There is a pervasive belief in management that we have to be in constant motion. The pressure to produce is relentless. No matter how much we accomplish, how many problems we solve, or how many crises we handle, there seems to be an unending flood of more to do.
There is a corrosive aspect to this pressure. It seduces us into believing that we must always be engaged in activity, in doing something. It feels as if the boat is filling with water and if stop bailing, even for a moment, we will lose the battle against the tide and drown.
But the truth is that we need to balance activity with reflection, balance short term execution with long term planning, and balance exertion with renewal. We are at our best as leaders when we are able to rise above the one-sided addiction to constant action. We make better-informed decisions when we complement action with the effective use of reflection and introspection.
By introspection, I mean taking the time to reflect on our experience with clarity to see patterns and gain insights that we would otherwise miss in the hectic rush of activity. Without this clarity and insight, our action tends to perpetuate the very crises we want to avoid.
The reason that clarity requires reflection is rooted in the wiring of our brain.
Modern brain science tells us that when we are deeply involved in a task or in a high state of stress arousal, we activate systems and networks in our brain that increase our energy level and focus our attention. But these brain states have a downside: they cause us to narrow our attention, reduce creative thinking and ignore large amounts of information. They also have numerous harmful side effects to our long term health.
There are complementary systems and networks in the brain that allow us to widen our attention, lower our energy level and enter into a more relaxed brain state. When we access these states, we experience less stress, have more creativity and are more open to possibilities. These two systems within the brain do not operate at the same time. When we are in action mode, our brain suppresses our more relaxed, creative abilities.
If we allow the pressures of our work day to force us into a relentless pace of hectic activity, we will over stimulate our focused-attention brain state and inhibit our open-attention brain state. Over time, we will train ourselves to rely on only one set of abilities. The reactive side of our brain will grow and our capacities for creativity and big-picture thinking will atrophy.
It takes relatively little time to make a powerful investment in these beneficial brain states. The return on this investment is huge: the balanced ability to lower stress and access higher brain function. Here are some suggested reflection activities that can make a significant impact.
In the Moment One of the most powerful exercises to lower stress and activate our positive neural networks is also the simplest: conscious breathing. Try this – take three long, slow, deliberate breaths. Breath through your nose and focus your attention on nothing but your breath and the physical sensations in your body. This will take less than 30 seconds and will begin to slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, reduce your feelings of stress and begin the cycle of relaxation and renewal.
If you are in a busy environment, you can do this quick exercise without other people noticing. You can increase the frequency of the exercise by creating mental triggers that remind you to do it throughout the day. For example:
• Place an object on your desk that will remind you such as a paperweight, a picture, or vase of flowers. Train yourself to stop and take three slow breaths when you look at the object.
• When you start to make a phone call, let your hand on the receiver be your cue to stop and take three slow breaths. Or, when the phone rings, take a breath before answering the call.
• Put a note, magnet or other item by your door so that you are reminded every time you enter your office. Sit and take your three slow breaths before going on with your work.
Schedule Reflection Time Schedule time to visualize and brainstorm about the future. This can be a short period, such as 20 to 30 minutes every Monday morning. The visualization can be about your vision for a specific project, or your career, or about the future in general, but it should be about something you care about. Spend this time thinking or writing in an unstructured way. If you want, you can use prompting questions such as, What would this ideal future look like? What would I feel like experiencing this future? How would this future help me, my family, my co-workers, and the planet?
Another effective exercise, used in many leadership development programs, is to conduct a structured reflection on a specific recent event. Leadership coach Brett Thomas of Stagen Leadership calls this “gamefilming,” because it gives a leader insights into their performance similar to how athletes watch film of themselves after the game.
To do the exercise, pick an event or situation from your recent past. Sit quietly for 15 minutes and write out your answers to these questions: how did I experience this event? What thoughts and feelings arose in me during the event? What actions did I take? What did I want to occur from those actions? What actually occurred? What conclusions do I draw from this? How can I test my conclusions in a future event to see if I am right?
Lifelong Practice My last suggestion is the most powerful and rewarding investment of all, but it takes a deeper commitment. If you want to cultivate your ability to navigate stress and access positive brain states on a consistent basis, consider engaging in a daily reflective or contemplative practice. This can be meditation, attention training, mindfulness practice, centering prayer, tai chi, yoga, or a number of modern practices that build our inner capacity for introspection, reflection and awareness.
Hundreds of research studies have now demonstrated the personal and professional benefits of such a program, including increased creativity, increased productivity, enhanced positive emotions, increased self-awareness, improved emotional intelligence, increased concentration, improved athletic performance, increased resilience, decreased chronic pain, lower cardiovascular risk, decreased depression and anxiety, reduced insomnia, and many, many more.
The flow of daily pressures and crises is not likely to slow in the near future. But we can grow our ability to handle this flow with ease and effectiveness. It is an investment I encourage every leader to make.
Perceived stress activates our sympathetic nervous system, which raises our blood pressure, slows digestion, inhibits our immune function, interferes with cellular repair, increases our levels of adrenaline and cortisol, and decreases our levels of serotonin and dopamine. Focusing on a task activates our task-positive neural network, which is a set of brain cell connections that narrow our attention and exclude information. The reflective exercises suggested in this article activate the parasympathetic nervous system and the default-mode neural network, which lower stress, elevate our mood, produce a feeling of relaxation, and increase our openness to new possibilities.
For more information on how brain function impacts our bodies and our leadership behaviors, see:
Resonant Leadership, (2005) by Richard Boyatzis, Ph.D., and Annie McKee, Ph.D.
Fully Present, (2010) by Susan Smalley, Ph.D., and Diana Winston, of UCLA
Buddha’s Brain, (2009) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
About the Author
Steve Sphar is a seasoned leadership consultant with over 25 years experience partnering with executives and managers to create sustained positive change. He was a practicing attorney for 12 years before turning his law and business experience to the field of leadership consulting. He helps managers and executives develop their leadership potential though one-on-one coaching, leadership training and facilitation of executive retreats.