Burnout. It’s something that the best of us have been exposed to. It can be difficult to recall when we started being ‘busy’ all of the time. The steady increase of responsibility, stress and heavier work load, something has to pay for it and whether we like it or not, our body and mind are usually the top candidates.
Psychologist, neuroscientist and professor at The University of Sydney, David Alais, spent much of his career interested in sensory processes such as vision and sound and how we construct our vision of the world in our own head. In recent times, he has used this information, alongside the investigation of burnout to study the Default and Executive Mode Networks. These networks are comprised of two contrasting identities; the executive attention network and default mode network.
The Executive Attention Network is in play when we are invested in our work, we use our consciously trained mind to focus on tasks. Multiple areas of our brain are recruited to assist in focusing on a specific task. This is where employers would like us to be, at all times, focused on task completion.
By contrast, the Default Mode Network is activated when we relax and are disengaged from tasks and deadlines. This is where we seemingly ‘switch off’, frustrating employers and fellow colleagues who misunderstand this to be slacking off. In the Default Mode Network however, a different style of thinking takes over and allows us to make associations between ideas, it allows us to be creative.
Creativity is fostered in the Default Mode Network, not when we are task focused.
If you’ve ever worked in a high performing creative team, or managed one as I have, you will have observed that they work very differently to “suits”. Sitting at their desks or in meetings all day long is not how they do their best work. They walk around the office a lot, moving from desk to couch, to table, to courtyard. They chat a lot, they flick through books and magazines, they fidget with the toys on their desk. They browse the internet somewhat mindlessly and sometimes they look like they may almost be asleep. To the untrained eye they look lazy, unmotivated, look like they are slacking off, but this is not the case. They are just in the Default Mode Network which is self-generated, free flowing and allows creativity room to breathe.
According to Professor Alais, our brains naturally flow between the two networks and forcing an outcome, one way or another is counter productive. You can only be in the Executive Attention Network for so long before your brain needs a break. Likewise, if you are having a creative breakthrough, you shouldn’t fear stopping to recharge; you need to trust that you will find the creative mojo again, after a well-needed rest. Otherwise, you run the risk of burnout.
Anyone who works creatively knows that creativity is not a tap that you can just turn on and off. However, like all business professionals, creative professionals need to work to deadlines and under stressful conditions.
So, how can we avoid burnout?
Identify how you do your best work.
Listen to your mind and body rather than trying to fight it. I find that 3 hours of “deep work” in the morning is about all I can summon before needing to change things up. There is absolutely no use flogging a dead horse. The days I exercise first thing in the morning, I go on to be more productive and high performing than the days I don’t, even with the loss of desk time.
Avoid new responsibilities and commitments.
Resist the urge to take on more than you can handle and push back. Learn to say no. No amount of productivity hacks will help if you are over-scheduled and overcommitted. You need to manage expectations, particularly your own.
Our creativity network thrives in the natural environment. Learn from creative professionals and move away from your desk. Go for a walk, sit in a coffee shop with a notepad, lie down for 20 minutes after lunch. You have to let go and let the mind relax before the magic can happen.
The neurological benefits of meditation are well documented, not only does it improve brain function but research has now proven that meditation changes your brain by growing and shrinking grey matter. Meditation reduces anxiety, helps treat depression, helps you focus and makes you more self-aware, which is critical in being able to diagnose when you’re heading for a crisis.
The future of business advantage belongs to creativity but our over-scheduled lives are not the breeding ground for great ideas. It’s past time that we tuned into our bodies, explored the world of mindfulness, learnt to say no and took care of ourselves.