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Will Hutton

Will Hutton

Principal, Hertford College, Oxford University and chair of the Big Innovation Centre

Wednesday 23 Jul 2014
Maximise performance by managing your ‘mental battery’

Maximise performance by managing your ‘mental battery’

While many organisations are signed up to the principle of work-life balance, evidence suggests wellbeing is still not being taken as seriously as it could be. 

Indeed evidence suggests an increase in longer working hours, fewer breaks and increased stress levels are now seen by some as standard. They are factors that can all too easily undermine the environment needed for individuals and organisations to perform at their best. 

Furthermore, according to recent research, these sorts of negative working practices have been found to drain a limited energy reserve situated in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. The result is a bit like power steadily draining from a battery over the course of a day and, when depleted, it can have serious implications not only for an individual’s immediate performance and engagement, but also for their long-term health and wellbeing.

However, by adopting the following series of simple strategies this ‘mental battery’ can be programmed to receive regular boosts of energy, diminishing or even reversing the negative effects.

1. Remember why you do what you do

What is it that drives and motivates you to do your job? Are you clear about the medium- or longer-term pay-offs in your career and/or home life? Taking time out to remind ourselves of our sense of purpose can help to regain perspective and motivation in the face of short-term stresses.

2. Know your triggers

Emotional intelligence proves a distinct advantage in the battle to preserve energy. The ability to accurately identify situations and people that cause your stress levels to escalate or your enthusiasm to plummet allows you to plan at least some of your interactions for when you’re feeling more resilient.

3. Train your feedback muscle

Giving and receiving regular, timely, behaviour-based feedback (both appreciative and developmental) has been found to increase perceived self-esteem which in turn reduces perceived fatigue, allowing you to feel more inclined to tackle obstacles or remain motivated for longer.

4. Be clear and specific with your goals

While it is usually advisable to play to your signature strengths wherever possible, from an energy perspective make time to set out and review specific goals and objectives on a regular basis. This allows you to deploy your mental and physical energies in the most effective way, rather than needlessly exhausting precious reserves by way of unnecessary tasks. 

5. Focus your to-do list

Deciding precisely how, when and where you will complete a task or activity can double or triple your chances of actually doing it. Plus by knowing what you need to achieve you are much more likely to do it without having to consciously think about it at the time, therefore expending less ‘battery power’.

6. Tackle tough stuff first

It’s all too easy to put off the tough tasks or difficult conversations until later. Perhaps unsurprisingly, if you make a start on these while you have most energy ‘in the tank’, you are more likely to complete them quickly and with a satisfactory outcome.

7. Avoid making decisions on an empty stomach

Glucose is the brain’s source of fuel therefore we are more likely to make better decisions and avoid acquiescence when we are well-nourished. Small, regular, low GI (glycemic index) snacks tend to work best. Additionally, drinking approximately two to three litres of water throughout the day will keep your brain hydrated, helping to sustain energy levels. 

For those moments when you need an extra boost ahead of an unexpected meeting or particularly challenging task, something sweet – for example a mouthful of fruit juice, some dark chocolate, or a few grapes – will increase energy levels approximately 10 minutes after consumption. Proof that the occasional ‘little bit of what you fancy’ can indeed do you good! 

8. Take more breaks

Few of us regularly secure the amount of rest or sleep we need, particularly during busy periods. When time is short we often shorten or eradicate breaks in the belief that we’ll get more done, however this is usually counterproductive. Taking several short ‘fresh air’ breaks throughout the day where you can escape from the hustle and bustle has been proven to quiet the mind and maximise cognitive resources, including memory retention, creativity and decision-making. 

9. Stay connected and don’t forget to have fun

The most important time to stay connected to the outside world is when we’re at our busiest or most stressed. Whether meeting up with a mentor to test out ideas or seeing colleagues on an informal basis, social support is essential to let off steam and regain perspective. Laughter in particular remains one of the quickest and most effective energy injections available. 

10.  Reinforce positive events daily

A recent study found that ending the day with a brief positive reflection about even small successes resulted in individuals experiencing significantly less stress the same evening and subsequently feeling more refreshed and energised the following day. Doing this in a team ensures that, however stressful it is, the working day ends on a more positive note.

Ultimately, the brain is like a muscle. The best way to train it for peak performance is to step out of your comfort zone, challenge your assumptions and employ new or different ways of doing things. It will almost certainly deplete your energy a little in the short term but will result in a stronger, more flexible and better stocked psychological ‘muscle memory’ for the future.

Angela Muir is an organisational psychologist and senior leadership faculty member at Ashridge Business School

Maximise performance by managing your ‘mental battery’