How to conserve mental energy during the day

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Hilary Scarlett
Consultant
Scarlett & Grey
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We all have good days and bad days at work: days when perhaps we are writing a document and the words are flowing, clear, concise and convincing. But, equally we all have days when we feel overwhelmed and frazzled and can’t think straight; and we have those days where we have deadlines, but nothing too pressing and so we surf the internet, make another cup of coffee and then, at the end of the day wonder what, if anything, we have achieved.

What makes the difference between these days and how we respond to them? At a time when we are concerned about both our own and others’ mental and emotional wellbeing, neuroscience (the study of the nervous system including the brain) provides some insights, and more importantly some practical steps we can take to get our brains back on track.

The inverted U of performance

As long ago as 1908, the psychologists Yerkes and Dodson, created the inverted U of performance (see below). That’s a long time ago but it has stood the test of time. On the y axis is the brain’s ability to stay focused and perform: at the bottom of this axis, the brain is disorganised and distracted, at the top of the axis the brain is organised and focused. Running along the x axis is the level of stress the brain is under. The top of the inverted U is where we want to be: this is when we are working at our best, or ‘flow’ as it is sometimes described.

Yerkes-Dodson inverted U

The Yerkes-Dodson inverted U shows that there is an optimal level of arousal: too much or too little reduces our ability to perform a task well. So, it is not that stress per se is bad for us. We need some pressure to get ourselves going. But we do need to find the right balance between the challenge, and our ability and confidence to undertake the task in hand.

Too much challenge and we are over on the right-hand side of that inverted U, too little and we are over on the left, not performing at our best in either place. Neuroscientist Amy Arnsten has found that the balance of chemicals in our prefrontal cortex (PFC) - the part of the brain associated with decision-making, analytical thinking and emotional control - changes with the level of arousal we are facing.

Neuroscientists 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.

Our brains are not designed for the 21st century workplace

We are dealing with brains and bodies that are designed for the savannah, not the 21st century workplace, and that’s a challenge. The human body is designed to deal with surges of stress, but that is what they are meant to be – just surges.  For our ancestors in the wild, sudden bursts of cortisol were beneficial because the hormone helped them to survive. Once the predator was no longer a threat, cortisol levels would drop.

Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University contrasts the benefits of cortisol on animals in the wild and the impact of cortisol on people in the modern world – the impact of man-made stress. We have created work environments where people are frequently under stress and cortisol is constantly in the system.

As Sapolsky puts it, no zebra running away from a lion would understand why human beings secrete the same stress hormones out of fear of eg public speaking. In the long term, cortisol is damaging physically and mentally. The response to the stress becomes more damaging to humans than the original stressor itself. 

Getting our brains back on track

The good news is that now that we are beginning to understand the brain better, we can work in the light of this knowledge. 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. Here are a few to get us started.

The first step to helping our brains have more good days at work is to be realistic. In his book Two Awesome Hours, neuroscientist Dr Josh Davies suggests that we should aim for two great hours a day – that’s probably all we have (and in some workshops I run, people say they would be delighted to be great for that long). The point is that you can’t be great all day long so we need to plan our days accordingly.

  1. Prioritise: the most important thing to do is to write down our list of priorities for the day. This provides some certainty for the day (and the brain likes certainty). By writing them down it also gets the information out of our working memory and onto the page – this reduces overload on the brain. It also means that when, during the course of the day, we are asked by colleagues to get involved in something else, we are better placed to make measured judgements about if, when and how to get involved.
  2. Don’t answer all your emails first thing. Making decisions, even seemingly small ones, is mentally taxing. Answering emails, and hitting that ‘Send’ button can feel good because we feel we are achieving something (and the brain likes that). But deciding how to respond to an email, whom to copy in etc. depletes our mental energy. 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 – all of these are hugely distracting. In fact, research shows that intermittent speech, such as hearing one half of a phone conversation, is one of the most distracting things for the human brain. 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 mobile phone off and find somewhere quiet to work.
  4. Understand your brain better – just learning a little about how the brain is set up, what helps and what hinders it from working at its best means that we are all in a better position to get the best out of our brains. We are better equipped to choose how to respond to the difficulties work throws at us – whether we see them as a threat (which has a negative impact on our 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.

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