Today’s workplace places an unnatural pressure on our ability to sustain high levels of concentration for an extended period.
The eight to ten hour mental marathon is not our natural state and it is one which requires considerable training for the high levels of concentration, recall, problem solving, creative thinking and interpersonal relations required. Much of the time can be wasted in under performance if strategies are not put in place to trigger and maintain peak, mental functioning.
It has been well documented that concentration span wanes after 20 minutes of sustained activity. (Witness your own memory after hearing a one-hour conference presentation – let alone 8 hours). In most organisations today, people are pushing beyond the mental decline believing that they are operating at their mental best. In reality, they are accomplishing the best they can at a fraction of their potential.
In the office, this means unnecessarily long hours or simply inefficiency. Working at 20% – 50% efficiency for much of the day usually means later finishing times, taking work home and early starts. Imagine how much shorter the working day and more effective the output, if the brain was operating at 80-100% efficiency!
For the brain to function effectively, it needs fuel. While the brain represents only 2% of body weight, it requires 20% of the available oxygen and 50% of available glucose. Sedentary work results in a reduction of oxygen uptake and over extended periods, a consequent reduction in the ability to concentrate, absorb and recall information.
You probably know the symptoms. After several hours of solid concentration, you become mentally fatigued. You search for simple, mechanical tasks that require the minimum concentration. In an attempt to get the brain working, you take a lunch break but find you quickly return to the same lacklustre level of concentration. You either work longer hours or simply don’t get the job done.
Aerobic exercise and meditation are two simple methods of re-oxygenating the brain. While these have been promoted largely for their effect on cardiac health, the after effect of 20 minutes of either of these activities include not only a lowering of heart beat and blood pressure, but also an increased flow of oxygen to the brain. All this results in increased energy, creativity and improved ability to concentrate for up to 24 hours. A simple 20-minute meditation boost (instead of a cappuccino) at lunchtime will do wonders to your afternoon output! It is why some of our largest banks and parliamentary offices now have meditation rooms available for their employees.
While aerobic exercise will improve thinking, stress will have the opposite effect. A stress reaction will direct oxygen supply away from the cerebral cortex (the thinking part of the brain – the intellectual brain) to the lower brain to activate the physical functions of the ‘flight and fight’ response. Knowing how to identify the stress response is the first step. Learning control of the stress response and developing resilience strategies are critical to high-level mental performance.
While these behaviours are easy to suggest, they are not as easy to put into practice without training in behavioural change. Without support, it is much easier to just keep on in the same old rut. If you or any of your team wants to learn how to use your brains more effectively, you should seek out appropriate training. It follows that stress resilience; healthy lifestyles and peak performance will be the end result. Like learning to swim, we all need guidance to overcome our own resistance to change and new experiences.
Susanne Rix is a Behavioural Scientist, and author of Superworking: How to Achieve Peak Performance without stress.
Susanne and her team conduct Peak Performance programs for organisations. Individuals consistently report they are achieving more, in less time and with less stress. Organisations report higher staff retention rates, lower absenteeism and improved team cohesion.
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