How can we make sure our good days outnumber our bad days?
A good day could be when our words and arguments are clear and concise, and every decision produces a great result. On our bad days we may feel overwhelmed and unable to think straight, or we are so distracted by surfing the net, yet another coffee, or just chatting that by knock-off time we wonder if we achieved anything at all.
Hilary Scarlett recently wrote for Training Zone on how we might tip the scales in our favour. At a time when we are concerned about mental and emotional wellbeing, neuroscience provides some insights and some practical steps we can take to get our brains to focus when we need them to.
For more than 100 years, neuroscientists have known that there is an optimal level of stimulation: too much or too little reduces our ability to perform a task well. Stress itself is not bad for us. It can be a great motivator. But we do need to find the right balance between the challenge before us, and our ability and confidence to tackle it.
The part of the brain associated with decision-making, analytical thinking and emotional control is the prefrontal cortex, or PFC. Some refer to the PFC as the Goldilocks of the brain: the chemical balance has to be just right for us to be able to work at our best. Neuroscientist Amy Arnsten has found that this chemical balance changes with the level of arousal we are facing.
Unfortunately we have created work environments where people are frequently under relentless stress, and the chemicals in our brains are rarely in perfect balance. The response to some of our stresses can be more damaging than the original stressor itself.
Getting our brains back on track
There are many insights, hints and suggestions from the fields of neuroscience, behavioural science and psychology about how we can help get our brains back on track.
Neuroscientist Dr Josh Davies suggests that we should aim for two great hours a day – that’s probably all we have. Sounds scary, but the point is that we can’t be great all day long so we need to plan our days accordingly.
Make a list of priorities for the day. This provides some certainty for the day, and that’s good for the brain. By writing them down it also gets the information out of our working memory and onto the page – reducing overload on the brain. Then, during the course of the day, when colleagues ask us to get involved in other things, we can make better judgements about if, when and how to get involved.
2. Don’t answer all your emails first thing
All decision making is mentally taxing. Answering emails can feel good because it seems like we are achieving something but it leaves us with less mental energy for other tasks. Identify the important emails and deal with them, but don’t get sucked into responding to all emails automatically. Save some of that mental energy.
3. Carve out thinking time
The workplace is full of distractions. Open-plan offices, emails pinging up, mobile phones constantly on. So, if you really need to concentrate, block out time in your diary, ask colleagues to leave you in peace for a couple of hours, turn email and your phone off and find somewhere quiet to work.
4. Understand your brain better
Learn a little about how the brain is set up, what helps and what hinders it from working at its best. You will be better equipped to choose how to respond to the difficulties work throws at you – whether you see them as a threat (which impedes your ability to think, innovate and collaborate) or a challenge.
5. Go for a walk
Exercise is good for the body and for the brain. Even a small amount of exercise can help you think better and reduce anxiety.
So give yourself a break – you can’t be great all day, every day. We have limited mental energy each day at work – plan how best to use yours.