How do you build ‘brain-stretch time’ into your life?

I strongly believe in the quest for a lifetime of learning. To me ‘learning’ in a work context means taking in other people’s views on things, in the form of books, podcasts or audio-books. It requires focus for extended periods of time. But I also love the buzz of life, being busy, ticking things off my list, getting things done. I relish the feeling of being productive, particularly when accomplishments happen with speed and pace. While these are positive attributes that mean I can be hugely efficient, they have their downside when it comes to making time to learn.

I am good at managing my time, so it’s not that I procrastinate with the thinking, planning or writing activities. I Iike the idea of being able to be focus for a long time, but over the years I noticed that I’d always start with good intentions but then feel an ‘itch’ and allow myself to get distracted. I’d block out a morning, sit (or stand) at my desk and start to focus on whatever it was I needed to work on. I’d enjoy about 20 – 30 minutes of focus, then I would open outlook, check my emails and invariably end up in some rabbit hole of exploration on a completely unrelated topic. I’d then get annoyed with myself and find it hard to settle back into the focussed work.

The awareness of this behaviour has been with me for over ten years. However, it’s only during the last two years that I realised it had the potential to become a limiting factor in what I wanted to achieve. I had a plan for a business book. I was motivated, excited and energised about what I had to offer people in that book. I was going to need to focus on writing the book itself and also, once the manuscript was submitted, focus on planning the pre and post launch activity (within which there would be more writing; content to share on social media etc).

So, in the process of writing that book over the last two years, I finally discovered what I needed to create the right conditions to focus. I took 3 five-day retreats to focus on writing. During those retreats I switched off from everything for the majority of the day – blended writing with moving (walking, yoga, swimming, hiking), reading and listening to e-books while I walked (Brené Brown is a favourite).

Once the book was finished, I found myself craving ‘brain-stretch time’ in a way I never have before. So I am now away on my first retreat with the pure focus of reading, listening and writing. Here are my inputs for the week, which will be supplemented by some online webinars (this time from the Association for Coaching).

It feels like a revolution for me to have discovered what I need to focus.

Here are my top-tips for you to find the secret to making ‘brain-stretch time’ work for you.

1.   How strong is your need for that busy buzz?

Consider this question:

 When you are taking time to do something important, something that requires deeper thinking, does it feel like ‘real’ work?

If your answer is ‘no’ read on…

A number of years ago now I became aware of the concept of urgency addiction (ref Stephen Covey, “The 7 habits of highly effective people”). Covey discusses how urgency addiction means your driving force in prioritising time is to respond to the sense of urgency. Your intention is to be über efficient. Paradoxically, that intention actually stops you being effective; you lose sight of your key strategic goals and get lost in what needs doing right now.

When you accomplish something, endorphins trigger a moment of euphoria. That physiological chemical release in your body is what creates the buzz. It feels great. It’s the reason it is so easy to develop a chemical dependency on the rush. This in turn is why the ‘slower-burn’, focussed work can have a sense of not feeling ‘real’ . There’s no immediate endorphin release as the accomplishment can take longer. If you notice yourself feeling ‘twitchy’ when you try to concentrate, the chances are you have some level of urgency addiction.

Top tips:

  • Pay attention to how you relate to work and your priorities to help you identify if you have some level of urgency addiction.
  • With your awareness, you can then challenge your need for the immediate buzz.
  • To help you focus on the one thing for longer – allow yourself breaks BUT make those breaks proper breaks NOT dipping into tasks you can ‘knock off the list’… as those are feeding your urgency addiction.
  • Use short breaks to make a cup of tea, go for walk around the office or outside, or just get up to stretch and move.
  • As you wean yourself away from the need for that buzz you’ll notice you can focus for longer periods of time.

2.   Know what conditions help you focus

What do you need to help you step into your most focussed, creative, thinking mode? This is likely to be different for different types of activity. When you are struggling to get into a slow-burn task think about the following.

Top tips: make choices on the following

Environment: Some people need quiet to focus, some need background noise but no other people around, others need to feel the energy of people. I find it productive to work on deep focus activities in a café (that’s where I’m writing this – I get energy from the buzz of chatter around me). If I’m wanting to read, or listen to an audio book, I focus best if I’m in nature… walking or sitting. For this time I don’t want other people around me.

Energy levels: do you feel more creative sitting or standing, or walking and pacing? If you need to walk and pace do just that!

Talking: Do you need to speak things out loud to remember them? When I’m planning workshops I find it helpful to talk out loud the structure I have in my mind then capture it on a flip chart. In speaking it I can feel where things work or not. I don’t do that in a café – obviously!

Capture medium: thinking straight into a keyboard won’t allow you to use your brain’s full capacity for creative thinking. If it needs to be digital, a tablet that you can freeform write and draw onto may work. Alternatively use whiteboards/ flip charts or old fashioned paper! I like to use an A3 pad to start broad thinking around subjects I need to structure and plan.

Harnessing neuroscience: Research shows that using colour and pen on paper supports our creative thinking processes. So gather some different pens, paper and pencils to help you. Who doesn’t love an excuse to get more stationery!

Minimise distractions: For example; shut down outlook (or at least silence any alerts that will pop up and interrupt you) and put your phone on ‘do not disturb’. If people are used to you responding immediately to things put an out of office message on saying you are focussing on some planning work and provide an alternative contact if necessary. I

I hope you have found this article useful. I’d love to hear any additional ideas that you have to help you create the time you need for brain-stretch, and to hear which of the ideas above work for you.

Janine Woodcock

Leadership, Executive and Team coach, Author, Speaker, NED