Tackling the Matters that Matter
Mental Energy in the Sphere of Knowledge Work
Mental energy is the latest metaphor in our “energy tanks” series. This image illustrates the cognitive resources and capacities necessary to contribute fully as a professional when making decisions and solving problems. And of course, these competences are important in our private sphere, too.
Here’s the thing: The mental energy tank comes with some good news as well as bad news.
The bad news: Of your four energy sources (physical, emotional, mental and spiritual), the mental energy tank is most quickly drained. The good news: It’s also the most quickly replenished!
You may be wondering why mental energy is so important to begin with. Well, as knowledge workers, we’re paid for the use of our brains. And by design, the brain likes to wander. This was vital to our prehistoric ancestors to stay on high alert for physical threats. Conversely, it’s important to train our modern brain to focus on engagement, creativity, connection and critical thinking.
For instance, you’ve clearly sensed your own mental fatigue at times. You’ll start many projects, but run out of energy to finish them. Then, overwhelm sets in at the thought of too many unfinished tasks.
If this sounds familiar, you can appreciate the strength of strategy for successful knowledge work. Read on to discover the practices and tips we have found most effective for boosting your mental energy and staying productive.
Focus and Concentration
Have you ever noted the time of the day when you’re most productive? Some of us are morning larks while others prefer burning the midnight oil. Such insight provides a starting point to strategize about how to work. Regardless of when your most productive and focused time is, it’s wise to be aware of the dips and peaks in your ability to focus and concentrate. This will inform the best use of your mental energy.
For example, organizing a complex spreadsheet when feeling mentally drained is a bad idea. Instead, that’s the time to do “routine” work, like making that long overdue phone call with a valued customer or filling out the documents you owe your CPA. By doing these types of tasks, you’re checking items off your to-do list that don’t require much mental energy, while also rewarding yourself with a dopamine boost.
Fortifying Yourself for Focused Work
Before you embark on a mentally draining task, consider a quick energy tank top-off. Check-in with yourself to give your physical and emotional energy tanks a head start:
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
- Get some fresh air by taking a brisk walk around the block.
- Have a quick chat with a dear colleague over a cup of tea.
- Mindfully and slowly consume an energy bar.
As a result of these quick boosts, you’ll set your internal system up to succeed– even with that complicated spreadsheet task!
Routines and Multitasking
When it comes to leveraging your brain power, here are three simple moves to sustain your mental energy:
- Embed “routine” into your day to create flow.
Creating flow can be as easy as blocking out time on your calendar daily to address your most important, but not urgent, work. Ideally, this would be at the same time each day, so there’s no question in your mind, or for anyone who interacts with you, that you’re on-task. For example, at 10am and 2pm each day, you are “head down”, working on tasks that require mental energy.
A favorite flow method of Deborah’s clients is stacking activities. One client has been successful with assigning Friday as her network outreach day, Monday for administration tasks, and Wednesday for blog writing. Ute has similar arrangements when it comes to her “Writing Days” alone or with her fellow doctoral students. There’s no second thought; on those dedicated days and at these times, our brains are going to engage in matters that matter.
Deborah’s presentation partner, Keila, also has an effective “no-thought” routine. She commits to a “work uniform”. When Keila is scheduled to present, or attend any professional meeting, she wears black slacks, a fitted jacket and a colorful shirt underneath. This keeps her appearance professional without fuss. She can dress with her eyes closed, and there’s no question that she’s showing up polished.
- Mitigate multi-tasking to minimize distractions and interruptions.
Did you know that we interrupt ourselves as much as we’re interrupted by others? This is a distilled-down definition of multi-tasking, which is a misnomer. You see, our brain is not actually allowing us to perform two tasks simultaneously; rather, we’re toggling back and forth between the tasks. And this effort of continuously starting and stopping burns energy, especially in remote work environments, where we’re more tempted to give into multi-tasking. This split focus not only hijacks our attention and presence, it also stifles our creativity, as we’re not giving our brains the chance to explore and develop novel ideas (and leaders are noticing!)
Take a moment to double click on the concept of multi-tasking. After all, when we’re listening to someone speak and reading an email related to what the person is saying, supporting the context, we can follow along. We digest what is being said AND what is being read. However, if your colleague is speaking about sales figures and you’re reading about a delivery delay, your brain is not in alignment. This is burning your mental energy inefficiently.
- Breathe to prime your brain for focus.
Since the brain is designed to wander, and our modern attention span is getting shorter, it’s a priceless practice to prepare your brain for focus work through strategic breathing. You might not realize it, but when we are stressed, we often forget to breathe. A couple of breaths to regulate your parasympathetic nervous system serves as a multivitamin for your brain. As an intentional practice, we are particular fans of the Three-Breath Meditation. It’s quick, easy, and effective.
Strategic breathing is an under-appreciated source of mental energy. It can calm and energize simultaneously. It can also be your portal into a state of spiritual bliss. And it’s that very Spiritual Energy source that we’ll explore in our next article.