s more challenging to determine what people are thinking and to generally sense the mood of the workplace. If you are working alone, you may need to take time to connect with colleagues you know and trust at a personal level. If others are in your home, your children or partner can be important sources of connection. Be sure to interact with those normally in your life in a one-on-one level instead of relying on social media posts which tell only the surface story. Helping others through listening, connecting or in caring activities like making a meal for someone helps both you and them. Additionally, be sure to escape with a fictional book, favorite TV series or through writing as imagination and separation from the negative media can be particularly useful.
Remember that nobody possesses just of one of the four brain systems—we all possess a combination of all of them. This will be a factor as you find the stress solutions that work best for you. Make sure to think through your life now and how you can use this information to improve your work tomorrow and over the next few weeks. And most importantly share this information with others and think about their approach and preferences. These changes may seem small, but as in sports, we know that even a small change can alter the result and create a better outcome!