2020 has seen people the world over feel more mentally taxed than ever before.
You can probably relate, and guess why. To begin with, high levels of stress are known to reduce the resources we need to think deeply. And this year there’s been more to think about than ever before. Moreover, the issues we’re thinking about are more complex and may seem unsolvable at times. Put simply, our brains are dealing with more and bigger problems.
To make matters worse, many people are spending much more time in virtual meetings, leading to “Zoom Exhaustion.” Add to this, more responsibilities at home, reduced downtime, and minimal vacations. Just when we need to think more deeply than ever, we find ourselves hardly able to think at all.
These are real challenges, but there are steps you can take to get the most out of your limited cognitive resources. We’ve worked with dozens of organizations as they meet the challenges of 2020. Here are the best ideas that emerged, that we’ve put into practice, and that we’ve seen work.
Get your own work done first
Many people this year reported that while they are busier than ever, they are less able to get their own work done. Part of the issue is the overwhelm itself, combined with the constant meetings finding their way onto your calendar, and the relentless emails into your inbox.
One powerful hack is to tackle things that require more focus and concentration when your brain is at its best. For many people that tends to be first thing in the morning, before your brain gets overwhelmed by all the meetings and emails. Try to schedule meetings later in the morning, so you can get your own work down first before the chaos begins. We call this Minimal Meeting Mornings.
Find the creative spark
When it comes to doing deeper thinking, especially creative work, try experimenting with Minimal Meeting Mondays. Leave Mondays free of meetings if you can, or schedule them at the end of the day if you must.
When you’ve just had a good brain rest, you’re much more likely to have deeper insights—the catalysts of creativity. Insights require a quiet mind, minimal noise in the brain, which is more likely after a good rest.
Your brain isn’t a machine. It needs regular rest. It functions similarly to a muscle—we can’t just work our muscles intensely for hours on end. Better to work out, then rest, then work out again.
Likewise, we need regular attention breaks so our brain can refresh and reset. This means scheduling meetings for 25 and 50 minutes instead of 30 and 60. After three focused meetings, take a break of at least 25 minutes.
Another strategy to stay fresh is to take a walking meeting at least once every day. This helps us maintain physical activity along with helping shift how our attention focuses.
Maintain good focus
Finally, a key practice is to work to maintain the right brain chemistry for good performance. The brain is an amazingly complex organism, but there are two chemicals that research suggests are critical to performance: dopamine, which involves novelty, positive expectations and positive experiences; and norepinephrine, or ‘brain adrenaline,’ which is associated with alertness.
It’s more difficult to maintain high levels of dopamine. But one way to boost your dopamine levels is to find ways to bring novelty in your day. Try working in different places and different approaches to your calendar. Experiment to find ways to keep the work interesting, and do your best work.