By Angela Muir, Organisational Psychologist and Senior Leadership Faculty Member at Ashridge Business School.
A plethora of management books remind us that managing ourselves effectively, behaving appropriately, making good decisions and working well with others are crucial to both career success and the bottom line. Whilst many organisations are signed up to the principles of work life balance, evidence suggests that employee wellbeing is still not being taken as seriously as it could be by numerous organisations. Indeed evidence suggests an increase in longer working hours, fewer breaks and increased stress levels are now seen by some as standard. Factors that can all too easily undermine the environment needed for individuals and organisations to perform at their best.
Furthermore, according to recent research, these sorts of negative working practices have been found to drain a limited energy reserve situated in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. The result is a bit like power steadily draining from a battery over the course of a day and, when depleted - as well as causing fatigue and diminishing capacity for willpower - it can have serious implications not only for an individual’s immediate performance and engagement, but also for their long-term health and wellbeing. The good news however is that by adopting a series of simple strategies this ‘mental battery’ can be programmed to receive regular boosts of energy, diminishing or even reversing the negative effects.
Outlined in this article are a series of practical tips to help managers and teams operate more effectively day to day as well as increasing their engagement, motivation, performance and resilience over time.
1. Remember why you do what you do
Ultimately, what is it that drives and motivates you to do your job? What makes it worth it even when the pressure is on? Are you clear about the medium or longer term pay-offs in your career and/or home life? Taking time out to remind ourselves of our sense of purpose can help to regain perspective and motivation in the face of short term stresses. Physical cues in the workplace - for example a picture, artefact or piece of music – can help to further anchor this.
2. Know your triggers
Emotional Intelligence proves a distinct advantage in the battle to preserve energy. The ability to accurately identify situations and people which cause your stress levels to escalate or your enthusiasm to plummet allows you to plan at least some of your interactions at times when you’re feeling more resilient.
3. Train your feedback muscle
Feedback is a known, invaluable tool in personal and team development and can provide a huge uplift in confidence and morale particularly during times of stress. Giving and receiving regular, timely, behaviour-based feedback (both appreciative and developmental) has been found to increase perceived self-esteem which, in turn, reduces perceived fatigue thus allowing you to feel more inclined to tackle obstacles and/or remain motivated for longer.
4. Be clear and specific with your goals
Some personality types are more likely to derive comfort from lists, linear structure and specific goal setting than others. While it is usually advisable to play to your signature strengths wherever possible, from an energy perspective make time to set out and review specific goals and objectives on a regular basis. This allows you to deploy your mental and physical energies in the most effective way, rather than needlessly exhausting precious reserves by way of unnecessary tasks, indecision or avoidable uncertainty.
5. Focus Your To-Do List
Deciding precisely how, when and where you will complete a task or activity can double or triple your chances of actually doing it, and doing it well. Establishing a specific plan in advance ensures you stay on track even when you’re juggling multiple priorities. Plus by deciding what you need to achieve you are much more likely to do it without having to consciously think about it at the time, therefore expending less ‘battery power’.
6. Tackle tough stuff first
Whether at work or home, it’s all too easy to put off the tough tasks or difficult conversations till later. Perhaps unsurprisingly, if you at least make a start on these while you have most energy ‘in the tank’, you are more likely to complete them quickly and with a satisfactory outcome. If you leave the tough stuff until late in the day when your ‘battery’ is depleted, you are more likely to give up more quickly, say something you later regret or give in to another’s demands.
7. Avoid making decisions on an empty stomach
Glucose is the brain’s source of fuel therefore we are more likely to make better decisions and avoid acquiescence when we are well nourished. This doesn’t need to be by way of a big meal, in fact small regular low GI snacks tend to work best (though eating approximately 1 hour before a planned energy-depleting activity is believed to deliver maximum impact). Additionally, drinking approx. 2-3 litres of water throughout the day will keep your brain hydrated, helping to sustain those energy levels.
For those moments when you need an extra boost ahead of an unexpected meeting or particularly challenging task, something sweet - for example a mouthful of fruit juice, some dark chocolate, or a few grapes - will increase energy levels approximately 10 minutes after consumption. Whilst this tactic shouldn’t be relied upon all the time, resisting temptation when your energy reserves are already depleted is not advisable either. Using willpower on a number of simultaneous activities not only drains the reserves more quickly but also weakens our capacity for willpower for upcoming tasks. Proof that the occasional ‘little bit of what you fancy’ can indeed do you good!
8. Take more breaks
We all know that working for sustained periods without the necessary rest can be a recipe for disaster for both you and your team, yet few of us regularly secure the amount of rest or sleep we need, particularly during busy periods. When time is short we often curtail or eradicate breaks in the belief that we’ll get more done as a result, however this is usually counterproductive. Taking several short ‘fresh air’ breaks of 5 to 20 minutes throughout the day where you can escape from the smart phone and the hustle and bustle has been proven to quiet the mind and thus maximise cognitive resources including memory retention, creativity and decision making.
9. Stay connected and don’t forget to have fun
The most important time to stay connected to the outside world is when we’re at our busiest or most stressed. Fiercely protect some of your time to actively maintain connections with others. Whether meeting up with a mentor to test out ideas or meeting up with colleagues on an informal basis, social support is essential to let off steam and regain perspective. Laughter in particular remains one of the quickest and most effective energy injections available.
10. Reinforce positive events daily
A recent study found that ending the day with a brief positive reflection about even small successes resulted in individuals experiencing significantly less stress the same evening and subsequently feeling more refreshed and energised the following day. Doing this in a team ensures that, however stressful it is, the working day ends on a more positive note.
Ultimately, the brain is like a muscle. The best way to train it for peak performance is to seek out opportunities to step out of your comfort zone, challenge your assumptions and employ new or different ways of doing things. It will almost certainly deplete your energy a little in the short term but will result in a stronger, more flexible and better stocked psychological ‘muscle memory’ for the future.