The Two-System Brain
Your deliberate system is responsible for sophisticated functions such as reasoning, self-control, and forward thinking. It excels in handling anything unfamiliar, complex, or abstract. But it has limited capacity and gets tired quickly. When it’s overused, overloaded, or distracted, it’s harder for you to be wise, balanced, or reliable.
Your automatic system lightens the load on your deliberate system by automating most of what you do and taking fast shortcuts that filter out “irrelevant” information and options. That’s mostly helpful. But it inevitably leaves you with blind spots. And the fact that nobody ever experiences an entirely objective version of reality can lead to crossed wires and poor choices in the workplace.
The Discover-Defend Axis
You’re constantly moving along a discover-defend axis in your daily life, as your brain scans for threats to defend against and rewards to seek out and discover
In defensive mode, you become less smart and flexible, as your brain devotes some of its scarce mental energy to launching a fight-flight-freeze response to a potential “threat”—leaving less energy to power your brain’s deliberate system. Defensive mode can even be triggered by small personal slights.
The Mind-Body Loop
The way you treat your body has a direct, immediate impact on your brain’s performance, affecting both its cognitive and emotional functions.
Specifically, your brain’s deliberate system performs far better when you’ve had enough sleep, some aerobic exercise, and a few moments of mindfulness.
Choosing Your Filters
Take a moment to think about the day ahead, or an important conversation you have coming up. Ask yourself these intention-setting questions:
- Aim: What matters most in making this a success, and what does that mean your real priority should be?
- Attitude: What concerns are dominating your thoughts or your mood? Do they help you with your priorities—and if not, can you choose to set them aside for now?
- Assumptions: What negative expectations do you have going into this? How might you challenge those expectations? What counterevidence might you seek out?
- Attention: Given your real aim and your assumptions, where do you most want to direct your attention? What do you want to make particularly sure you notice?
Setting Great Goals
Take a moment now to think about your priorities for today.
Set some behavioral goals. Personally, what behavior of yours will support your intentions for the day? Specifically, what tangible actions can you plan to take? Put these on your to-do list along with your regular tasks.
Articulate your goals for the win. Phrase them so that they’re positive, meaningful, feasible, and situation-specific.
Create “approach” goals. Make sure your goals are about doing desirable things, or doing more of them, rather than avoiding bad things happening. If they’re negative in tone, turn them around.
Find a personal why. Can you articulate why the goal matters to you or how it will benefit something you care about?
Break off bite-sized chunks. If the actions to take are unclear, break your goal down into smaller, bite-sized chunks. Get especially clear on the very first step to take to make progress.
Make a “when-then” plan. Define clear situational prompts (“when X happens, then I will do Y”) to increase the chances that you’ll get your most important goals met today
Create a brain-friendly to-do list. Whichever approach you take to task management, make sure you don’t overload your brain’s working memory and that you feed your reward system.
Reinforcing Your Intentions
Consider taking a moment now to revisit your intentions and goals for the day ahead. For the most important of them:
Mental contrasting. What’s most likely to get in the way of you achieving what you hope to do? What can you do to reduce the chance that this obstacle derails you—ideally by making a specific “when-then” plan?
Priming. What cues can you use to remind yourself to stay on track today? Are there words or phrases that will help remind you of your intentions? How can you make your surroundings a good metaphor for your intentions?
Mind’s-eye rehearsal. Take a moment to visualize the most important part of your day going exactly as you hope. What will you be doing to overcome the challenges in your path? How will that look and feel? Can you recall a time in the past where you behaved just as you want to behave today, and bring that vividly to mind?
Look at your schedule for today, and organize your tasks to allow your brain to work at its best (and get more done as a result). Try the following:
Batch your tasks. Group together similar tasks (e.g., email, calls, and reading), so you’re not constantly switching from one mental mode to another.
Zone your day. Decide on the best time of day to tackle each batch of tasks, including one or two “email zones.” Create longer blocks of uninterrupted time for your most important work. Can you move some appointments to create clearer zones?
Remove distractions. Minimize interruptions, to help you focus your attention on the task at hand. Which alerts can you switch off? Can you use an app to block access to certain websites? Decide on a good “parking lot” technique to allow you to capture stray thoughts before they derail your focus.
Plan small rewards for good behavior. How can you reward yourself for remaining focused while you singletask—for example, by setting a timer, or keeping a log?
Share your wisdom. Can you be proactive in explaining your scheduling choices to colleagues?
Planning Deliberate Downtime
Look at your schedule for today and tomorrow, and plan for the following:
Take smart breaks. How can you make sure you take regular breaks, at least every ninety minutes and between each “zone” of tasks in your day?
Make decisions at peaks (not troughs). Which tasks will require you to make a lot of choices? How can you make them when your brain is freshest?
Schedule breathing room. Can you schedule meetings or offer your time in blocks of twenty-five or forty-five minutes (instead of thirty or sixty minutes), to create micro-breaks between commitments? For commitments that are already scheduled, can you aim to wrap up a little early?
Allow reflection time. At the end of each task or meeting, take thirty seconds to capture your biggest insights. Try an end-of-day reflection practice such as DATE (discovered, achieved, thankful for, experienced).
Next time you’re feeling overloaded, try these strategies—in fact, why not try them right now?
Mindful pause. Give your brain’s deliberate system a chance to fully engage, by pausing to focus on your breath (or scanning your body, or counting back from one hundred) for five minutes.
Get it out of your head. Write down everything that’s swirling around your mind, even the tiniest to-dos.
Most important thing. What really matters most right now, either because it has to happen today or because it has the biggest impact?
Smallest first step. What’s the very first step you can take toward doing that most important thing—something small enough to do today?
Comparative advantage. What are you uniquely well placed to do—and what could others do, even if not as well as you? Focus on tasks where the gap between your capabilities and other people’s is biggest.
Positive no. For a commitment that you need to delegate or decline: start with warmth; say what you’re saying “yes” to; say your “no”; end with warmth.
Setting boundaries. If you could set one boundary in the way you organize your time, what would it be? What’s the clearest, cleanest way to communicate this preference to others?
Automate small daily decisions. Consider whether you can do something at the same time or in the same way each day, to spend more of your mental energy on the things that matter.
Think about the item on your to-do list that you’ve been avoiding.
Picture the benefits. What will be better as a result of getting this done, for you and for others? How great will that feel? Think back to the last time you got something like this done—what was the upside?
Plan a short-term reward. How could you plan to reward yourself for today’s progress toward the end goal, if it’s a long haul?
Tie the first step to something you like. Identify the first small step you need to take. Then find a way to link that to something you are definitely going to do today and that you enjoy doing.
Amplify the downside of inaction. How can you sharpen your sense of the costs of not getting it done? What pre-commitments can you make, ideally involving other people?
Ask the five whys. If you’re still finding yourself reluctant to make progress, ask yourself five “why” questions. What surfaces as the real blockage? What can you do to address that?