mental toughness at work
March 14, 2019

How to Build Mental Toughness at Work: 5 Science-Backed Brain Exercises

By Scott Duehlmeier | Senior Manager of Communications at Workfront


It’s pretty well established that modern digital culture is not great for our brains. Humans have evolved over centuries to be really great at doing one thing at a time. And now, over the course of just a few decades, we’ve completely changed the way we consume and engage with information. Thanks to smartphones and the cloud, we now operate in a constant state of distraction, interruption, and multi-tasking, and our minds are not exactly equipped for it.

But as I discussed in a previous article about mental toughness, we don’t have to remain at the mercy of either our individual work cultures or the culture at large. There are things you and I can do to enhance our cognitive fitness, which will help us not just survive but truly thrive as the digital revolution marches on.

With that in mind, here are five more tips inspired by the On Mental Toughness essay collection recently released by Harvard Business Review.

1. Take Play Seriously

Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp has studied the importance of fun, laughter, and play for decades, identifying play as a primary human drive and the brain’s source of joy. This is obvious in children, but as we age, we lose the desire and the inclination to play. We always retain the capacity, however, if we’ll just tap into it. Academics Roderick Gilkey and Clint Kilts, who quote Panksepp extensively in their HBR article on cognitive fitness, say it’s critical to continue engaging in play at every age:

“In adult life, play engages the prefrontal cortex (our most highly evolved and recently acquired brain areas), nourishing our highest-level cognitive functions—those related to incentive and reward processing, goal and skill representation, mental imagery, self-knowledge, and memory, just to name a few. Play, therefore, improves your ability to reason and understand the world.”

Albert Einstein, who claimed that “imagination is more important than knowledge,” saw his ability to identify and discern the fundamental nature of the universe, which no one before him had been able to see, as a result of combinatory play.

So, as contradictory as it may sound, make a serious goal to find more time to play. Take advantage of your office’s game room. Pick up a new sport (pickleball comes highly recommended). Dance more, even if it’s just at home or alone in your office, and even if you look a little like this. Pull out the Play-Doh or the finger paints, and see where your imagination takes you. Take an improv class, or at least go to the comedy club more often. Find something that makes you feel like a kid again, and do more of that.

If you find yourself thinking that you literally have zero time in your schedule for moments of rest and play—either at work or at home—take a cue from Katie George, creative services traffic manager at FOCUS brands, who reports “five hours saved in administrative time per week” after adopting a work management platform. If you can redirect even a small portion of the time you save through digital automation into playful activities, your brain will be better off.

2. Develop Pattern Recognition Skills

Sure, I just got done touting the benefits of stimulating the right hemisphere, which is the creative, playful side of the brain, but Gilkey and Kilts claim that you may derive even more benefit from stimulating the “analytical neural network,” which we often view as being left-hemispheric. While I’ll leave the nuanced neuron talk to the experts, the gist is that as important as creativity is in the modern workplace, there’s another cognitive skill that’s arguably more important and more powerful: pattern recognition, or the brain’s ability to scan the environment, discern order, and create meaning.

“The power of pattern recognition, a critical competence of the executive brain, can be seen in the capacity to simplify without being simplistic,” write Gilkey and Kilts. “For executives trying to make sense of a rapidly changing business environment, superiority in pattern recognition is perhaps the greatest competitive advantage that can be developed.”

This is particularly true in data-driven organizations. According to our recent State of Work report, 40% of knowledge workers believe they have good data, but they “still struggle to make good decisions with it,” and 13% feel like they’re drowning in data. Developing pattern recognition skills can give you a real edge when it comes to evaluating and parsing this deluge of data, helping you turn numbers into actionable decisions that can move your organization forward.

How exactly does one build such a skill? Gilkey and Kilts suggest challenging your existing assumptions, enlarging your knowledge base, and seeking out greater variety and complexity in the things you read and listen to. In other words, get out of that Twitter echo chamber, read a wider variety of articles and books from a wider variety of sources, and expand your vocabulary and your general perspective. Conferences can be great for this. Be curious. Be open. Be a lifelong learner.

3. Seek Novelty and Innovation

Turning back to the right hemisphere for a moment, Gilkey and Kilts say research is now revealing that the right half of the brain is the exploratory region, which is responsible for discovery and learning. It’s also the side of the brain that declines faster with age. “The more new things you learn,” they write, “the better you become at learning. Actively engaging in novel, challenging activities capitalizes on your capacity for neuroplasticity—the ability of your brain to reorganize itself adaptively and enhance its performance.”

Consider the case of Richard Wetherill, a retired university lecturer who was committed to continuous learning and intellectual stimulation. A talented chess player, he could think eight moves ahead in his prime. When he noticed he could no longer think five moves ahead, he got concerned about his cognitive ability and went to the doctor for a battery of tests. Everything looked normal. Two years later, Wetherill died suddenly, and a subsequent autopsy revealed evidence of advanced Alzheimer’s disease, which would have rendered most people cognitively nonfunctional. Sounds like a good enough reason to take up chess! But any new and challenging activity—or a rotating series of them—can provide similar mental benefits.

“Novelty is so important to well-being that researchers have identified ‘neophilia’ — the desire to have novel experiences — as a predictor of longevity,” writes Nicole Dean in Brain World magazine. “People who actively seek out new experiences throughout life live happier, healthier lives.” And they’re also better in a crisis situation, have better memories, and are better at considering new perspectives and integrating new information—all essential skills for success in the business world.

4. Build Your Physical Capacity

“Extensive research in sports science has confirmed that the capacity to mobilize energy on demand is the foundation of the ideal performance state,” write Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz in their article, “The Making of a Corporate Athlete.” This applies to both athletes and executives. The authors’ work with both groups has demonstrated that effective energy management relies on regular oscillation between energy expenditure (stress) and energy renewal (recovery). You need some stress and you need some recovery time for optimal fitness, both physically and mentally. Too much of the former, and you invite injury or overload. Too much of the latter, and you’re not growing, getting stronger, or moving forward.

Imagine a weight lifter who follows the same challenging routine, day after day, without ever adding weight or taking a day off. He’ll put himself at risk of both injury and atrophy. “In both cases, the enemy is not stress,” they argue, “it’s linearity—the failure to oscillate between energy expenditure and recovery.” Likewise, for executives, “the problem is not so much that their lives are increasingly stressful as that they are so relentlessly linear.” They push themselves too hard mentally and emotionally and too little physically.

While coaching Marilyn Clark, a managing director at an investment bank and mother of three, Loehr and Schwartz noticed she had almost no oscillation in her life. They began by encouraging her to increase her physical capacity by working out at a nearby gym three days a week, precisely at 1 p.m. She found that she returned to the office from her workouts feeling reenergized and better able to focus. “Physical stress has become a source not just of greater endurance but also of emotional and mental recovery,” Loehr and Schwartz write. And since implementing her new routine, “Clark finds that she can work fewer hours and get more done.”

If you too would like to work less and accomplish more, make sure you’re carving out time to regularly challenge yourself and build your physical endurance. (Enterprise work management is one proven way to free up time and mental energy for a mid-day workout, or to make room for other activities that introduce variety into your routine.) After all, even if your work primarily relies on your mind, your body is your mind’s fundamental source of power and energy. Furthermore, when you stress your body physically, your mind has a chance at recovery, allowing you to simultaneously build your physical and mental capacity through the magic of oscillation.

5. Embrace Mental Oscillation

The oscillation principle applies to mental capacity as well. As part of their work, Loehr and Schwartz help clients enhance their cognitive health, specifically their focus, time management and positive- and critical-thinking skills. “Focus simply means energy concentrated in the service of a particular goal,” they write. “Anything that interferes with focus dissipates energy.”

One of their go-to recommendations for building the focus muscles is meditation, which can require little more than sitting quietly, breathing deeply, and counting each exhalation. The benefits of this practice extend to the mind, the emotions, and the body. In fact, studies show that experienced meditators need considerably less sleep than those who don’t meditate, so no one can claim that they don’t have time to meditate.

Loehr and Schwartz say that mediation and other similar practices can slow brain wave activity and “stimulate a shift in mental activity from the left hemisphere of the brain to the right.” If you’ve ever found the solution to a problem while doing something mindless like taking a shower, jogging, or mowing the lawn, “that’s the left-brain, right-brain shift at work—the fruit of mental oscillation,” they say.

So stop looking at rest, meditation, and exercise as interruptions from your most important work. These recovery periods are actually an essential part of preserving your cognitive health, which makes it possible for you to keep doing the work you love.

Your Brain Will Thank You

If you took nothing else away from this article, now you have science-backed reasons to join a pickleball league, take up chess, read books that challenge what you think you know, go to the gym, and meditate instead of sleep. Sure, you can do these things for no other reason than that you enjoy them, but it doesn’t hurt to know that they’re simultaneously building your cognitive capacity and protecting your mind from the stagnation and stress that accompany life in the digital age.


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