In our current environment, we all are under an incredible amount of stress. Depression or anxiety is already rife in a fast-paced world, not considering the uncertainty the pandemic contributes. These conditions beg the question: Are you looking after your well-being? Professor Richard Jolly, who studies organizational behavior, has suggestions for making sure you are.
Richard encourages us to consider three well-being concepts: stop, think and sleep. Stopping gives us the chance to check in with ourselves on what’s really important and make sure we give those priorities the time they deserve. Thinking allows us to manage the uncertainty and unpredictability by creating space to focus and taking action on what’s within our control. Getting enough sleep bring out our best and most effective selves to tackle the many challenges handed to us on a daily basis.
You’re busy and overwhelmed. Are you prepared to put on the brakes? How often are you checking in on the latest news, and how is it making you feel?
“There’s a great phrase in Florida,” Richard shares. “‘When you’re fighting off the alligators, it’s hard to remember you were trying to drain the swamp.’ We have become a generation of alligator fighters, so busy ‘doing’ that we struggle to focus on what’s really important.”
Richard blames, in part, technology and a psychological condition he calls “technological arousal,” the idea that technology drives people to distraction. For example, constantly checking on the latest coronavirus news can create emotional, cognitive, or physiological arousal, and it also takes time and energy that you could allocate elsewhere. “We need to change our relationship with technology,” he says. “We’ve become obsessed and addicted to it, so we’re on edge, in a state of heightened technological awareness, which, of course, lowers awareness in our important human-to-human interactions.”
Based on 10 years of executive interviews, Richard concludes that 95% of people suffer from “hurry sickness.” It’s an understandable reaction to a world that’s increasingly complicated and chaotic. “Getting things done feels good. And our brains reward us with a hit of dopamine. What busy executives don’t realize is that if they carry on like this, it’ll affect not just their career, but their health, too.”
Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, said that people and technology reached a crossroads in 2016. “We should not stay human; we should become better humans,” he said. Schwab meant that artificial intelligence was beginning to occupy the work that can be programmed – forcing people to be more creative, self-aware and empathetic, in essence, more human. What makes people human comes from their brain chemistry, so people have to stop for the sake of their most important attribute in a digital world. There has never been a better time to celebrate our human attributes and practice empathy.
And what are brains for? Thinking.
The act of thinking is a lifestyle choice, and one that improves brain health. But not all thought is equally valuable. “Psychologists differentiate reflection from rumination,” says Richard. “In a lockdown situation, with the boundaries between the various roles in our lives having evaporated, the risk is that we spend too much time ruminating, where we anxiously obsess over the causes and consequences of problems, rather than reflecting on how we can solve them.”
“Humans don’t like uncertainty. As the world gets more complex, the ability to generate new ideas and adapt rapidly are vital skills. That’s why we need time to think about the critical things. As we get caught up in the short term, focusing on the long term gets harder, particularly with the distraction of technology and the difficulties presented in managing the current crisis. And yet an economic downturn is the ideal time for innovative thinking.”
Carve out time to think, suggests Richard, and not just in the shower or for five minutes. “Figure out when you have your best ideas. What time of the day is it? Is it before eating? Or after exercising? The time you have now is incredibly constrained and the problems you need to solve are very complex, so it’s a great time to work through how to optimize your thinking time.”
It’s also a time to work on becoming more resilient and coping with the demands of changing environments, and the good news is everyone is capable of it. “Our brain has plasticity (neuroplasticity), an incredible ability to restructure itself by forming new connections between brain cells. As we become experts on topics, the areas in our brains that relate to those skills continue to grow. So change is possible.”
Thinking time helps us survive and adapt. But no one can think effectively without sleep.
What’s good for the body is good for the brain. “We all need a good night’s sleep, but it’s hard to achieve,” he says.
Richard proposes preparing yourself physically for a challenging world and, to do so, take time to rest. Evaluate whether the amount of sleep you’re getting might simply not be enough. How much sleep is enough to make you sharp? And how much is too much to make you slow and groggy? “It takes time to test.”
If sleep increases productivity and happiness, and supports smarter decisions, why do people brag about their terrible sleep habits? Because bad sleep supports the outdated idea that if you’re busy, you’re important. Richard calls for senior executives to be role models of behavior. “People aren’t really listening to what you say, but they are mimicking your behaviors. Role models have an infectious passion for their work and live according to their true beliefs.”
Don’t get distracted by the thousands of things competing for your attention or the many hardships and challenges you face on a daily basis. Carve out time to stop, and keep the most important priorities top of mind. Spend focused time thinking and navigating the best path forward. And preserve your time to rest and recuperate so you can be your best self for family, friends, colleagues and a community that needs you. During this challenging time, we all have to make sure to take care of ourselves and our well-being first before we take care of others and dive in to problem-solving. Exercising our ability to stop, think and sleep are tools that can get us there.