By Declan Noone
Recently, I realised that I have been taking something for granted that affects my and all our minds: my body. As a military officer, I have been very fortunate over the course of my professional career to have been subjected to testing conditions in training scenarios and operational environments which continuously emphasised the need to care for my body.
In preparing its leaders for the demands of volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments, the military sets testing training conditions that not only push you to your physical limits but also to your cognitive limits. You are placed in situations where exhaustion takes hold before complex challenges are set; where the consequences of your action or inaction can have an impact on achieving your mission and the lives of your team.
Following 20+ years of military life I had forgotten the importance of this lesson: the body affects the mind, and many factors (internal & external) affect the body. This came rushing back to me during my recent recovery period from a back operation. It’s an interesting experience to find something you take for granted is no longer there to the same extent when you call on it.
So what are factors that influence your body? Hormones, Posture, Sleep, Food, Temperature, Emotions, Exercise. Generally, your overall health and wellbeing
How do they impact your mental performance?
- Your attention span
- Your perception
- Your reasoning ability
- Your decision making process
- Your ability to judge
- Your energy
- Your empathy
- Your patience levels (compassion)
- Your engagement levels
The list for both can be added to from your own personal experiences. Yet reading through the factors, how many of us actually spend time seeking to either improve our posture or sleep? Or indeed to mitigate the impact of negative emotions on our bodies?
If I asked you to do a self-test based on the table below, see what insights you develop. For each factor, place a tick in a box where you believe it has impacted you. Then total up the ticks for each one. The 3 factors with the highest totals are the areas you should be focusing on improving.
Now that we have identified those 3 factors that impact your body to a greater extent, take some positive actions. My colleague at Serrano 99, Armin Forstner was a recent contributor to an article in the Irish Times called ‘ We can train our brains to do just about anything – how you can exercise your mental fitness right now’, where he made a number of recommendations that can be of help, such as:
- Start a daily mindfulness practice: A recent article by Dr Tamara Russell ‘A neuroscientific view of mindfulness’, refers to how “mindfulness helps us to develop our emotional intelligence (also referred to as EQ). What flows from this is better use of our cognitive faculties (attention, working memory), more creative and collaborative problem-solving, and increasingly courageous and compassionate decision making”. Are any of those impacts ticked in the table above for you.
- Contest your negative thoughts: Armin states that it is important to “separate fact from emotions (how you feel). We have a natural inclination towards the negative, it is one of the reasons why negative news stories draw our attention. Pause, examine what has actually happened versus what you feel has happened. Don’t just accept your negative thoughts as a reflection of your reality”. Practice this to help with controlling the frequency of your negative emotions. In our workshop at the Positive & Mindful Leader Summit on the 14th and 15th of September I will be discussing ‘Emotion and how they fuel us’ and delving further into their impact on the individual and in the workplace.
You can take positive actions for all the factors listed:
- Temperature and posture during working hours can be easily addressed by taking direct action yourself and seeking help from facilities managers to ensure the right work environment and that ergonomic equipment is available. Alternatively, a cheaper solution is to wear more/less layers and get up from behind the desk and stand up, walk around every hour for a short period.
- Food: talk to a dietician, and find out what is appropriate for you regarding content, volume and frequency of your intake.
- Overall Health: see your GP and get an annual check-up, regardless of age this is a wonderful practice to start and maintain.
- Sleep: There are a multitude of apps out there than you can use or indeed devices to help you monitor your sleep patterns. Of course, if you have children as I do, they have a wonderful way of inadvertently altering your best laid plans in this regard. Yet, it is something that you should examine for your own health and wellbeing.
- Exercise: we are all very consciously aware of the importance of exercise. The important consideration is to find what is right for you.
- In the 2016 Winter Issue of the Positive and Mindful Leader Magazine, in an article titled ‘The economics of wellbeing’ I highlight the fact that “research is indicating that ‘people with higher wellbeing are healthier, more productive, and more resilient in the face of challenges’’. There is no doubt that taking positive action to address the influencing factors discussed above will impact your personal wellbeing but Armin in his contribution to the Irish Times went further and stated that “in an environment where people are generally happier, they make better connections and have a more positive view”. He emphasises that “Leaders of teams and organisations can counteract negative trends and help contribute positively to mental health”. So examine how you lead, build a positive and mindful leadership style, create a healthy work environment and improve your personal and the collective wellbeing.
So, if for example the 3 factors with the highest total (from the table above) happened to be emotions, sleep and food, a possible solution would be to:
- Start your day with a healthy breakfast. Rather than rushing out the door, give yourself the time to prepare and enjoy a breakfast. Easier said than done I know, as I am as guilty as many others of feeding my kids and getting them in the car for the school run without actually having a proper breakfast myself. This may only require you to wake 15 minutes earlier. In fact, I have one friend who made a conscious decision to wake 45 minutes earlier as she found that it was the quiet time that allowed her to relax, have a coffee or read if she wished, before waking the up the household. For her, those 45 minutes are her time and sets her on the right path for the day.
- Bring a packed lunch to work. It enables you to control what you eat throughout the day.
- Start a small mindfulness practice for when you finally get into the office and turn on the computer. When I first started meditating I made a conscious decision to do this 10 minutes before I started. and I used the free Headspace App to guide me. It allowed me to clean the slate, will leave behind all the frustration from the traffic or anything else that agitated me from earlier, and prepare myself the day ahead.
- Download a sleep tracker onto your phone and monitor yourself over at least a week to see how you are sleeping. Then take advantage of what it is telling you – whether that means forgoing that binge watching of the latest series of House of Cards or cutting out caffeine after 6pm.
So these are simple and easy steps that will enable you to be well-rested, well-fed and will improve your awareness of how your emotions impact you. You will feel better in your body, and better prepared to have a positive impact in your day i.e. your body of work.
Now that you have identified what positive actions you intend to take, the next step is integrating the ones you want into your daily life. A simple hack for this is to examine what a forms a habit on an individual level, because as Charles Duhigg states in his 2014 book, The Power of Habit, ‘40% or more of people’s actions are not due to decisions, but stem from habits’. So build the right habits to help you (see article in 2016 Winter Issue of the Positive and Mindful Leader Magazine, titled ‘Professional Habit Hacking’).
Duhigg identifies the 3 main components of the Habit Loop:
- Cue – the moment that a habit is activated. For example, it could be an emotion, an event, an interaction with another individual, etc.,
- Routine – the subsequent action and/or behaviour that arises as a result of the cue,
- Reward – the gift you give yourself either during or after your routine as a way of recompense. For some it may be food, for others it may be a sense of pride/fulfilment/superiority, etc. It differs from person to person. But the reward affirms the routine in the brain thereby increasing the likelihood that it will become a habit i.e. automated.
Once you have identified each of these components for the habit that you need to work on, Professor Lee Newman, Dean of IE School of Technology and Human Sciences in Madrid suggests the following practices/behavioural nudges to increase the chances of modifying a habit:
- Practice: when, where will you practise your hack?
- Mental Rehearsal: What will you do/say/think/feel? When and/or with whom?
- Experiment: play with different cues and rewards, variations of your routine and plan.
- Design rewards: what short-term rewards can you give yourself?
- Gamify: can you make your hack fun or competitive?
- Socialise: can you share your goal with others to create a wider commitment?
As I stated earlier my recent health experiences forced me to sit down and work my way through the table. I had difficulty focusing, a poor attention span, low energy levels, I felt indecisive yet very impatient with others. This was directly impacting my ability to reach the work standards I had set for myself and it was leading to greater frustration. My results clearly showed me that the key factors for me were: emotions, food and exercise. I realised I had stopped my daily mindfulness meditations (they were far more infrequent now), and because of my back, I had been inactive for an extended period of time and, as a result I had started to eat more junk food. This lead to weight gain, which in turn impacted my back, and my ability to recuperate faster. So I had to take some positive action. I looked at what habits I had created and decided to hack them. I didn’t over complicate things, I just took simple steps:
- I stopped buying treats for the house when shopping and changed what I had for breakfast. I ate what the kids had in the morning knowing full well I wouldn’t feed them rubbish. So it would be porridge with fruit, or a fruit bowl with some organic yoghurt. My snacks during the day would be fruit and my main meals would have salads.
- Because I could not do any strenuous exercise during my recuperation I was able to dedicate more time getting my meditation practices back on track. I used the kids leaving the house for summer camps as my cue to start a practice. My routine would be to clear the kitchen table and then sit to meditate in a clean space. My reward was the satisfaction I got from reconnecting with practice and a sense of success and pride.
- For exercise I was extremely limited but I placed a reminder on my phone to go off every 2 hours and I go for a short walk of between 5 and 15 minutes.
These were very simple steps, working with the limitations I had, but after a few days I really felt like I was returning to my old self. There was no cost, no ridiculous sacrifice, just a simple plan with a conscious decision to follow through with it. It wasn’t always easy but it wasn’t the big challenge my mind had fooled me into thinking it was. As a result, my body felt better and my mind cleared. I was more productive and creative, less responsive to my immediate emotions, and more conscious of others. I looked better, felt better, and did better, or as the motto of the Finnish Rapid Deployment Force goes, ‘Näytä hyvältä, tee hyvää! (“look good, do good!”).
My own experiences have cemented for me the need to care for my body, as my body will then care for my mind.
In Serrano 99 we focus on holistic and organic solutions to the challenges leaders, teams and organisations face. We believe that the ‘knowing, doing, being’ approach enables the individual leader to cement what they have learned into their own leadership style. It
is not linear, it is a continuous process, where through regular use, the leaders journey never stagnates, it continues to evolve. Our next big investment in encouraging a positive and mindful leadership journey is the Positive & Mindful Leader Summit in London on 14th and 15th of September. Come join us and experience the ONLY global conference discussing positive and mindful leadership as a holistic concept.