Working smarter not harder for increased performance is about working to capacity, knowing what drives you and recognising what can potentially blindside performance.
This can be achieved by understanding how your brain is designed to operate at its best and putting it to work.
Your brain has its limits
While the true capacity of the human brain is still not known, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the part of the brain used for executive function and conscious thought, can only hold a certain number of items front of mind at any one time.
The need for cognitive load management
Mental overload occurs when too many demands are placed on the PFC. The risk of triggering the brain’s inbuilt circuit-breaker, which shuts down access to the PFC while disinhibiting emotional control, rises as the complexity and quantity of our thoughts increases.
Reducing this risk comes from acknowledging that we all have our limits, knowing what yours are, and putting in place those non-negotiable lifestyle choices that help you to retain the energy and mental resources required to keep you thinking at your best.
Focus is finite
We pay attention to stay safe, learn new information and focus on what is most important. While highly developed, the PFC is hugely energy hungry, meaning we’re not designed for long-term focus.
Working smarter comes from instilling regular brain breaks for a few minutes every hour, to allow the mind time to re-energise and be ready to focus on the next important piece of work.
Taking a five to ten-minute brain break, to sit quietly with your thoughts, reflect and think more deeply, helps the powerful subconscious to come up with new insights and perspectives.
Decision making has its limits
It’s estimated we make 30,000–35,000 decisions every day and one of the roles of the PFC is to regulate the intensity and expression of emotion to facilitate best decision making. Knowing when to defer an important decision is important, if you have reached the limits of your mental capacity at that moment.
Rested brains work best
It’s no secret we think better when we are rested, which means getting enough downtime and sleep. While Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher are famous for getting by with very little sleep, they are in the tiny minority and may have been endowed with the short-sleep gene.
Those of us with the regular-length gene require the standard seven to nine hours of good-quality, uninterrupted sleep to function at our best.
This means placing a high value on getting enough sleep, switching off from all technology 30–60 minutes before bedtime, avoiding alcohol in the evening because it reduces sleep quality, and taking time out to quieten the mind with non-work-related activities.
Mindfulness meditation and other forms of relaxation provide an excellent way to still busy minds, restore calm and clarity, and instil a greater sense of wellbeing.
Enjoying regular energy snacks across your day helps to maintain a positive mood, and improves memory and cognition. While coffee has its place for keeping you awake and alert, it is no substitute for real food. Choosing healthier food options and allocating time to stop for lunch improves brain health and executive function.
Similarly, exercise is the perfect energy snack that can be consumed at any time to boost memory, mood and creativity. Taking a 10–20-minute break to get out of the office for a run, holding a walking meeting, and adding incidental activity on top of regular aerobic huff ‘n’ puff exercise has been shown to boost efficiency, performance and happiness.
Choose not to do
While loving your work, having a strong work ethic and remaining focused on success can be very rewarding, it can also be exhausting.
Here it’s about being clear on identifying and limiting your priorities to no more than three things, delegating to others, and giving yourself permission to do less. As the late Steve Jobs said, “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.”
Working smarter not harder is about staying human, attending to those basic physiological and psychological needs, so you can always bring your best self to work.