One of the joys of a holiday for me is noticing that my brain is less “busy”. It’s easier to be fully involved in an activity or enjoy time with another person without a million and one thoughts competing for attention and memory space. Now that most of us are transitioning back to work and daily life, the strain on our brains is picking up again.
We thought it a good time, therefore, to highlight some of the strategies we can use to reduce this strain as the pace of our days ramps up.
Use a notebook.Write down anything that doesn’t need to be in your brain. Daniel Levitin describes this as brain or cognitive “outsourcing”, helping your brain with tools rather than expecting it to manage everything. If you are someone with a particularly busy brain, you may find you need multiple notebooks – for different parts of your life or different priorities at work. Or you may find a notebook with dividers useful.
Should you be a person who is highly tech savvy, you may shun the idea of paper and pen, preferring instead to make use of a clever app. Although whatever works for you is OK, there is some research to show that the act of longhand writing helps improve brain development and memory.
Reduce routine decision-making. See if you can reduce the volume of decisions you make in a day (given that every decision acts as a cognitive drain, sucking up some of the limited brain capacity we have available). Barack Obama made this strategy famous when he explained it was why he wore the same clothes every day. You could try this too―reduce the number of choices you need to make choosing lunch, for example, or which bus to catch to work. Planning ahead is another way of reducing your daily number of choices.
Do one thing at a time. There is a weight of research to show that trying to multi-task requires more energy and therefore depletes our cognitive resources more quickly. Switching between tasks for periods of time is all fine, just not trying to do multiple tasks at the same time.
Prioritise and experimentwith different forms of mental recovery – what works best for you to reboot your brain during or at the end of your work day? Is exercise or some form of being active most effective? Or taking a break outside, having some social time or time by yourself doing something enjoyable?
Reduce environmental “noise”, including distractions you can control. While some people enjoy listening to music, having periods of silence can be soothing for our brains and reduce some of the cognitive energy leakage. Likewise, turning off as many alerts as you can on your computer, phone and other devices can be very effective at reducing unnecessary noise and distractions.
You may also want to brainstorm and experiment with your team to find clever strategies to reduce technology “noise”. Could there be one day a week when everyone completely disconnects and focuses on tasks or projects that require full (off-line) attention? Or a period of time each day? Some teams find even a 60-minute period each day helpful for this.
Schedule tasksto match the amount of cognitive horsepower to the daily rhythms you typically have. When are you most mentally alert? Can you plan your more difficult or complex work for times when your mental energy levels are higher and the more routine or less demanding tasks for lower energy times?
With all the strategies reviewed here, take an experimental approach. Test out each one and discover which ones are most effective for you. Share ideas with colleagues and, if you are leading teams, facilitate conversations and experiments with your team members to support them to use the best ones for them.
It is also possible through deliberate practice to improve the cognitive capacity of our brains Mindfulness or meditation practice is one effective way to do this. Here are some ideas for simple mindfulness exercises at work: