Enjoy this excerpt from our new book, Healthy Leadership.
As you capture data about the impact of your leadership, before acting on it you must create mental space to reflect on it, filter through it, and identify patterns and root causes of others’ perceptions. The hyper-speed nature of today’s information-saturated, time-deprived world forces us to run, run, run—and this is just to keep pace.
Today’s mobile technology can be a double-edged sword. It is a blessing in terms of your productivity, but it is a curse on your ability to be still and know yourself. You can end up being a “human doing” rather than a human being, which leaves no time for reflection and awareness.
We can think about our own thinking by the time we are nine years old, so in today’s hyperactive and attention-demanding world, how can you spend more time thinking about your thinking? Our youngest daughter has a special area in her room where she can chill and relax. She calls it her “chillax zone.”
Although your “chillax zone” might not have big pink pillows and a fluffy white carpet like our daughter’s, you too need to reserve a time and place that provides mental space. Your space can be your car as you drive home after work, a reading or meditation corner in your house, your bathtub, your gym, a nearby park where you walk; your space can be anywhere you can be alone with your thoughts.
The thinking, planning, and reflection you do in this space helps you get out of the daily trenches and elevate up to the eagle’s nest. This provides a broader and clearer perspective on yourself, your work, your purpose, your values, your team, and your life.
Here are two other proven ways to create mental space that can help you grow and be your best. First, keep a journal. James Pennebaker, a liberal arts professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, has spent 40 years researching the link between writing and processing emotions.
In studies, he has divided people into two groups, asking some to jot down emotionally charged experiences, and others to write about whatever daily occurrence popped into their mind. Both groups were tasked with writing for about 20 minutes, three days in a row.
Pennebaker found that the people who wrote about their emotionally charged episodes experienced the most improvement in their physical well-being. They had lower blood pressure, better immunity, and visited the doctor less frequently. They were also less depressed, generally happier, and less anxious.
Unexpressed emotions do not go away. They eventually rear their heads in uglier ways. Journaling is a good way to gain a new perspective on your thoughts and emotions.
Writing is more visceral and tied to your emotions than typing, so this is one time you want to go old school and write down your thoughts. Write anything that comes to mind about an emotionally charged event. Next, write what you learned from this event and how it has helped you grow or how it can help you grow in the future.
Second, dedicate time for strategic tasks. Strategic tasks require higher-order thinking, focused attention, reasoning, and creativity. Set aside 45 minutes of uninterrupted time to work on this during your peak hours of attention. To stay focused, keep a physical or digital notepad by your side. When working on your strategic tasks, jot down unrelated thoughts that come to mind. Also, silence distractions, including email and text notifications.
Strategic tasks require conscious effort and draw upon your brain’s executive function, which has limited capacity. As a result, multitasking on strategic tasks decreases productivity up to 40 percent, decreases quality of work, and increases negative emotions associated with the task.
It can take your brain more than 20 minutes to fully focus on the current task and for “residue” from the previous task(s) to fade away. In fact, cognitive neuroscientist Sandra Chapman, founder of the Center for BrainHealth, says, “We’re learning that multitasking is to the brain as cigarette smoking is to the lungs. Chronic multitaskers have shallower thinking and may be less able to see the bigger picture.”
As you work on your strategic tasks or any other tasks, create mental space during your workday by taking 5-minute brain breaks five times. Walk away from your workspace, take deep breaths, and let your mind wander.