While We All Work From Home, Cozy Up to Cognitive Capacity


As children, many of us were counseled to treat “work before play” as a sacred mantra. While the advice was well intentioned, neuroscience makes a compelling case for rethinking the order of operations. “Happiness,” advises Emma Seppälä, Ph.D., in The Happiness Track, “is not the outcome of success, but its precursor.”

Perhaps, then, we should take a cue from Scandinavia, home to the world’s happiest countries. Despite working around 360 fewer annual hours than Americans, employees in Scandanivian countries generate a higher annual GDP, per capita, than the U.S.

Could it be that these dual achievements of happiness and productivity flow from a common Scandi wellspring? As living organisms, our brains are subject to natural biological limits that significantly benefit from frequent, mindful breaks—something Scandinavian culture excels at nurturing—in order to maximize attentional resources. Leaders can use this insight to develop smarter, more effective policies for their teams.

A recipe for effective capacity

Though literally translating to “coffee,” the Swedish tradition of fika is less about caffeine, and more about taking time, every day, to pause, contemplate, and recharge. The Danish-inspired institution of hygge, similarly, is less about warm cocoa and snuggly blankets, and more about consciousness, connection, and presence.

These shared norms amount to much more than cozy, cultural niceties. A growing body of research reveals that these and other similar practices can reduce stress and unlock your full capacity for productivity and innovation.

Frequent breaks have been shown to improve focus and performance. Mindfulness can reduce anxiety and depression. Fewer work hours can heighten productivity. And, as examined by the NeuroLeadership Institute, quiet moments, coupled with inward reflection, positivity, and distance from your challenges can enable lasting insights—those inspiring “Aha!” moments critical to long-term organizational success.

The NeuroLeadership Institute has also extensively studied cognitive capacity and its significance in the age of information overload. The research clearly suggests that thinking, problem-solving, learning, and communication are all powerfully impacted by active management of the brain’s processors, particularly the energy-hungry prefrontal cortex.

Active strategies for restful moments

Given the significance of cognitive capacity—not to mention our newfound global push for remote and virtual work—business leaders would do well to get cozy with an increasing number of strategies to help protect this precious resource. Even if your company is not quite ready to institute shorter work weeks, here’s a few ideas to get you started:

  • Schedule frequent breaks and actually follow through (ditto for vacations)
  • Institute “speedy meetings” and put Parkinson’s Law to work—while you relax
  • Provide options for flexible and remote work approaches
  • Practice optimal inclusion to decrease inefficiency and conserve others’ time
  • Unplug completely at day’s end to decrease stress after hours
  • Leverage technology to work more efficiently
  • Carve out quiet reflection time at the end of team meetings

It may feel unnatural at first, but avoid the temptation to equate overtime with overachievement. While “work before play” may be in need of a rethink, “less is more” definitely deserves its day in the sun.


Author: Kyle Olsen