“150 minutes a week, heart pumping, working like an athlete; more than a brisk walk, break a sweat,” my friendly neighborhood neurologist suggests as the best thing we can do to preserve our cognitive ability. Though I’m familiar with studies showing the benefits of exercise for cognition, the 150 minute guideline and intense exertion were new to me.
It got me thinking about levels of cognitive effort we apply professionally. Have we come to feel that moderate effort is enough – in fact, beneficial? I mean cognitive effort: not just working hard, but thinking hard. If you had a FitBit device for your professional cognitive output, how would your tracking graph appear?
You might amble along with low to moderate cognitive output, peppered with periodic jolts of higher activity, and an absolute lack of intense effort. This level of effort may even put you above your peers!
But think what this means for your life at work. Beyond mere career stagnation, low cognitive effort may indicate a missed opportunity for significant engagement and fulfillment on your part, and the intrinsic rewards that come from putting your heart and brain into your work.
If you suspect your cognitive graphs may be lacking in green spikes, set a time to put real thought into to your work. I had a friend who set a daily alarm to remind him to “think strategically.” I found it amusing, but it worked for him. Just as the neurologist recommended exercising “like an athlete” consider thinking “like a CEO”. Experts suggest that there are different types of thinking. We use “focused” thinking when we know what is required to complete a task; we may work hard, but we know how to accomplish the goal ahead. When we face challenging problems requiring new solutions we employ “diffuse” thinking and cast a wider, looser neural net. Often we recognize a issue as easy “I know what to do” or challenging “I need to think about this one” and respond accordingly. However, there are times when we fail to recognize the true complexity of an issue. Research shows that our brains (often like our bodies) are a bit lazy and will gravitate to what immediately makes sense. We answer a question easier that the one posed. Our smart, but lazy, brain says “I’ve got this one,” produces the answer and we move forward.
Examine the most important aspects of your work; are you answering the real question, or an easier one? Take the time and think differently, or harder, or more slowly about the key challenges you face. Use whatever it takes to jolt you into some higher-level thinking. Start small but try to do it daily, to establish the habit. Once you have a trend of green spikes, you may become aware of them popping up throughout your work. Adjust your schedule to accommodate more such dedicated effort.
And don’t forget the physical exercise, 150 intense minutes a week!