As a project manager you are constantly challenged by your brain capacity – and due to the demanding environment you work in – you need as much of it as you can get. You continually swap between activities such as creating detailed plans, high-level road maps, designing presentations, communicating progress, visualising outcomes, memorising information, relating to team members and resolving conflict. To deal with all of that, you need to understand how your brain is wired and how to get the most from it. You’re probably well aware of the advice regarding your brain’s effectiveness. But are you taking that advice seriously? Let’s have a look.
Do aerobic exercise
Many studies show that the brain benefits immensely from exercise. People who exercise regularly outperform people who don’t when it comes to long-term memory, attention, problem solving, reaction-speed, and abstract thinking. But not all types of exercise provide equal benefit.
Aerobic exercise is the most effective because it gets your heart rate up and your blood coursing through your vessels. An active lifestyle means half the risk of dementia and half the risk of cognitive impairment. All it takes is aerobic exercise for 30 minutes twice a week where you increase the blood-flow and oxygen to the brain.
In my last corporate job I used to go to the gym at lunchtime. If you don’t have a gym nearby, could you go for a run or a really brisk walk? If you work in an office tower you can also walk up and down the stairs. That will definitely get your heart rate up and your lungs working. Or perhaps you could take it one step further and exercise with the entire team. In that way you could also benefit from the team building aspect. One of my friends is the manager of a company that produces sports wear for cyclists. Every Wednesday it’s mandatory for the entire team to stop work at 1pm and go cycling together.
A bit of pressure is good and can be very motivating. But your brain wasn’t designed to deal with severe or prolonged stress. It is built to deal with stress that lasts for about 30 seconds. Chronic stress hurts memory, concentration, mathematical ability, executive function, motor skills and language processing. It can directly kill brain cells and disrupt your immune response.
Don’t get yourself into that state. Your project is important and it needs all of your cognitive abilities. But you have to learn to unplug, say no and have downtime so that your brain gets a rest and you get to keep your stress levels under control.
As a coach I come across many project managers who are stressed. They mostly worry that their performance is not good enough and that they are going to be made redundant or fail in some way. This fear makes them work even harder and more reluctant to take stock and look after their bodies and brain.
When we unpick the situation in our coaching session, it almost always turns out that the fear was exaggerated and that we can easily find a solution. All it requires is that we stop for a moment, breathe, oxygenate the brain and objectively evaluate the stressful event.
Multitasking is often talked about as a sought-after ability, but it’s a myth. We can talk and breathe at the same time, but when it comes to higher-level tasks, our brains just can’t do it. The brain is a sequential processor and can only consciously pay attention to one thing at a time.
When we multitask we are switching very quickly between tasks, and every time we do so our brain carries out time-consuming steps. When you are on a conference call whilst also typing an email, not only do you make more errors, it also takes you up to twice as long to accomplish a task.
To make the most of your precious time and brainpower, try to work single-mindedly on your most important tasks.
Switch off your email whilst working on that Project Definition Document and go into a quiet meeting room when you’re preparing an important presentation. Your brain is attracted to new things and likes variety, so work in blocks of time, alternating between thinking activities and more routine ones. Resist the temptation to always be online and to answer emails straight away. Your clients and team members need to know that you are there for them. But it doesn’t have to be immediately.
Repeat to remember
Studies show that we may forget about 90% of what we’ve learned in a class within 30 days. Whether we remember something or not comes down to how good we are at repeating the information within the first few seconds. If some information isn’t repeated within 30 seconds it could disappear. If it’s repeated it moves into working memory where it stays for an hour or more. If it’s not repeated within that time it will fade. So when you’re trying to remember all the detailed requirements your client is giving you, write it down, repeat it and review your notes frequently over the coming days.
When it comes to memorising pictures the stats look better. Pictures beat text and verbal messages by a mile. If you combine pictures and text the ability for the brain to memorise the information goes up dramatically. When the brain is presented with text, apparently it converts it to a bunch of tiny pictures. You can use this, not only when you’re personally trying to remember something, but also when conveying important information to your team and stakeholders. Draw on the flipchart or whiteboard during meetings and add relevant pictures and graphs to your status reports and requirements documents. And importantly, delete all your text based PowerPoint presentations and make new ones with more images.
Not getting enough sleep is a nightmare for the brain. One study took people who needed eight hours of sleep and instead gave them four. Their performance on memory tests fell to the bottom 9% of people who weren’t sleep deprived.
When we are asleep the brain is not resting at all. Experiments with rats, who were learning to navigate a maze, show that when the rat goes to sleep it begins to replay the maze patterns thousands of times. If the rat is woken up during a certain sleep stage it has difficulties remembering the maze the next day. It is possible that we humans also consolidate our day’s learning in our sleep.
Are you prioritizing your sleep as much as you should and are you structuring your day to make the most of when your brain is the most alert? In the morning our brain is trying to keep us awake, but that changes at about 3pm when another process is trying to get us to sleep. If you’re able to take a short nap, try it! It will have a dramatic impact on your brain’s performance. If you aren’t able to nap, perhaps you can do a short meditation or at least avoid scheduling your most important meetings at 3pm.