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“I feel brain dead by the end of the day”
“I’ve got so much stuff whirring around inside my head, it’s making me feel anxious.”
“By mid-afternoon I’m mentally drained from the back-to-back calls; I need a coffee just to get me through the last few hours of the day.”
These are just some of the things that I’ve heard leaders saying to me over the past few days; and I can relate to all of them.
Many of us are bouncing from one online meeting to next with little or no time in between. Or perhaps as soon as we click hang-up, we’re straight into answering a question about our teenage son or daughter’s algebra lesson, or trying to teach prime numbers to our eight-year-old, as I was last week.
The relentless nature of attempting to work from home during a global pandemic has a significant impact on our cognitive bandwidth. We’ve all felt it.
Harvard describes cognitive capacity as our ability to pay attention, make good decisions, stick with plans and resist temptations; which are all perhaps more important now than ever before.
If we place too much demand on the home Internet connection that’s enabling our virtual meetings, we eventually hit the upper limit of its bandwidth and things start to slow down.
Our cognitive bandwidth has an upper limit too. When we hit that limit, things start to slow down for us. We start to feel ‘brain-dead’, anxious and in need of another shot of caffeine or sugar hit. The benefits of which are short lived and add to the tiredness and mental fog.
When this happens, we start missing things.
We make poorer decisions.
Our patience is compromised, and our tempers become frayed.
We’re less effective team members.
We’re compromised as leaders.
But maybe none of this applies to you.
Perhaps you don’t have children, or your partner doesn’t work, so the home-schooling and work juggle is a challenge you’re not faced with.
And maybe you’ve got brilliant discipline around taking regular breaks throughout the day and giving yourself at least 10 minutes between calls as a virtual transition period; a strategy that allows things to settle and gives our brains time to process information from the last meeting.
But there will be many in your team and many attending your meetings who are being impacted by bandwidth depletion every day.
People will be leaving meetings with different views about what was agreed.
Some actions will be missed.
Others will be recorded, and then lost amongst the scrawl of notes from a day of back to back meetings that never got reviewed because there simply wasn’t the time to stop and think.
But it doesn’t need to be this way. There are a number of simple things that we can do to help ourselves and our teams be much more effective amidst the fog that can easily cloud our days.
One tactic is to become unapologetically relentless about clarifying actions and commitments.
At the end of each major topic of discussion, simply ask one person to recount all of the actions. This does a number of things:
• It provides a moment of reflection.
• It allows everyone to listen and confirm their understanding of the actions.
• It gives you confidence that all actions have been captured accurately.
It’s a very simple thing to do and one that can often feel embarrassingly basic. You may even find yourself saying:
“Really? At our level? Do we really need to be asking someone to recount the actions out loud?”
A lesson I took from my time in the military is this:
“Leaders do not test for understanding by asking for questions. Leaders ensure understanding by asking questions.”
So, my answer is yes. We really do need to focus on the basics because it’s what all of the great teams do.
Great teams focus on doing the basics brilliantly well, with ruthless consistency.