“Thinking is some of the hardest work there is,
which is probably the reason so few engage in it.”
– Henry Ford, Founder of the Ford Motor Company
I suspect if you’re reading this you don’t have a physically demanding job. By that I mean, you’re probably making your living more with your brain than your brawn. However, just because your job doesn’t require demanding physical activity I’m sure it can be mentally demanding all the same.
It’s not uncommon to hear people talk about how exhausted they are by the time they leave the office. The exhaustion isn’t just in their head; they really are tired, almost as if they were laying bricks or chopping wood. Exhaustion comes because your brain, despite only being about 2% of your body weight, uses about 20% of your calories in any given day. And when your brain is engaged in hard thinking, its demand for energy goes up by about 400%!
To put it another way; focused concentration (hard thinking) is to our minds like sprinting is for a runner. No matter how fit a runner is, he or she cannot sustain sprinting for extended periods before muscle fatigue and exhaustion set in. By the same token, no matter how mentally gifted you may be, you cannot stustsain intense focus for extended periods before mental fatigue and exhaustion set in.
According to John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, people generally cannot stay focused for more than 40-50 minutes at a time. When it comes to the time devoted to critical thinking, oftentimes less is more. Here are some practical implications for you:
When you plan your work build in breaks so you can rest and replenish. It’s also a good idea to get some calories in you because as your energy wanes so does your ability to make good decisions. Dan Pink addresses this in his book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. He cites statistics about judges and their sentencing decisions before and after lunch. Hint: If you have to go to court get there first thing in the morning or right after lunch!
Limit meetings to 45 minutes. If you need to go longer schedule regular breaks and let people know when to expect those breaks. Doing so will help them stay focused rather than wondering when they’ll be able to get food or use the restroom next.
I’ve sat through corporate meetings that have been two and three hours long without breaks! Meetings like that are a waste of time and productivity. During long meetings I’d look around and see people who were checked out, answering texts, leaving to use the bathroom or wandering around to grab food…even when senior leaders were addressing the group.
Hosting a morning or afternoon meeting with one break in the middle doesn’t cut it either because you’re still doubling the amount of time people can give good attention. If a meeting requires more than 45 minutes then plan on going 45 minutes with 15 minute breaks and keep repeating as needed.
If you’re leading all day training sessions build in 15 minute breaks every hour. Again, when people know breaks are coming they’ll generally wait to get food, use the restroom, make calls and return texts or email.
Also plan to have snacks and drinks because those little energy supplements will give people the calories their brains need to stay focused in the next session and throughout the day.
I used this approach successfully for years and people were amazed at how quickly the day flew by. Training was short and intense, breaks came frequently and people felt like they had time to decompress.
You may have heard of the story of the woodcutter contest. Two men set out to cut down as many trees as they could one day. One woodcutter worked tirelessly all day without a break. He was confident he’d win because he noticed his rival taking breaks every hour or so. He was shocked to learn he’d lost by a good margin. It turns out his rival wasn’t lazy, he rested his body and sharpened his axe so when he did swing it he was far more productive.
You can do a job or you can do a job well. Doing something well considers the optimal outcome you want then devising the best plan to make that happen. Whether you’re sitting down to work, hosting an important meeting or trying to train people, consider how the brain works. The more brain friendly your approach the better opportunity you’ll have to achieve your ultimate goals.
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An international speaker, coach and consultant, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini, the most cited living social psychologist on the topic of ethical influence.
Brian’s LinkedIn Learning courses Persuasive Selling, Persuasive Coaching and Building a Coaching Culture: Improving Performance through Timely Feedback, have been viewed by more than 65,000 people! Have you watched them yet? Click a course title to see what you’ve been missing.