I shouldn’t be telling you this but I freely admit that I’m a bit of a workaholic. I appreciate my ability to multi-task and balance competing priorities but I do sometimes get carried away. I get excited by new ideas and concepts as well as by meeting new people facing new challenges. The result can occasionally be a frustrating lack of follow-through… I need to live 2 or 3 lives to be able to catch up with myself! And so I get to feeling guilty and start to stress out because I’m not delivering on a personal promise to myself ‘to get stuff done’. This is also the fate of some of my coaching clients, the unending pressure to excel and to succeed all gets a bit much.
I feel privileged in that I can regularly give my brain a break by riding out on the New Forest on my American Quarter Horse, Ché. Even though it’s winter and everything’s brown and seemingly dead, the forest is alive with interest when one takes the time to stop and LOOK and listen. Earlier this week it was very cold, at first startled by the crack of thin ice under his hooves, my horse then thought it a great game and danced around even more. Later a Goshawk flew past at shoulder height and landed unconcerned in a tree close by. She focused hard on us as we passed, waiting to alight on one of its feeding ‘platforms’ just below, covered with feathers. A fascinating sight and one that bought home to me the power of letting go plans, ambitions, ideas, campaigns and other future-focused activities to take time out to ‘dwell-in-the-moment’ and to appreciate life’s natural wonders.
The Harvard Business Review featured a blog in a similar vein, ie on how to ‘Train Your Brain to Focus’ when coping with the constant pressure to perform in our working or business lives. Our ability to juggle a seemingly endless stream of competing tasks isn’t helped by the way our brains works.
Like my horse, who at the slightest provocation, sees Sabre-Toothed Cats behind every bush so our human brains also resort to eons of programmed responses to external threats. A tiny almond-shaped part of our brains called the amygdala is where we process our emotions and negative emotions such as fear, loss of control, rage and inadequacy boost our ancient flight or fight responses.
And these negative responses tend to dominate very quickly, often overwhelming us with unresourceful feelings that prevent our rational prefrontal cortex (our brain’s executive centre) from thinking beyond the immediate situation. This is a distraction to our performance, regardless of whether we are at work, managing teams, chairing meetings, negotiating with clients, or even competing in sports.
Interestingly, positive emotional feelings do the opposite by reducing stress, supporting self-confidence and helping us access our brain’s executive function – an aid to great performance.
You might be like many of my clients (some of whom are senior folks running successful businesses or large organisations), and find yourself easily distracted by negative emotions. If so, try my effective 5-step process for snapping out of it:
Firstly, Self-Discipline: get used to becoming much more aware of when these feelings and the negative self-talk dominate, and take a look at yourself from outside-in (this gives your rational brain a chance to engage).
Secondly, Breathing and Posture: be aware of your breathing and posture, both often mirror our emotional states. Try relaxing by emptying your mind and thinking only of your breathing (I’m pretty bad on this but find looking a distant tree or a flower and then de-focusing my eyes really helps). Now close your eyes and relax, breathe in for 7 counts and then breath out for 11 counts. Repeat until your heart rate slows.
Thirdly, Focus on Achievements 1st: reflect on the things you have learned and achieved and that give you a sense of positive self-regard, no matter how small. This is especially good for those of us who feel guilty for not having done ‘enough’.
Fourthly, SHFB: get quality Sleep, drink more Water, eat more healthy Foods, and take short Breaks… and yes, coping better can be as simple as that.
Finally, Find your Centre: this is about exploring what gives your life meaning and purpose, about which you can be proud and from which you gain strength and self-confidence. If you haven’t yet found ‘Your Thang’ then isn’t it about time you did?
In the meantime, I’m off for another ride on Ché. By deep breathing and maintaining a relaxed state of awareness, I shall calm him and me when the Sabre-Toothed Cat threatens from behind yet another hedge.
Let me know how you get on with yours!
Here’s the HBR article.