It’s time for Positive Business

Trends – The new American movement explained by guru John Medina

Say goodbye to stress and welcome a new atmosphere in your company. Perhaps open 24/7, allowing a certain freedom of schedule. And where meeting rooms are filled with treadmills to always stay on the move.

John MedinaCurrent global recession magnifies the causes of “catastrophic” stress both for managers and entrepreneurs and for employees. However, companies can take some initiatives to buck this negative trend, starting from innovations based on the thorough comprehension of how our brain actually works.

That’s exactly what John Medina thinks. One of the greatest researchers in this field and molecular biologist, he teaches bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine and he is the director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University. He has authored several books, including bestseller Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Medina will be in Milan next March to take part in the Positive Business Forum (organized by Marco Masella, founder of Scuola di Palo Alto, and his partner Enrico Banchi), where he will speak about «Neuroscience of Physical Exercise, Multitasking and Sleep».

From his study in Seattle, Medina illustrates us some unconventional methods he would put into practice to increase business productivity and to help companies to come out of the crisis. For example, placing PCs or laptops on a treadmill in order to work while walking; replacing meeting rooms with sports halls where it’s possible to do some aerobics; and keeping offices open 24/7 to allow managers and employees to work at their own pace.

“Global recession strains companies and their organization.
But it offers great opportunities to those who are really willing to change.”

Question. First of all, can you explain us what you mean by “positive business”?
It’s a school of thought which aims at creating a working environment where people are more productive. Research shows that employees who receive well deserved acknowledgments for their merits are happier and therefore they work more and better. On the other hand, individuals who are too stressed have difficulties in accomplishing their tasks and fall sick easily, thus raising corporate expenses.

Q. When is stress too much?
A bit of pressure is exciting and therefore it’s a good thing. On the contrary, it becomes harmful when you feel you’ve lost control over the seriousness and frequency of the negative elements overwhelming you. For example, you are a manager and you have to accomplish a task with a limited budget; you perfectly know the money at your disposal isn’t enough to succeed, but you also know you’ll be judged upon your results and you would be fired if you failed. Well, you’re not in control of the situation anymore and anxiety overwhelms you. This kind of stress harms the brain and leads to various mental disorders, including depression.

Q. That is something more and more common, especially in these times of crisis…
Yes, indeed. I think of it when I read about the Eurozone crisis and the austerity measures taken by European governments to overcome it. I don’t know whether those measures will work or not. However, they sure cause trouble, for example, to companies operating in the public sector which are not receiving adequate money by the government anymore. I’ve been reading about many suicides of entrepreneurs happening in Italy and in other European countries. I understand those people, because it must be awful not being able to pay salaries at the end of each month when you know your employees have a family to maintain. Depression undermines three brain functions which are crucial for our daily life and above all for those who work in the business world.

Q. Which ones?
Problem solving or the so-called “fluid intelligence”; memory; and the ability to focus on something, that is the brain executive function. A depressed manager sits at his desk for hours without being able to really accomplish anything: he will soon become the shadow of his former self.

Q. Can we use the new findings of Neuroscience to counter these tendencies?
Of course, yes. For example, we know that the brain executive function is raised by 20-100% (according to different lab studies) when we do physical exercise, like walking or running. Next March in Milan, I will suggest to take out desks and chairs from the offices and start working while walking on treadmills. It’s a “magical” solution to lower depression rates – as well as overweight and obesity rates – of managers and employees.

Q. Have you got other suggestions?
We should abolish conference rooms and replace them with sports halls to get some exercise: after a 40-minute intense workout, our brain performs at its highest potential for two hours. Therefore, if you have to solve an extremely difficult problem, instead of having a meeting, it’s better to sweat and try to tackle it after a quick shower.

Q. But don’t you feel exhausted after a 40-minute run?
No, if you are well-trained. Our brain evolved when we were walking 20 kilometers a day, every single day.

“E-mails and cell phones are a real trap during meetings: switching continuously from one thing to another lowers our attention and multiplies mistakes.”

Q. Can our brain do many different things at the same time?
It depends. While we talk, our brain is also able to regulate our heartbeat and breathing. But if you’re attending a meeting, you can’t simultaneously pay attention to the speaker and check your e-mails on your BlackBerry. If you do it, not only you are rude, but also unproductive. As a matter of fact, our brain can give its attention to just one thing at a time, otherwise we would be able to read contemporaneously two pages of the same book, the first with our right eye and the second with the left one. Those who pretend to listen to the speaker and check their e-mail at the same time continuously switch their attention between the two things; however, they don’t know that it takes something between 100 and 700 milliseconds to refocus and during this gap it’s like they were blind and deaf. As the experiments show, constant switching doubles the time needed to accomplish a task and increases the chances of making mistakes by 50%.

Q. Which is the alternative?
I suggest to try to disconnect the phone, to avoid Internet and not to attend any meeting for a couple of hours a day in order to have more time to accomplish the most important tasks. I believe this practice could make us more productive and less anxious.

Q. And what about sleep?
Scientific research shows that each of us is genetically predisposed to being (a) an early riser; (b) a night owl; or (c) something between these two opposites. 20% of people, if they could, would get up at 6:30 AM and would go to bed around 9:30 PM. Another 20% would stay up until 3 in the morning and then would sleep until 11 AM. The remaining 60% have preferences in-between. Obviously, individuals belonging to the first group are more productive in the morning, while night owls are more prolific during the evening. It’d be great if companies could form teams of managers and employees sharing the same tendencies and let them work together when they are all more productive. Otherwise, those who prefer to work during the night will never have the opportunity to sleep when they need it and they will always feel tired.

By Maria Teresa Cometto


1)             EXERCISE – Physical exercise boosts brain power.
2)             SURVIVAL – The human brain evolved, too.
3)             WIRING – Every brain is wired differently.
4)             ATTENTION – We don’t pay attention to boring things.
5)             SHORT-TERM MEMORY – Repeat to remember.
6)             LONG-TERM MEMORY – Remember to repeat.
7)             SLEEP – Sleep well, think well.
8)             STRESS – Stressed brains don’t learn the same way as non-stressed brains.
9)             SENSORY INTEGRATION – Stimulate more of the senses.
10)           VISION – Vision trumps all other senses.
11)           GENDER – Male and female brains are different.
12)           EXPLORATION – We are powerful and natural explorers.

For more information:

John Medina, molecular biologist, teaches at the universities of Washington and Seattle.

Translation of the article “È Tempo di Positive Business” published on the weekly magazine Il Mondo - November 9th, 2012

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