Kevin Lawrence is MD of Odyssey management training – on a mission to eradicate mediocrity Odyssey specialises in leadership and management development, change, executive team development and organisational development strategy.
The key to success is switching off. That may sound like a paradox, but it’s a statement backed by neuroscience…
Concentration is cyclical
Our ability to think clearly – whether in order to understand, assess or innovate – fluctuates throughout the working day. This happens thanks to naturally-occurring changes in the frequency of our brain waves: from high frequency (fast) to low frequency (slow). These ultradian cycles (ultradian simply means occurring more than once every 24 hours) each last around 90 minutes. During which we move from a state of being highly alert into one in which our energy is depleted.
At the ‘low-alert’ point in the cycle, the fastest way to regain focus is to take a break and let your brain refresh its neural pathways. Doing that effectively means thoroughly detaching from the task you were doing. If it’s feasible, go for a run. Exercise of any form is a useful way of switching focus, but aerobic exercise is particularly beneficial because of the physical effort it requires.
Alternatively, walk the building. Get to know your employees. Stand at a window that looks out onto greenery and spend a few minutes daydreaming/ losing yourself in the view. Take a power nap (just six minutes napping can significantly improve mood and your alertness). If you can, meditate. If you can’t, try breathing in as you count to three, holding your breath as you count to three and breathing out as you count to six. The act of focusing on your breathing utilises a different part of your brain to the one that solves problems or creates solutions. At the very least, stand up, stretch and drink a glass of water (dehydration depletes brain function).
Work to your own cycles
One word of warning. Don’t try and be too prescriptive when it comes to timing a cycle, or the length of the break you take. You may find you are at your best when you work hard for an hour and take a ten-minute break. Other people may work for ninety minutes and then need a 20-minute rest. What’s key is to accept the need for breaks and to be responsive to your own cycle. What you lose in time, you’ll gain in productivity.