Here in the northern hemisphere summer is drawing to a close. Days are getting shorter. And parents have endured the ritual of back-to-school shopping while the kids are being reintroduced to the ritual of nightly homework assignments. It’s back to the grind, with the memory of summer vacation a glowing, fading ember of a campfire floating through the air.
You did schedule a vacation this year, didn’t you, taking time to rest and recuperate?
Sadly, given the pace of modern life it’s increasingly difficult to actually take a break. The pressures we feel to stay engaged can be very real: If you’ve got a well drilling at the moment it’s not an ideal time to disconnect.
But these pressures also can be imagined, or simply the result of bad habits.
Will the entire business collapse if you are out of the office for one to two weeks? Are you able to resist checking email over the weekend?
Professor Daniel Levitin, cognitive psychologist, neuroscientist and author, urges us in the Aug. 9 New York Times to take mental breaks seriously – they’re essential to the health of our brains and decision-making ability.
In today’s world we’re barraged with information. Levitin cites a 2011 study indicating that each day we take in the amount of information equivalent to 174 newspapers, a five-fold increase in 25 years. Our brains are struggling to handle the volume.
And much of the information flow we’re dealing with is grim. Here in the United States racial tension is raising its ugly head. Relations between Russia and the west are chillier than at any time since the end of the Cold War. And civil war, sectarian violence, and social unrest fester in hotspots around the globe.
As an international industry we’re often directly affected by these events. And Levitin points out that “if you’re feeling overwhelmed, there’s a reason: The processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited.”
Our brains are wired such that attention is a binary switch: We’re either focused on a particular task or day-dreaming. The former is the mode we’re operating in when we’re trying to get things accomplished; the latter occurs when our minds are wandering and we often experience creative insights.
There also is an “attentional filter” that enables us to direct our attention to what matters most.
Multitasking is the term used to describe the mental juggling required to keep in balance all of the demands of modern life. Except that there is no such thing. The brain cannot focus on more than one thing at a time. It’s actually engaged in rapid task switching – from one task to another – and you can’t keep this up forever.
As science writer John Tierney explains in the New York Times magazine on Aug. 17, 2011, “No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue – you’re not consciously aware of being tired – but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts.”
The brain is experiencing decision fatigue. And as Tierney explains, the shortcuts it typically defaults to are to:
♦ Act recklessly or impulsively without considering the possible outcomes or consequences of a particular decision, or …
♦ Avoid making any decision whatsoever, because that is surely the safer choice than potentially making the wrong call.
The science suggests we each have a certain amount of mental energy for daily decision-making. How we spend that energy will determine our productivity and accomplishments.
I think it is fair to say that the president of the United States is someone who makes a lot of decisions on a daily basis, many with the potential for significant consequences. We don’t want the president – or any other world leader – taking those mental shortcuts if at all possible.
So how do they manage decision fatigue?
Did you know that President George W. Bush nearly always wore a blue tie? It’s something that struck me during his presidency. I didn’t know why.
But President Barack Obama offered a clue in a piece authored by Michael Lewis for the October 2012 issue of Vanity Fair, speaking about the job of being president: “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
Now, President Bush may wear blue ties simply because he likes them. But I suspect that he, too, relied on routine to preserve mental energy for more important decisions.
I’ll admit this sounds crazy, but what if they’re right and deciding whether to have a vanilla or chocolate milkshake at lunch exhausts your ability to make a good decision about where to TD that well you’re drilling?
Levitin offers additional hints for managing your mental energy, suggesting that maximum productivity and creativity are possible when we divide our day into chunks of time – 30 to 50 minutes – focused on specific tasks. That means avoiding distractions like email or social media during these intervals. They get their own dedicated chunks of time.
And rest – restorative time – whether in the form of vacations, unplugged weekends, and even naps is essential to our mental wellbeing.
Both Presidents Bush and Obama have been criticized for the amount of time they spend away from the White House resting and vacationing. But they clearly see the need for this time away.
And if they can schedule downtime, don’t you think you can too?
Work hard. By all means, work hard. But recognize that busyness isn’t the answer; creativity and innovation probably are. So cultivate practices of rest and relaxation that support your health and good decision-making.
“If we can train ourselves to take regular vacations – true vacations without work – and to set aside time for naps and contemplation, we will be in a more powerful position to start solving some of the world’s big problems,” Levitin concludes. “And to be happier and well rested while we’re doing it.”
Let your mind wander – and then get to work.