Thinking requires energy. Yet most of us waste our valuable thinking capacity and work less productively than we could do as a result. More than ever in our work we are being paid to think rather than just doing routine tasks. Yet making complex decisions and solving new problems is challenging for any stretch of time because of our brain’s biological limits. Limits that we are feeding more and more through our inability to control distractions and information overload. This has become even worse sometimes the more we work from home or are moving to a hybrid mix.
A typical Monday morning should mean waking up hopefully rested after the weekend and ready to face the day. Yet most of us will face the day, whether at home or in the office, by working through email first thing, rushing through a breakfast that may or may not be unhealthy, planning our day (perhaps but by no means a given) and looking at our to-do list before yet more email, news, social media and more and more information floods our brain. In term of mental health, this is actually really unhealthy and so bad for us.
We feel overwhelmed before we have even begun the day and that is especially the case if we start off with the news. We need to understand better how our amazing brain operates to work more smoothly, productively and efficiently. Every day we experience a constant massive and overwhelming volume of work and information. Every day.
As those tons of emails download, understand and know that this will awash your brain with anxiety. You then need to control the impulse to react and reply to them all knowing that first thing in the morning it’s going to be far better for you to focus on planning and conceptualising your day. You need to know and understand that constantly switching from texting to voicemail to email and social media actually depletes your brain of vital resources it needs to work well. There are biological limits that underlie mental performance and we all need to develop more brain-smart approaches to this everyday stuff. Emailing is attention-rich for your brain and is actually not the best way to start the day, however tempting!
So how about a different way to approach each day?
Eat – The way you begin your day sets you up for the rest of the day. Even after just a few mental activities you may have depleted your brain of the resources it needs to prioritise effectively. And prioritisation is the key to a productive day. Creating visuals for complex ideas is one way to maximise limited energy resources. It means getting stuff and ideas out of your head and onto paper – the four big projects of your day. If you get them out of your mind and onto paper you can start comparing them and scheduling them. It means scheduling the most attention-rich tasks when you have a fresh and alert mind. But start the day off right first – get up slowly, savour your shower, stretch your body, feed it with a nutrient rich breakfast, spend time with family or loved ones or being mindful. Then prioritise.
Think – Become more aware of your own mental energy needs and schedule your time accordingly. Experiment with different timings and see what happens. One way might be to break work up into blocks of time based on type of brain use, rather than topic. For example, if you have to do some creative writing, proposal writing or creating a presentation for several different projects, which require a fresh, clear mind you might do all of this on a Monday morning. We don’t tend to do this – we tend to work on one project at a time responding to issues as they arise, sometimes thinking at a high abstract level and sometimes at a more detailed level all the while multi-tasking and switching around a lot. But deep thinking requires more effort so it is better to plan to do this all in one block – perhaps early in the morning or late at night depending on what works best for you.
Work – when you are working on something, focus and work on that. You’ll be amazed how much you can accomplish simply by training yourself to work in 90 minute bursts and then have a short break. Simply by turning off email and other distractions whilst working. To start, schedule times when you deal with email rather than it being on constantly. “Always on” is not the most productive way to work because your brain is being forced to stay on ‘alert’ too much. Even though this is already well-known, most of the people I coach continue to stretch themselves to do more at the same time even though there are no benefits to this other than stress and overload. The surprise result of being “always on” is that not only do you get a negative effect on mental performance, it tends to actually increase the amount emails and interruptions you get – people notice that you respond quickly so they’ll give you more to respond to!
Most of all, this is about conserving ENERGY and WELLBEING – both of these are crucial for working effectively during times of uncertainty. The last thing we need is to push anxiety levels through unhealthy ways of working….