Author: Michael Mousseau, PhD
As we enter the third year of the pandemic, one thing is for sure: our brains have been in crisis for far too long.
Even before we heard the term COVID-19, our society was seeing significant mental health challenges. And now we are facing more anxiety, burnout, languishing and depression across all facets of life. We know that change is hard — especially when we feel caught in a perpetual state of it. From lockdowns to reopening, masks to no masks and return to the office plans that change every few months, we've been faced with constant change and many unknowns for nearly two years.
What scientists believe is happening right now is that we are chronically engaging the threat/fear response centre in our brains — called the amygdala — which leaves less energy for that area to do its other important jobs such, as making good decisions, forming new ideas and be appreciative.
So, whether you are an organizational leader or individual contributor, what can you do to combat this energy drain and give your brain the energy it needs to thrive in 2022?
Make time for reflection
First, individuals and organizations both need to reflect upon the past in a meaningful way and start bringing reflection into our daily routine. Rather than dwell on everything that has happened, we should strive to learn from it and use that information to refresh ourselves and our organizations in meaningful ways. It does not have to be complicated. You can start with these two simple steps:
Take time each day to pause, reflect and celebrate successes both as an individual and a team.
Ask questions such as how have I/we been showing up? What do I/we feel proud of? and What is my/our purpose or "why"?
To aid this process, you can use the Compass tool both on your own and as part of a team. The Compass tool provides the time and space to reflect on where you have been. Ultimately, the point of this exercise is not so much about listing your achievements but rather ensuring personal and group alignment. Do you feel aligned to your purpose and values — are you on the right track as an individuals and as a team?
Keep a journal
Keeping a journal helps improve self-awareness and emotional intelligence, and contributes to your personal and professional growth through reflection. It helps to think of reflection as pausing to break down a task or event into all its elements.
In our digital age, a lot can be said for putting down your smartphone and putting pen to paper. Neuroscience research supports the therapeutic benefits of translating our feelings into words. In fact, the simple act of writing about your feelings — whether anger, pain, worry or fear — can reduce the threat response in your amygdala, giving other parts of your brain the energy needed to function properly.
Writing in a journal can be a helfpul daily exercise to undertake as a leader, but you can also encourage your team members to find ways to implement writing and journaling exercises into their routines.
We can take journaling one step further by intentionally reflecting on what is going on in the world around us and recording what we are grateful for. Gratitude is a tactical approach to positive thinking that helps boost the flow of neurochemicals that are connected with feelings of happiness and positivity. This activity works because our brains have a difficult time telling the difference between what is happening around us and what we're perceiving or thinking. Whether an event just happened or is in the past, when you capture it in writing you can go back through your journal and relive the moment in your mind, which helps boost the same positive neurochemicals.
By channeling gratitude through writing, we can trick our brains into believing positive scenarios that might not have happened, thereby increasing the flow of neurochemicals that cause happiness and positivity.
For example, you may be grateful that your role allows you to work from home or that your team nailed a presentation to the Board. If you are having a bad day, this simple practice of purposeful reflection around gratitude will allow you to go back and remind yourself of all the positive things about your job thereby helping boost your mood. What you record will likely change daily and can include gratitude in both your life and work. Try adding it into your morning routine to help start each day off on a positive note.
Adopt a growth mindset
Close to 40% of our happiness is influenced by our intentions and daily activities.* Although it may not always seem like we have a great deal of control over our happiness, we can create the right mindset to make ourselves happier
Our brains are wired to focus on negative experiences rather than neutral or positive events. Everyone knows the scenario: something bad happens in our workday, and we intently focus on it, replaying the event in our mind over and over even though it was one small part of an overall good day.
So how can we counter this negative constant replay? Start by paying more attention to the normal and positive occurrences around you.
Psychology professor Carole Dweck, Ph.D, of Stanford University refers to two mindsets: fixed and growth. These mindsets can be defined as the way people think about a difficult situations.
People with a fixed mindset believe life happens to them. They are in the passenger seat of the car of life and believe the world is predetermined for them. When faced with a challenge, a person with a fixed mindset may quickly become overwhelmed or unable to properly cope.
People with a growth mindset believe their effort and action will help them achieve what they want. These people feel in control of their lives and when faced with challenges they embrace them and find ways to overcome them.
Both of these mindsets can be learned over time, and everyone demonstrates a mix of each in certain situations. Our goal should be to strive for a growth mindset over time. That mindset will enable us to be happier each day, making us more productive, more engaged in our work, and better peers and leaders.
Refresh your goals
We know the importance of setting goals, but often overlook being realistic and flexible about them. Most often, we set big goals annually — perhaps as a new year's resolution, or during a performance review — but we don't revisit or modify them regularly. Typically, the outcome is polar: We either achieve or fail a goal.
This approach can be troublesome, because we are setting ourselves up for failure. Our brains like to be rewarded regularly, so if we don't capture and celebrate our small wins along the way, we are more likely to shelf the goal and decide that it's not attainable.
Instead of simply giving up, it helps to go back to the beginning and refresh yourself or your team on why you set a particular goal in the first place. Once you get to the heart of it, you can break it down into smaller, more achievable goals that can be marked as complete in smaller intervals — daily, weekly or monthly. It is the small steps towards the greater goal that have the greatest impact.
By breaking our goals down into more realistic objectives and modifying them along the way, our brains reward us with more of the feel-good neurochemical dopamine, which helps keep us motivated towards the goal.
Create visual reminders
A key to all these practices is holding yourself accountable and creating visible reminders. Whether that reminder is a note on your desktop or a wall mural your employees see, keeping your goals, priorities and ambitions top of mind is extremely helpful for staying on track.
As a leader, find yourself an accountability partner or coach who can be a sounding board and help you maintain your focus. When dealing with your team, create open communication channels to capture feedback around goals, wins and challenges.
As we find ourselves in a new year, we challenge you to find positivity and purpose at an individual, team and organizational level. Reset your mind and remember that you are in control and have influence on the outcome — or perceived outcome — of an event. This task does not have to be a large: By taking small steps to regularly incorporate more reflection, realism and purposeful action, you can help ensure greater happiness, resilience and performance.