How to manage your Mental Energy and work less to achieve more

In 2014, the social networking company, The Draugiem Group, used a time-tracking productivity app to study what habits set their most productive employees apart. Surprisingly, the top 10% of employees with the highest productivity didn’t put in longer hours than anyone else – often they didn’t even work eight-hour days. Instead, the key to their productivity was that for every 52 minutes of focused work, they took a 17-minute break.

The need for effective, high-quality performance in workplaces is increasing, but the tried and tested method of putting in longer hours no longer works because time is a limited resource. Research suggests that we need to focus on managing our personal energy rather than our time in order to be well and do well, because personal energy is a renewable resource.

We each need four sources of energy to operate at our best: physical energy, emotional energy, mental energy and spiritual energy. We need all four, as none of them is sufficient to sustain us on its own. In the last couple of blogs, I focused on sleep (physical energy) and positive emotions (emotional energy). Today, we’re going to look at mental energy.

There are biological limits that underlie mental performance. The brain is not designed for multi-tasking – when doing two things at once even the brain of a PhD is reduced to that of an 8-year-old. A temporary shift in attention from one task to another – stopping to answer an e-mail or take a phone call — increases the amount of time necessary to finish the primary task by as much as 25%, a phenomenon known as “switching time.” 

‘Switching time’ – a temporary shift in attention from one task to another – increases the time needed to finish the primary task by as much as 25% and drains mental energy.

To understand why this is, we need to turn to neuroscience. 

The pre-frontal cortex (PFC) sits behind the forehead. It makes up only about 4-5% of the brain’s volume and was the last region of the brain to develop. The PFC is crucial to functions such as planning, goal setting and impulse control. It is where intentional action is designed, developed and decided upon through 5 functions: understanding, deciding, recalling, memorising and inhibiting. These five individual functions are combined in order for us to plan, solve problems, communicate etc. The PFC is also our internal radio – our commentary and sense-making of what we are experiencing.

Unfortunately, the PFC has big limitations in terms of its processing capacity and uses a lot of resources to get there. Think of your PFC as the basket of a hot air balloon – it takes a lot of energy to fill the balloon for it to fly in relation to the small capacity of the basket.  This is why it’s easier to get distracted when you’re tired or hungry – you simply don’t have the fuel to keep the PFC ‘on task’.

And it’s not just about the volume of work, the type of work you’re doing also has an impact. In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman identified two types of mental processing – ‘fast’ thinking, which is automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic and unconscious, and ‘slow’ thinking, which is effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating and conscious. These are also called System 1 and System 2 thinking.

System 1 thinking is things like reading text on a sign or driving your car on an empty road – they take little effort or thought. System 2 thinking is involved when we do things like determine the appropriateness of a particular behaviour in a social setting or consider the price/quality ratio of two ‘phones. System 2 thinking involves more mentally taxing tasks and this chews up metabolic resources (the fuel in your blood) much faster than automatic, System 1 tasks. Because of this, our best quality thinking only lasts for a limited amount of time, which is why when it comes to time spent working – more is not always better

What to do with this?

Understand that your quality thinking capacity is a limited resource and treat it as such by allocating it to something important – prioritising.

Prioritising needs to be done before other attention-rich activities such as emailing.

Because ‘prioritising’ is hard work and takes a lot of PFC energy. When we prioritise, we need to bring together experiences we haven’t had yet and create pictures we have yet to see as we imagine and then play with concepts. Daniel Gilbert’s 2006 book ‘Stumbling on Happiness’ looks at this in depth and shows how terrible humans are at assessing how they will feel in the future, or what Gilbert calls “affective forecasting”. We do it based on how we feel today rather than assessing our future mental state.

Because of this, prioritising needs to be done when we are fresh and energised.

What can you do to help manage your mental energy effectively? 
In his book Your Brain at Work, Dr David Rock suggests these strategies:

  • Use Visuals
    Literally see something in your mind’s eye – through actual pictures, metaphors or stories – to activate the visual cortex in the occipital lobe at the back of the brain.

Firstly because visuals are highly information-efficient constructs. For example, if you picture your office, you can deal with lots of detail and complex relationships between dozens of objects.  Secondly, the brain is well developed to create mental imagery involving people and objects interacting. Because visual processes evolved millions of years ago, the circuity involved in the brain is more evolved and efficient than that for language.

  • Get things out of your head
    Write things down so that they don’t have to be ‘held’ in the PFC using up valuable energy and processing capacity.
  • Block your day
    Do ‘like’ activities together, for example, all creative writing at the start of the day and mix up the type of thinking you’re doing throughout the day. Use some activities as ‘recovery’ for your PFC from deep complex thinking, in a similar way to physical training. These could be things like a routine task or socially based tasks.
  • Be clear about what NOT to prioritise
    Understanding when not to think is also important. Be disciplined about not paying attention to non-urgent tasks until (or if) you have to. A useful tool for this is Steven Covey’s Urgent versus Important Matrix (also known as the Eisenhower Matrix). Also, not wasting mental energy on tasks when you don’t have all the information yet and preserving your mental energy by delegating well.

 Your ability to make great decisions is a limited resource – conserve it at every opportunity! (Dr David Rock)

Whilst it may feel counter-intuitive, we get more done, in less time, at a higher level of quality and in a more sustainable way when we rest and replenish regularly. This is because we are designed to move between spending and renewing energy. The key to being well and doing well might be found in embracing the slumps in your day – those moments when your productivity begins to ebb away – and using them more intentionally to rest, replenish and ultimately sustain your mental energy.

Want to learn more sustaining your leadership energy?
Click here to find out more about Paige’s Feeling Well and Doing Well at Work program.

Copyright 2019: Dr Paige Williams

Paige Williams, PhD

Paige Williams, PhD

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach

Paige helps leaders leverage their leadership to lead teams that deliver and create culture that feeds high performance.

Leveraging Leadership for positive purposeful impact.