If you feel stressed by the demands of work, the need to respond to ‘always-on’ technology or an overload of commitments, your brain may not be functioning at peak performance. And that can spiral: a fear of falling behind, reduced productivity and even illness or burnout.
Almost every manager I meet through coaching or training is feeling overwhelmed to some degree. But the good news is, neuroscience principles can help you learn how to control this in yourself – and also build stronger teams. Here are four simple ways to get started.
- Recognise your reward state, and re-think threats
Our brains unconsciously scan the environment for threat or reward five times every second. You may not be aware of it, but this impacts the way you think and respond.
Negative emotions such as frustration, fear, anxiety or impatience create a threat state – leading to less focus, fewer insights, less risk taking and a feeling of being less connected. On the other hand, positive emotions create a reward state – creating clearer thinking, improved productivity and problem solving.
Creating a ‘reward’ state is vital to boosting brain efficiency – and doing your best work. And it can be contagious. According to a study into Australia’s high performing workplaces, employees feel more valued, proud, optimistic and cheerful than those in low performing workplaces – where people report feeling more anxious, worried, depressed, inadequate and fearful.
It’s how you perceive stressors that can make the biggest difference. See it as a challenge rather than a threat, and you can activate different parts of the brain. This gives you the energy and confidence to ‘rise to the challenge’ or meet that deadline.
- Give your brain a break every 90 minutes
Elite athletes don’t train for days on end. Even when training intensely, their schedule allows them to go hard and pull back. To achieve peak performance as a ‘corporate athlete’, you need to schedule in a break every 90 minutes to rest your brain. Make time to eat or for reflection. This regrouping lets you focus on the next task with total clarity.
You can apply the same logic to meetings. Back-to-back meetings every day puts us in a threat state – so re-think whether they need to be the obligatory 60 minutes. Try 20 or 45 minute meetings and give staff more time to reflect or plan for the next one.
- Stop multi-tasking
If emails rule your life, you may be tempted to answer them while also talking on the phone or writing a proposal. You think this is more productive – but research conclusively shows it’s not.
A University of London study found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines of 5 to 15 points. It also takes 25% longer to complete tasks when you multitask. In reality you are ‘switching’ – moving between multiple things – not getting more done.
Instead, make deliberate time for prioritising work. When one client worked out what she could delegate first each day and turned her email off while working on important tasks, she gained a sense of control and was no longer stressed.
- Practise mindfulness
If I find myself in a threat state, I use a 30 second fix I call BLR – or Breathe, Label, Reappraise. Start by inhaling and exhaling slowly. Then label the emotion you’re feeling (such as anger or frustration) and re-appraise the situation. How can you see it differently?
To do this well, you need to be mindful of your present state. This is not easy, as our brains default to thinking about the past or the future. But if you create a daily mindfulness habit, you can increase your ability to regulate your emotions.
This helps you move into the reward state for peak brain performance. And with these four things in place, you can also feel more in control of your workload – and less stressed.