The biggest issue for leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic is dealing with ongoing uncertainty and rapidly shifting goalposts. This is impacting emotional and mental wellbeing, and affecting the way we think.
If exhaustion from continually digging deep to come up with the best decision for the moment and keeping up to speed with the latest developments is taking its toll, it's time to put in place those key strategies to help boost your brain power.
Engage in self-care
While the analogy of remembering to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others is a little tired, it is more relevant than ever.
You may think you don't need more than 5 hours of sleep, but this is wrong. Unless you have one of the short-sleep genes, this delusion is costing you dearly in terms of your ability to pay attention, take in new information, respond quickly, make a good decision or recognise when a situation has become dangerous.
If sleep is elusive or fragmented try keeping to a consistent schedule, avoid the sleep poisons of caffeine, alcohol and smoking and follow a pre-bed wind down routine of 60-90 minutes.
A rested mind is sharper, more focused, creative, insightful and enables high-level innovative thinking and problem solving.
You'll also be more adept at managing your emotions.
Take sufficient time out
It may be all hands on deck, but effective leadership requires the ability to know when to uncouple from focus and take time out from work. Just as an athlete trains hard and then rests, the leader who takes a regular short 15-minute break twice a day, gets out for 30 minutes of exercise and undertakes a pleasurable non-work related activity will enjoy greater focus and productivity.
Taking a mental breather ensures you retain the mental stamina needed to get through the day - and helps you to sleep better.
Open your ears, eyes and mind
Scheduling the time to think without interruption promotes critical thinking skills, identified by the World Economic Forum as essential in the modern workplace. Inviting input, active listening and coming from a place of not knowing all the answers broadens perspective and the self-awareness to see what impact your decision will have on the organisation as a whole.
In addition, 10 minutes of time spent daily in mindfulness meditation has been shown to boost cognitive function, calming the mind, reducing stress and clarifying thinking.
While staying curious, continuing to ask questions, boosts attention, learning and increases memory consolidation.
Keep stress levels in the healthy zone
Stress helps to enhance performance and strengthen learning when kept in the healthy zone. Signs showing that this has been exceeded include foggy thinking, forgetting, making mistakes that are out of character, poor sleep and irritability. In the long term, this can contribute to a higher risk of mental illness or burnout and increased future risk of cognitive decline.
Some tips to reduce stress:
- Avoid unnecessary additional stress by paring back how much time you're spending at work; delegate where possible and recognise your limits.
- Alter how you operate, be willing to compromise and express your true feelings to reduce the intensity of the associated emotions.
- Adapt to the fast-moving work landscape by changing your expectations and attitude. Seek to reframe how you see a challenge, release perfectionism and show appreciation for what is going right.
- Accept what can't be changed or fixed. This is about letting go, finding the positive, showing forgiveness and compassion to yourself and others.
- Stay connected. Friends and a strong inner circle provide cognitive benefits by increasing resilience to stress and stimulating intellectual rigor. This is important to brain health and function from the age of 40.
The single most effective way to your boost brain power is with regular exercise. In addition to the extra oxygen and nutrients, it reduces stress and elevates the release of the feel-good hormones - dopamine, serotonin and endorphins - keeping you in a better mood, clarifying thinking and stimulating the release of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) associated with enhancing the brain's natural plasticity and health, protecting memory, attention and thinking skills.
Ideally, find 150 minutes per week for aerobic exercise plus 2 sessions of weights or resistance training. Stronger muscles equate to stronger mental muscle.
Boosting your brain power isn't hard or time consuming but it does require daily maintenance. Creating these small daily habits will help you sustain great cognition, how well you think, learn and remember.