By Dr. Francis Eberle
As an avid cyclist, I’ve learned how to rest while riding on long routes. In fact, a common cycling axiom is, “Change is as good as a rest.” When riding, your leg muscles get tired with the same motion, particularly with the same effort. However, if you change the gear and cadence (the number of times your feet complete a pedal cycle), you will use a different set of muscles. This gives a break to the original muscles. When riders are going 100 miles for days, such as the 21 days and 2,000 miles in the Tour de France, they need to rest their muscles whenever they can.
Leaders make many decisions every day. They can be personal, complex, political or simple. Going between different types of decision requires mental flexibility. How flexible is your thinking and decision making? Those days jumping from strategic meetings to emails, status update meetings to collegial encouragement, and problem-solving sessions to client phone calls means your mind is using its cognitive function in different ways.
Being too focused for too long can exhausts those circuits in your brain and drain your energy. The result is poor decision making and sometimes loss of self-control. When your brain is overextended and not rested, decisions can be poorly thought-out, and you may even become less collaborative, according to an article in Harvard Business Review titled Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus by Srini Pillay Just like the legs of a cyclist, your brain can get tired.
Being flexible in your thinking helps with brain exhaustion, and is a skill that leaders can build. It entails being agile in adapting to changes around you, handling different situations in different ways and responding promptly, according to The Complete Leader by Ron Price and Randy Lisk.
Being mentally flexible can be hard and demanding. However, transitions can be a kind of mental rest. Jumping between new ways of thinking can help refresh your perspective. So when you do come back to the previous idea, you are thinking more clearly. Like the cyclist, you use different “muscles” providing a type of rest or clearing out of your mind. This takes skill and creativity. In his research, Pillay found, “The brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocused, allowing you to develop resilience, enhance creativity, and make better decisions.”
Here are some ways that you can improve your flexible thinking:
Look at your schedule for the day and even the week ahead. Review your commitments and mentally prepare yourself for the transitions you know you will be making in that time. Suspend your judgment and have an open mind about what will happen during those meetings. Go into them either with a new perspective or looking for one. Price and Lisk suggest some questions to ask yourself to prepare:
- What is most important to me? Why?
- What might this look like to an outsider, someone who is not involved? Be nonjudgmental and listen to understand before talking.
Try to pay attention to your own bias and how that might influence how you approach a meeting, person or decision. Another way to obtain a new perspective is to pretend to be someone else. Think about how they would solve the problem. They could be a colleague or a famous person. Put yourself into character. This change causes your brain to think in a new way.
Learn How You Learn
Learning is something we all do, and it is unique to each of us. Kevin Kelly, in his book The Inevitable, talks about optimizing your learning as one of the superskills you’ll need to survive in the future. To be able to optimize how you think, you need to know how you learn.
Observe yourself while you learn. What is enjoyable? Writing, reading, listening, sketching, discussing concepts, connecting concepts to other aspects to make them easier to remember? When you are learning your mind is listening. Pay attention to how your mind is thinking. Work to ward off bias and preconceptions that might creep in. Knowing how your mind learns will help you bridge to more flexible thinking.
Be Quiet or Take a Nap
The pace of information and interactions today can be overwhelming. Find some time during the day where you can be quiet, even if for only 10 minutes. Become bored, if you can, because this is when your mind opens up and wanders, allowing you to be more divergent and creative. There are biological changes that occur in your mind when resting from problems.
And if a nap is a possibility, take one even if it is only 10 minutes. After a 10-minute nap, research has shown you become much clearer and more alert (Pillary). One caveat, if you have a creative task to take on, you will likely need a full 90-minute nap. This allows for a more complete brain refreshing. It turns out all naps are not the same.
Like the cyclist, allow yourself (mental) breaks or a change in perspectives to rest and utilize other types of thinking. Identifying when you are too focused and need a break is a first step. Practice changing your perspective, know how you learn and find opportunities to quiet your mind during the day. The change in pace will allow you to improve your mental flexibility and be more agile.
If you want to chat with Dr. Eberle about mental rest and flexibility, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Francis is a Leadership and Organization Advisor at Price Associates.