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Surviving Short Circuits

Optimize Blog - October 3, 2016 - 0 comments

We have spoken a number of times before about the vast amounts of data and input that modern leaders have to analyze and make judgments on. A number of studies have shown that as the human brain is asked to process dizzying amounts of data, its ability to solve problems flexibly and creatively declines and the number of mistakes increases.
We are blessed with the largest cortex in all of nature, and as owners of this trillion-celled organ we regularly put singular pressure on the frontal and prefrontal lobes, the region that governs what is called, aptly enough, executive functioning. Executive functioning guides decision making and planning; the organization and prioritization of information and ideas; time management; and various other sophisticated, uniquely human, managerial tasks. As long as our frontal lobes remain in charge, all should be good.
Sitting beneath the frontal lobes lie the parts of the brain devoted to survival. These deep centers govern basic functions like sleep, hunger, sexual desire, breathing, and heart rate, as well as crudely positive and negative emotions. When you are doing well and operating at peak level, the deep centers send up messages of excitement, satisfaction, and joy. They pump up your motivation, help you maintain attention, and don’t interfere with working memory. However, once we start to come under pressure and things start to go wrong around us, our brain begins to panic.
This panic creates a reaction of fear and this shifts us into survival mode but, survival mode is highly unpleasant and counterproductive if you’re trying to deal intelligently with a subtle task. When the frontal lobes approach capacity and we begin to fear that we can’t keep up, the relationship between the higher and lower regions of the brain takes an ominous turn.
Thousands of years of evolution have taught the higher brain not to ignore the lower brain’s distress signals. In survival mode, the deep areas of the brain assume control and begin to direct the higher regions. In this state, executive functioning reverts to simpleminded black-and-white thinking; perspective and shades of gray disappear, intelligence dims. In a futile attempt to do more than is possible, the brain paradoxically reduces its ability to think clearly.
This neurological event occurs when a manager is desperately trying to deal with more input than he or she possibly can cope with. In survival mode, the manager makes impulsive judgments, angrily rushing to bring closure to whatever matter is at hand. He or she feels compelled to get the problem under control immediately, to extinguish the perceived danger.
Regardless of how well we appear to function, however, no one has total control over his or her executive functioning.
The most important step in controlling these short circuit incidents is not to buy the latest smartphone or gadget and fill it up with to-dos but rather to create an environment in which the brain can function optimally. This means building a positive, fear-free emotional atmosphere, because emotion is the on/off switch for executive functioning.
Secondly we need to take good physical care of our brain. Sufficient sleep, a good diet, and exercise are critical for staving off these short circuits. Although this sounds rather obvious, too many of us abuse our brains by neglecting obvious principles of care.
Third we must organize to prevent circuit overload. It’s important to develop tactics for getting organized, and so our goal should be to order our work in a way that suits us, so that disorganization does not keep us from reaching our goals.
All too often, companies induce and exacerbate short circuits in their employees by demanding fast thinking rather than deep thinking. Overload is a very real threat to all of us. If we do not manage it, it manages us. Understanding how this condition impacts us allows us to apply practical methods to improve our work and our lives. In the end, the most critical step an enlightened leader can take to address the problem of overload is to remain vigilant for signs of it and to foster a more productive, well-balanced, and intelligent work environment.

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