A 5-Point Checklist for the Executive’s Brain
One of the requests I often get from clients is to help them gain more mental clarity. They complain of suffering from poor or cloudy decision-making, or an inability to move forward with projects. When they come to me, they may be worried that they are losing acuity, and have often already invested in various kinds of brain games, or rearranged their schedules to focus on bigger projects at certain times of day – but these haven’t worked for them.
If you are noticing you need more focus, or that you are finding it difficult to concentrate, it’s likely you are experiencing an imbalance somewhere in your work or life. I am not talking about work-life balance (that’s another topic!), but about a habit or approach that doesn’t support the brain’s larger operating system.
Now, I’m a proponent of working smarter and not harder, and like many of you, happen to love those brain games and methods of project management. But before you go out and invest large sums of money on programs, I suggest you review the short five-point checklist below, to see if you are missing anything foundational to supporting better mental clarity.
Just one of these five points, if overlooked, can foil focus in the most experienced and talented professionals.
Get a physical checkup!
Let’s just get the obvious out of the way here. Your body is designed to work for you – and it will also work against you if something is out of kilter. If you inform your physician that you find it difficult to concentrate, she will look for high blood pressure, an absence of B-12, review your list of medications, and check for other physical imbalances that can lead to a lack of focus. She will also most likely talk with you about your health habits, such as eating the right (or wrong!) foods, getting enough sleep and exercise, and if there are any toxins in your home or external environment that might cause a loss of focus.
Coaching tip: I’ve heard my colleague J.J. Virgin, foremost nutrition and fitness expert, talk about the terrors of simple carbohydrates. Remember that one fall-out of embracing this kind of diet is that it can result in clouding your focus. Check your labels, all you granola bar aficionados!
Look for hidden energy drains.
What is causing your stress levels to rise at this point? Is there an unresolved conflict or unspoken conversation that is eating away at your mental energy? Or do you carry around mental “to do” or grocery lists, instead of writing down the items on paper? Both of these situations will take up brain space and diminish your focus. Stop using the brain as a storage tool, and allow it to be the processing tool it was designed to be.
Coaching tip: Make a paper list of those things causing you stress or that you need to remember. But, hold on – we aren’t done, yet. Now, write down, by each item, the next step you need to take in order to resolve the question or problem. This last step helps you to see the way through problems to solving them, and can even help lower stress levels immediately.
Give your brain a regular break.
There are physical, emotional, and mental reasons why your brain can only focus for a set amount of time before it fatigues, and this time can vary with circumstances. Suffice it to say that your brain needs regular breaks to stay energized and focused. A good rule of thumb is to break away from whatever you are working on each hour of your working day.
Coaching tip: Set your alarm to go off every hour during your work hours. Get up each time, stretch, walk down the hall. If you can’t get away from your office, turn on some soft music, and take a look out on the horizon to give your eyes and brain something else on which to focus.
Your brain craves water and oxygen to work at its best.
A tired brain can indicate that it needs water or more oxygen. When your water intake is inadequate, your brain cells become dehydrated. This results in synapses between cells not functioning as they should. Your brain needs oxygen, and breathing regularly doesn’t always do it. Oxygenate with some gentle exercise to get the blood flowing.
Coaching tip: Save time! Take a break, hydrate, and oxygenate – all at once. When you take your brain break (step 3, above), get a glass or bottle of water to drink as you walk down the hall. Upon returning to your office, and before sitting, try doing some modified squats or “in place” rowing, for 1-2 minutes. You’ve just given your brain a powerful boost!
Develop the mental flossing habit.
Your brain never stops processing, and accumulates thought remnants and bits of dreams that float around in your head until you clear it. This “dross” can keep you from your greatest clarity.
Coaching tip: Upon rising, free-flow journal for about five minutes to get rid of the bits and pieces of thoughts your brain has stored overnight. Let the pen take you where it wants to go, and write down what comes to mind – don’t force thinking. My clients report that this one morning habit changes their whole day, giving more clarity, focus, and productivity.
And a bonus coaching tip:
Stop trying to multi-task (which is really just jumping back and forth between various projects). This habit fragments the brain’s ability to focus and to get things done most effectively. If you want to enjoy greater mental clarity and heighten your productivity, pay attention to each item on your project/activity list one at a time. Decide on the next step for it, then schedule or delegate that step. Pick up the next folder and do the same. If interrupted during this process, care for the interruption, then come back to the same folder you had in your hand prior. This one shift in work habit has been studied, and is reported to have saved executives many hours weekly!