I have a large report to write involving analysis of some pretty complex data. I have a deadline and know it will mean a couple of late nights to finish the work. And, that’s fine, because that’s how work goes sometimes. Most of us will say that often work takes up more time than we’d like but I can manage the workload as long as I manage my energy effectively.
The biology of stamina and sustained cognition gives us a clear insight into how to leverage our wiring to keep on top and keep going – but our workplace environment, both the physical and culture, is so often structured to act contrary to our makeup. To take breaks for many employees is not only counter-intuitive but counter-cultural. Even when given the science behind the need for renewal and breaks the argument will still come that it is at least very difficult or at worst, impossible to take time out – ‘it just doesn’t work that way here – you can’t just stop’
The science says differently and in fact shows that only with breaks are we able to sustain our thinking and learning capacity. The rational thinking area of our brain, for which we are employed, is part of the new brain – the neocortex, and relative to the rest of our older brain is immature in its evolution. It gets tired as we use its energy stores working through documents, writing a report or learning a new concept. We’ve all experienced that time when we have read the same line twice, or suddenly realise that we have drifted off to other thoughts about what’s for dinner and the like. These are signals that we have depleted the energy for thinking. The good news is we can renew this energy pretty quickly. With as little as five minutes mindfulness – and that’s not adopting the lotus position and ‘umming’ at your desk – just looking out of the window mindfully, will do it, or you can go for a short walk to stretch and refresh. Whatever works for you, when you are back at that document notice your level of focus and concentration, your speed of thinking. And, as an added bonus those few minutes down-time, when your brain is allowed to rest, it will be able to make connections between the challenges you are facing and your experience stored deep in your memory. This space is where the sudden insights and answers alight as if from nowhere. After all where do you tend to have your best ideas – sat at your desk, nose deep in paperwork?
If we push on through this natural renewal phase, perhaps grabbing a sugary snack or coffee, we will only see diminishing returns on our cognitive capacity. We cannot trick our biology or bypass its wiring. Cognitive fatigue is not only physiologically expensive it represents organisational risk – all those people sat at desks making decisions on empty. Increased errors, reduced capacity to innovate, longer to do tasks and risks to health are the result. No athlete or musician would ever dream of having a schedule without time for renewal, so why do we expect ourselves and our employees to be able to?