Tony Ewing, Contributor
Sept. 1, 2020
Summer’s over! And that means mentally preparing for the Fall and what comes with it. Professionals, for example, will be hoping to tackle fourth quarter challenges, such as recouping their companies’s financial losses from the COVID-19 pandemic measures.
Parents, in turn, will be wanting to prepare their children for a new school year that might involve a dramatic change in how their kids interact with teachers and other students—e.g., behind masks, at a distance, or online.
And, finally, students in their final years of study will be preparing to graduate and perhaps apply to competitive schools or jobs in a future marketplace for both that is unknown.
The stress is obvious and the need for mental toughness clear.
So here are a few insights from behavioral science about how you, those you lead, and those you care about can become more mentally tough for the Fall.
In the race to make up for poor results—be they financial results or grades—we human beings tend to overcompensate in trying to hit our targets. Another name for this is loss aversion. Over 90 percent of us tend to over- or under-react with respect to a given reference point. In other words, hoping to hit an elusive target when we’re far away from it, we’ll gamble to get there. By the opposite token, when we believe we’re on track to meet our targets, we put in too little effort and don’t perform as we should. For business leaders right now, pressure to make up for lost ground due to COVID could have you pressing your staff or yourself too hard (i.e., gambling)—undermining both your business and your health. That could mean, for example, making investment decisions that promise quick gains but have steep downsides. It could also mean setting targets that are unrealistic and require staff to cut corners. The cognitive trap blinds us to both those downsides the shortcuts we take. And by similar token, students, parents or teachers might ‘gamble’ to perform by cramming or taking short cuts (cheating) just to cover material or time lost from school closures. The solution is to slow down and divide your quarter (its months and its weeks) into manageable, bite-sized chunks. Then translate your big, end-of-quarter targets into smaller (monthly, weekly, daily) targets that, added up, take you beyond your initial target. That way, if you drop the ball somewhere along the line, you end up getting where you want to by the end of the year.
Reduce your mental load.
A major drain on mental strength is cognitive overload—i.e., the preponderance of too much information that needs to be processed. Cognitive overload can lead to a complete breakdown in mental functioning or, just as bad, sub-par functioning that goes un-noticed by us. Some selection of what’s most important needs to take place, obviously, but how? An interesting article by one researcher offers at least three suggestions. First, list everything you are thinking about and consider these tasks akin you trying to read a number of books at once. These fragmented tasks can be thought of as “open books” in your mind. Having many open books gives you some indication you are overwhelmed. And, if you’re in doubt about this, describe your list to someone else you trust—and they will probably confirm you’re overwhelmed! Second, start closing the books that related to things beyond your control or that you cannot deal with right now. (Don’t worry, you can leave bookmarks, but make sure to put those books back on the mental shelf and don’t think about them.) Third, spend 20 to 30 minutes focusing on each of the remaining open books—either by trying to address them or by devising strategies for getting each to closure. Almost immediately, you will begin to feel your mental strength return.
Don’t let uncertainty paralyze or control you.
Behavioral scientists have a concept called uncertainty avoidance which gauges the extent to which a culture is tolerant of unpredictability. A culture high in uncertainty avoidance tends to try to do everything it can to influence the future or shape the unknown—even in vain. At the same time, cultures low on uncertainty avoidance tend to freeze and just let things happen. Neither extreme is ideal. Furthermore, in either case, one’s individual responses to the unknown are influenced by one’s surrounding culture—so you’ll either act or freeze, depending upon what those around you do. For those reasons, it’s important not to allow uncertainty to paralyze you. COVID-19 created unparalleled uncertainty for our generation and that uncertainty remains now as we enter the Fall. It is therefore critically important not to allow uncertainty to either force your hand (owing to overconfidence) or place you on the sidelines (owing to you freezing up). In other words, the best way to address the unpredictable is to stand somewhere in the middle by gathering information and acting only on what you know, at present.
Manage your energy.
An earlier post outlined how mentally tough people can manage their energy through quality sleep. Quality sleep can help kick bad habits, better absorb and learn information, reduce fears, prevent financial mistakes, and even lead to better weight and muscle management. Collectively, well-managed sleep means better management of energy. Yet, science also indicates a balanced, nutritional, non-processed-food, diet of dramatically reduced calories improves mental strength and cognitive control. Furthermore, pacing yourself, as we said above, is also a critical component of managing physical and mental fatigue. And last but not least, dramatically reducing device-dependence is important: since even smartphones by themselves have been shown to make us more obese, less healthy, and less energetic.
Seek a disciplined, flow experience.
The ‘flow experience’ is that pleasurable level of engagement many of us feel when we become completely absorbed in a given activity. Studies have shown productivity peaks during such situations, as well as other markers of well-being—both physical and psychological. Yet, achieving flow necessarily requires eliminating distractions, finding a time of day and place when and where you can fully submerge yourself in your work, and identifying tasks that requires flow concentration. This necessitates practice and the application of the above insights but also regular allotment of time to practice flow. At the same time, mentally tough people realize when flow can be too much —that is, when starts to reduce productivity. Too much focus on a given activity or goal, for example, can make you lop-sided in your work direction and create stress. It can lead to a distortion of your schedule—ultimately meaning you’ll neglect or need to rush in completing other activities later. The solution is to structure, but also limit, your flow timing. Avoid becoming addicted by place strict time limits on your flow activities. That means accepting that your first half dozen attempts at achieving and maintaining flow for say a 2 or 3 hour period might fail; nevertheless, you stop when the time allotted ceases. By practice and repetition, the flow experience will gradually become a habit—if the time, space, and other conditions for achieving it are a sincere part of your efforts. In short, productive flow requires discipline.
While nothing can completely prepare us for the future, activities that build our mental toughness can help us deal with what comes. This is especially the case when others depend upon us or when the stakes are high.
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