Quick hack to get out of a mental rut at work.
There are people out there who face fear, criticism and uncertainty every single day, all because they believe the world can be a better place. At PERSONNA, we work with leaders who are constantly looking to reach their next level of performance, whether as an individual, a team, or an organisation. They dream about operating in that fabled "sweet spot" for performance - a place where performance flows easily, and where new levels are achieved. Every day, they are under immense pressure to perform at the top of their game. But in the chase for perfection, sometimes they can be very, very close but still not quite in the perfect rhythm.
I find myself in this situation sometimes. I push myself to the limit until I hit a brick wall, and I can’t push through. And what do I do when that happens? Stop being lazy. Work harder. You don’t need sleep. This is the Achilles heel of dominant Type A personality types, the over-achieving “workaholics”: When we are stuck, we just keep going. Stuck in a rut? Nah… There’s just a lot happening right now, no big deal. Deep down, you know something is out of tune. You know that working harder ain't working, but you don't know what else to do.
Deep down, you know something is out of tune. You know that working harder ain't working, but you don't know what else to do.
I have big ambitious (a.k.a. delusional) plans. I know where I want to go. I know what I have to do, and the work is never done. I'm always playing catch-up. Sometimes it’s so challenging to find the space to execute all my strategies. Space where I am actually managing my energy with ease without cramping up in places. And I know I’m not the only one. Maybe you have been promoted a little too quickly through the ranks. Or you have been hit by crisis upon crisis. Every day, it’s a simple matter of survival. The situation demands that you bring your full self to work every day. If you don’t know how to manage your energy, every little thing becomes an issue that requires your immediate attention. Your work piles up, and you run out of hours in a day.
SWEET SPOT FOR PERFORMANCE
Think of the last time you produced extraordinary results at work. You might have come up with a genius idea, a creative solution to a problem, something no one has done before, and it created a totally different result than what you expected. You surprised yourself (That’s why it’s extra-ordinary)! You probably had to stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone and do something really uncomfortable. You probably had to learn new things to achieve those outcomes.
Researchers have known for a long time that there is a “sweet spot” for peak performance. Neuroscientist Amy Arnsten (1) tells us that this “sweet spot” is achieved when our brain gets doused with a delicious cocktail with just the right twist of two specific chemicals: dopamine, the chemical of interest, and adrenaline, the chemical of alertness. Recall a moment when the sky opened, and the sun shone through? That sense of euphoria? Yup, that’s dopamine and adrenaline. For the sake of word count, I’ll call it DOPE.
DOPE keeps you feeling engaged and alert. You stay focused under pressure. Your thinking becomes sharper. You become more open to learning and change. In this state, even things that could kill you look thrilling and exciting (skydiving, anyone?). You are more likely to come up with new ideas. And when you do come up with new ideas, that proverbial “AHA!” light bulb moment (2), you get shot up with another DOPE hit. You feel motivated and committed all over again and take further actions towards your goals. This becomes a virtuous cycle of pleasure and action towards your desired outcome. The road ahead may be extremely challenging, but the virtuous cycle is hard to resist, i.e. addictive.
ON THE EDGE
So far, we’ve heard the good news. We do our best work when we are challenged and stretched. We hit the leader’s high. The DOPE sweet spot. Now for the bad news. The magic only happens when we have just the right level of stretch. The Goldilocks zone: Not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Too much stretch and we become overwhelmed. Too little stretch and we become bored. (And bored is not the same as relaxed. But that’s another story for another time.) You’re literally balancing on the edge, and it’s a slippery slope - one wrong move and you go over the edge.
We get used to being overstretched and overwhelmed, where a world of grey, faded out music, and a constant hum of stress becomes normal. So normal, in fact, that it seems like no big deal. When we feel extreme or sudden pain or anger, our bodies push us to make a difference. But when the discomfort is bearable and persistent, it's hard to find enough motivation to change. And so we end up in this twilight zone where it feels like we’re running hard but not really going anywhere. We can get stuck here, without even realising it. And we can stay stuck here for a very long time...
FIND THE OPENING
So how do we get out of the rut? How do we manage our energy so that we operate from the sweet spot for performance?
I recommend a 3-step process:
1. Stop looking externally, and start looking inwards.
Change always begins with a conscious awareness that something is out of tune. This requires you to shift your attention from external-facing to looking inwards. It means withdrawing from the external world and its never-ending problems, and dropping into your body, putting you in a state where you can reflect on more in-depth thoughts, what researcher Jonathon Schooler calls “mind wandering”, which is a form of daydreaming. (3) This is a deep, relaxed and spacious state of mind.
2. Stop banging your precious head against the wall, and start finding the opening.
The key here is to FEEL the flow of energy. Slow down. Take the time to drop into your body. Sense the “weight” that you are carrying. Search for “tightness" in your mind and body. It’s all about the experience. This is NOT about thinking logically or analysing data, for example, breaking down the back-to-back meetings you attended that day and quantifying how tired you should feel.
You can ask yourself these questions:
How hard am I pushing?
How far is there to go?
Can I keep this up?
Also, be careful not to judge the “weight” or “tightness”. When you become aware of it, without judgement, naturally, the weight lifts off, or the tightness opens up. You found the opening. Here all is spacious and bathed in light. You feel yourself relaxing. Psychologists call this completing the stress response cycle.
And this happens all on its own, without your conscious intervention. It’s like my old childhood habit of shaking my legs. In our Chinese custom, it's inauspicious to shake your legs; it’s like you’re shaking your prosperity away. It’s unconscious; I don’t realise when I’m doing it. But when I do become aware of it, the instant that I recognise it, the shaking stops. It’s an act of allowing, giving it the space to express itself and then let it dissipate naturally, and not rushing or pushing for something to happen.
But for the hardened warriors among us, the weight doesn’t lift off. The tightness doesn’t open up. And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that the method doesn’t work. It just requires more practice. If you’ve been accumulating the load on your shoulders for years without putting it down, then it will take more than one try to release yourself from it. There’s a lot of junk in that trunk! Give it a shot, and see if it brings a small relief. Or even if it helps you become more conscious of not adding more junk to the trunk.
3. Stop ruminating, and start gaining new insight.
When the weight lifts off, or the tightness opens up, it can reveal new insights. Like how when the dark clouds dissipate, you see the sunlight. You’re connecting to the subtle signals that were not obvious before.
Research (4) has shown that insight is often inhibited because people are focused on the wrong answers; these have become the dominant thought. We need to stop thinking one way before another train of thought can emerge.
You may already have the answers within. Additional studies have shown that when people have insights, their non-conscious mind usually has the insight some time before the conscious mind perceives it. To access the new insight, you have to reduce the “gating effect” of the dominant conscious thought. You got this.
I know this looks like a lot of words, but in practice, it can be simple. Some might even think it’s too simple and dismiss it. I recommend a daily 5-minute exercise, at the end of the day when you’re winding down. Try it for seven days.
Use the time to really dig deep. Slow down. Feel the heaviness in your body, not being tossed around by a tidal wave of tasks, and how you can manage your energy. Because you can. I’m not saying this in any way to blame or make you feel bad. I say this to empower. To remind you of your own power. This power is available to you, something that you can control if you wish to. You just need to know how to manage your energy. You know what it feels like to be playing at the top of your game. Often it is only when we get a glimpse of beauty, joy, or even anguish that we are reminded who we are, and we realise how much we are missing and how much more life has to offer. This power is in all of us innately. It’s about you finding the opening where it might be for you. And that’s a personal thing.
What does all this mean? Well, not managing your energy properly at work is like trying to get to Mars on a horse-drawn carriage. Let’s not kid ourselves. Our job is high-pressure and high-performance. That’s not going to change any time soon. But we can help ourselves and manage our energy better. Sometimes, what we really need is a divine intervention, some magical thinking. Skip the harmful (and illegal!) stuff and find that opening.
WILL LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT WORK FOR YOU?
Real leaders wake up every morning feeling:
“There’s something bigger I’m meant to do”.
Even if they can’t yet articulate it.
Ideas can be very persistent and lethally enchanting. So seductive are their calls that they distract you while you work. They haunt you in your sleep. They just won’t leave you alone.
Things are changing around you. You may already have the answers you are looking for without even realising it. Leadership coaching or leadership branding can help bring more clarity to your situation and confidently move towards a better future.
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(1) Arsten, Neurobiology of Executive Functions: Catecholamine Influences on Prefrontal Cortical Functions, Biological psychiatry, 2004 Oct (published online).
(2) Kounios, J. & Beeman, M. (2009) The Aha! Moment: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Insight. Current Directions in Psychological Science, (18).
(3) Schooler, Jonathan W., et. al. “Meta-awareness, perceptual decoupling and the wandering mind.” Trends in cognitive sciences 15.7 (2011).
(4) Smith S.M. (1995) Getting into and out of mental ruts: A theory of fixation, incubation, and insight. In: The nature of insight. Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press.