To Think Better: Manage Your Cognitive Fatigue

Some work weeks are more demanding than others and this one had been a marathon. After six days working interstate: keynoting, facilitating, consulting and being “on call” workwise throughout, by the time Friday afternoon came round I could feel my brain powering down to the point where I knew I should not be allowed to take responsibility for the safety of animals or small children.

But how often do you find yourself soldiering through extreme fatigue levels because:

  • There’s no other option and the work just has to be completed.
  • There’s no one else who can do the work and it’s needed now.
  • You feel bad about potentially letting someone else down.
  • You don’t feel it’s possible to ask for help because you know everyone else is under the pump as well.

The problem is cognitive fatigue diminishes our efficiency, effectiveness and performance. Our speed of processing information s—l—o—w—s right down, it’s harder to pay attention and we make more mistakes. It also gets harder to manage our emotional state; we can get a little “antsy” with our colleagues and frustrated with ourselves.

Cognitive fatigue makes it harder to think.

Add in the extra burden of recovery from injury or illness, the associated worry and anxiety (will everything be OK?) or having to take medication that makes us feel as if we have cotton wool rather than brain cells in our head it’s easy to see why better thinking has to start with managing our state of mind from an energy perspective.

How you manage your cognitive energy will be unique to you. It’s about recognising the difference between what powers you up and what powers you down and aiming to do more of the former.

I often get asked “What do you do Dr. Jenny?” and while I am happy to share, my caveat is this is what works for me, it may not be what works best for you, nor am I perfect. There are those days (heck, sometimes weeks) where my intentions are not fulfilled.
Sometimes I have to pull myself up short and say, “O.K. Why isn’t this happening and what can I be doing to get back on track?”

It’s about the rituals and habits we put in place that serve us best. Because running on autopilot reduces the cognitive burden of “I know this is important but I’m going to justify why I’m not doing it right now.”

First up there is the morning ritual – the set of activities that set us up to be ready for the day and more capable of handling whatever might crop up.

  1. Drinking the glass of water sitting on the bedside cabinet before heading off to the kitchen to put the kettle on for my first “cuppa.” Being of British heritage I can’t imagine starting a day without a cup of tea.
  2. Meditating for 15- 20 minutes.
  3. Taking our two Border Terriers out for their constitutional – a thirty to forty minute walk through parkland/bushland or the beach. This is my thinking space where many ideas and thoughts bubble up that I can then take home to work on.
  4. Home for breakfast and time to catch up with my hubby before we set out on our respective work days.

What’s your morning ritual?

During the day we can devise a number of other rituals to help maintain mental energy.

1. Preplanning

This is about mapping out the week and the day’s work in advance. This can help to highlight what to focus on first and keep you occupied on Grade A thinking tasks, delegating the Grade B and C tasks to other time slots.

2. Block your day into chunks of focused work

This allows you to schedule in breaks every 60-90 minutes to get up for a stretch, take a mental break and break focus. Your brain isn’t designed for long-term focus – we think better in a series of short, sharp, focused sprints.

3. Keep moving

We think better on our feet – it boosts our level of attention and cerebral blood flow, especially to the prefrontal cortex. This is where a variable height desk can be useful and choosing to stand during certain tasks such as when answering the phone, checking email or in meetings.

4. Plan a small reward.

Small rewards are deeply motivating to the brain and help to keep energy levels up. Beyond that satisfying ticking off an item from the to-do list for that small dopamine hit, why not congratulate yourself on completing a difficult task, getting a tender out on time, meeting a deadline or finishing a group project with a small reward of a hi-five, sharing the news with a colleague, going out for a promised coffee catch up, massage or whatever you find rewarding.

5. Choose a finish time

Sometimes it can be hard to know when to stop. There will always be more stuff to do, work that is incomplete and the next item waiting for your attention. Working for too long is mentally exhausting and leads to more mistakes and reduced performance. If you’re supposed to finish work at 5.30 pm and you’re still in the office at 7.30 pm. you’re not doing yourself or anyone else any favours. Set an alarm if need be, but know when to call it a day.

6. Get enough downtime and sleep

This can be an absolute lifesaver. It’s the permission piece to avoid getting overtired and places high value on sleep. This might mean turning down invitations to some social events, but the payoff is having the cognitive energy needed to always be at your best.

In a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, your future success and best thinking depend on having sufficient mental fuel in your cognitive energy tanks.

Which rituals have you found essential for managing your cognitive fatigue?

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