Sue France explains how to take control of your brain and do whatever you put your mind to

Your thoughts lead to your behaviour and actions, producing your outcomes and results. It is important to remember that you need to train your brain because if you don’t, your brain will be trained by everyone around you!


Resilience is the armour you need in today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. Try my ‘silver bucket’ exercise to find out what drains your brain and stops you from feeling resilient. Find out what habits and rituals you can do to fill your ‘silver bucket’ of resilience up so you can be productive, engaged and super-efficient.

The Silver Bucket Exercise

Imagine you have a large silver bucket. Make a list of everything that helps you feel resilient, both at work and personally (e.g., having a one-to-one with your executive every day or getting enough sleep). Add them to the bucket: the fuller the bucket, the more resilient you are.

Then imagine you have some holes in the bottom of your bucket. List everything that drains you from feeling resilient, such as stress, working with difficult people, and email overload. These items are the holes in your bucket that drain you of your resilience.

If you can prevent your resilience from leaking out of the holes at the bottom of the bucket by creating ways to (e.g.) manage stress and keep filling your silver bucket with things that build your resilience, you will be able to tackle and cope with anything and stay motivated and energised. Remember, the more things you have to deal with and overcome, the more resilient you will become.


Your brain takes in lots of information at any one time, both consciously and subconsciously. You then use filters through which this information passes. The filters come from your experience, upbringing, education, culture and even your mood. You also delete, distort and generalise information and make assumptions. And you have filters of whether you prefer to process your world visually, auditorily or kinaesthetically (feelings based).

You filter information because your brain can only cope with approximately four things at any one time. Once the information has been filtered, you get the results of your thinking, then your behaviour happens. Because there are so many variations to our filters, we experience the same event in different ways, which can cause miscommunication and misunderstanding.


Further to the point above, learn to look at things by looking at them from a different angle, by putting yourself into someone else’s shoes, remembering to understand their feelings and never minimize them – you don’t have to agree with them but understand from their point of view.

Considering different points of view will help you to avoid miscommunication and find innovative ways to tackle challenges and have a better understanding of others. Spending

time with people you wouldn’t normally mix with will give you an insight into other perspectives on situations. Ask more questions and actively listen to what others have to say, as this will not only broaden your outlook but will help you build relationships as well.


When we are using our thinking brain (pre-frontal cortex, located just behind the forehead), which is our conscious mind (sometimes known as our ‘executive’ brain), we can only focus on one thing at a time. When we think we are multi-tasking, we are actually switching from one task to another. When we overdo this, we can sometimes feel overwhelmed.

We can only multi-task when we use our conscious and subconscious brain at the same time – for example, walking and talking. We use our subconscious mind (where our habits and ritual reside) to do the walking and our conscious mind (pre-frontal cortex) to do the talking. We need to focus on one thing at a time when using our ‘thinking’ brain in order to get things done on a timely basis in an accurate and attentive manner. If we are feeling overwhelmed due to too many things going on at once, we cannot focus, think or be proactive. One way to overcome overwhelm is to do a mindfulness exercise to reboot your brain which allows you to focus again.

Take Regular Breaks

Our ‘executive’ thinking brains cannot work all the time without taking breaks. If you are working on something that needs focus and your full attention, then the ideal maximum amount of time to spend on that would be up to 25 minutes. Then take a break and reboot your brain before starting on that task again. A break could mean taking a walk to the coffee machine and getting a drink or doing a menial task that needs little thought or something where you just use your habits. So, if you have a huge job to tackle, chunk it down into 25-minute slots. The brain takes 20% of your energy intake and your pre-frontal cortex requires more energy than your subconscious mind. Once that is spent you are then simply working on your habits and rituals via your subconscious mind.

Be Aware of the “Amygdala Hijack”

Our brains are naturally negative. This has kept us alive from the days when we lived in caves and had to keep a lookout for dangerous animals and predators. Today we are more likely to look out for aggression or something that we feel is a threat to us, whether it is real or perceived.

You have to train your brain to shift its focus: look for the positives and focus on them. You get more of what you focus on. If you can’t shift your focus to positivity, then you will get stuck in negativity. As soon as you allow your brain to focus on the negatives, then you will have an amygdala hijack. This is where your amygdala, located in the limbic system – the emotional part of your brain – takes over. The four reactions are fight, flight, freeze or flock (i.e., discuss with friends). An amygdala hijack prevents the logical, rational, thinking part of our brain from working properly.

One way to tackle an amygdala hijack is to realise when a negative thought comes to your mind, and then reframe it from negative to positive.

For example:

  • If you are thinking of something that makes you feel nervous, then reframe it to feeling excited.
  • If you are thinking of something that makes you feel anxious, then reframe it to feeling curious.
  • If you are feeling tense, change it to feeling alert.
  • If you feel humiliated, change it to feeling uncomfortable.
  • If you think you have a problem, look at it as an opportunity.

Simple changes to your language can change the way you feel and prevent the amygdala hijack from taking hold. This allows you to use your rational thinking brain again. You can also change the way you communicate with others in order to prevent an amygdala hijack in them, which will also change the outcome.


Use all three brains

We all have neurons in our gut – as many as a cat has in its brain! If you believe a cat can think, then so can your gut. We often say, “I have a gut feeling that…”

We also have neurons in our hearts, and we often say, “My mind is saying this, and my heart is saying this…” So, when your mind is clear, your gut is happy and your heart is honest, and you align your mind, your heart and your gut, you will be making the wisest decisions.

Avoid decision fatigue

When you have too many small decisions to make, you can feel overwhelmed. It is better to keep your brainpower for the bigger and more difficult decisions. One way to prevent decision fatigue is to automate as many decisions as you can before the time comes for you to take action. An example could be to pick out your clothes in the evening ready for the next day, so you can start the day off easier. You could help your executive by making decisions for them.

For example, instead of asking your executive which restaurant they want you to book for their client’s lunch, suggest a restaurant to your executive by researching the client’s preferred type of food or restaurants. You can create daily routines and habits to help prevent you both from having to make too many decisions.

Barack Obama said, “I wear only grey or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing because I have too many other decisions to make.”

Cognitive Biases

There are over 150 known cognitive biases. These are shortcuts our brains make, as it wants to save energy in preparation for keeping us safe and getting ready for the fight, flight, freeze, flock scenario. We often notice cognitive biases in others but hardly ever notice them within ourselves.

Try to be consciously aware of your cognitive biases and how they affect your thinking and your decision-making. For example, the similarity bias – this is particularly relevant when hiring people. We all prefer someone who is like us. So, if the candidate went to the same school or university or lives near you or you find something in common, you may find this unconscious bias creeping into your decision-making of who to hire.

Another cognitive bias example is confirmation bias, where our brains look for things to prove we are right. We cherry-pick information. We need to be aware of this, as we may be discarding information or distorting information to fit our beliefs and values.

Understanding the distance bias (out of sight, out of mind) is important, especially when many people are hybrid working. Make sure you keep in contact more when working from home than you would when working together in the office.

Some biases can work for you when you understand them. One that I teach in negotiation as a priming tactic is the anchoring bias. This is when people can depend too much on the first number mentioned rather than looking at a number of different options. Remember, though, people may ‘anchor’ you too.

Get to understand the way you process information and realise your brain may make mistakes. Consider this when interacting with others, especially when forming opinions and making decisions.

Reticular Activating System

We all have a Reticular Activating System (RAS) in our brains. It looks for things that you deem to be important for you. It acts like the ‘gatekeeper’ or ‘gateway’ to your brain just like an Assistant does for their executive. The RAS is where all your senses enter your brain; the RAS filters the information and connects the subconscious part of your brain to the conscious part of your brain.

You can use the RAS to help you achieve your goals. If you use the word ‘intend’, it makes your RAS work harder for you in looking for what you want. It filters out what can help you with your intention and it brings that from your subconscious mind into your conscious mind. You will start to see, hear and understand what will help you get to your intention – your goal.

Remember to look for what you want and not what you don’t want. If you are saying to yourself, “I don’t want to…”, then your RAS will be looking for what it is that you don’t want, which is counterproductive. So be intentional about what you do want, and your subconscious mind will be working for you as much as your conscious mind to help you reach your goals.

The Left and Right Brain Myth

Know you can do whatever you put your mind to. Many trainers, courses and books still state the myth that people are either right-brained (creative) or left-brained (logical), but the brain is much more complicated than that. Yes, we do have two hemispheres in our brains, and it is true that the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body, and the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body. However, decades of research by neuroscientists using fMRI brain scanners have shown that we are whole-brain thinkers, with neurons working and communicating together in sync from different parts of the brain.

For example, the left hemisphere specializes in picking out sounds that form words whereas the right hemisphere tunes into the rhythms and intonation of speech. So, if you are saying to yourself, “I am mainly left-brained, as I am logical and love analysing, etc.” or “I am mainly right-brained, so I am only creative and artistic” – know and understand you simply need to train and educate yourself to do those things that are not coming so naturally and know that you can learn and get better at them.


Understanding and taking control of your brain, together with the fact that we all have neuroplasticity (i.e., our brains change and grow until the day we die), means you can do whatever you put your mind to and have continual growth and development.

Use your brain intelligently and help it to be your best and wisest friend.

Sue France FCIPD/INLPTA is passionate about the development of all Assistants, having been one for over 30 years. She has owned her own training company since 2009 working in over 36 countries with thousands of assistants, both face-to-face and virtually ... (Read More)

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