You versus your Monkey Brain

Handsome Businessman Distracted From Work On The Laptop Watching

In a previous post, I wrote about Two Awesome Hours  by Josh Davis. He tackles the tough subject of how to get things done as a human being, with all our human failings. If you have important work to do, Josh Davis has tips on how to get it done.

The previous post discussed what he calls decision points, those moments between tasks where you can choose to start on something important, instead of staying on autopilot and working on something less critical.

His second tip is to manage your mental energy. He writes, “Tasks that need a lot of self-control or focused attention can be depleting, and tasks that make you highly emotional can throw you off your game. Schedule tasks based on their processing demand and recovery time.”

He spends some time on your executive function, the “functions that the brain handles that include decision making (Should I wear a red or a blue shirt this morning?), planning (First I’ll go to the dentist, then on the way from the dentist to my house, I’ll stop to pick up dinner), and holding on to thoughts for a short time while we need them (I need to remember the name of the person I just met long enough to introduce her to my business partner).”

The most you use your executive function during any given day, the less energy and focus you’ll have for the really important work you need to do.  Call it decision fatigue; the more time you debate what to wear or what to pack for lunch, the harder it will be for you to decide what to work on at the office. That’s why many executives (famously, Steve Jobs and President Obama) wear the same thing to work every day. Once less decision, which frees up executive function space for big ideas and decisions.

Davis’ solution? “The key to limiting mental fatigue is recognizing the work that is most likely to deplete your resources in a substantial way and, when you have any say in the matter, to simply not engage in that work before you want to be at your best.”

You can choose to do the most important work you have first thing in the morning, before tackling tasks like email or other work that will drain your energy and decision making mojo. You can also make some decisions in the evening so you have fewer to make at the start of your day. Lay out your outfit, pack your lunch, make your to-do list for the next day. You’ll be able to start your day fresh with plenty of executive function energy.

Work in some energizing activities, like exercise, refreshing reading or viewing, or spending time with people who have lots of positive energy. These activities will replenish your mental (and physical) energy.

You also waste executive function by trying too hard to stay focused. You would never yell “FOCUS” at Tiger Woods when he’s getting ready for a difficult putt. Yelling at yourself to focus when you’re working on a tough task is just as counterproductive. Our brains are designed to flit from thought to thought; we’re hard-wired that way. Davis recommends that you do your best to eliminate outside distractions (noise, device alerts, etc.) Do your best to create a serene, quiet work environment.

Don’t beat yourself up when your monkey brain wanders. Scientific experiments suggest that brief breaks in concentration can actually help you find more creative solutions for challenging problems. Davis suggests, “When your attention drifts at some point, simply note the fact that it drifted as interesting, and gently bring your attention back.”  Channel your inner surfer dude. “Mindfully attending to those thoughts means watching the thoughts go by and noting whatever comes up—e.g., whether they stir up worries, tempting you away from the task at hand. The key is to let go of those thoughts that are not helping you stay on track, the way a surfer passes up the opportunity to ride those waves that are not quite right. Brains have lots of thoughts. You don’t have to react to each one just because it came up. Be that mental surfer and surf your thought waves.”

A very Zen approach to staying focused on the work at hand.


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