Hacking yourself a mentally agile brain using neuroplasticity

There’s a new executive in town, the mentally agile, resilient leader who thinks clearly under pressure.

Is it you? Increasingly business Leaders are recognising the importance of having senior leadership team that is mentally agile and resilient. And neuroplasticity is science’s answer to the problem of developing it.

Whereas stress is synonymous with “inside the box” thinking, group think and self-preservation, mentally agile executives can think on their feet, turn bad news on its head and see the positive and advantage in adversity.

Hence the growing desire to apply neuroscience to leadership. How can you “hack” your brain to be more resilient and agile when so many are crumbling under the stress of trying to maintain so-called “work-life balance”.

Interest in applying neuroscience to business has been mounting for decades. One reason, is that leaders prefer the idea of optimising an organ (which is tangible) to the idea of optimising behaviour (which is not).

Optimised thinking requires a healthy brain, and so part of it is the old sleep-eat-hydrate-and-exercise stuff I often talk about.

Disturbed sleep is particularly damaging. Your IQ can take a hit of 5 percent or more after a bad night.

A well-fed, rested, and oxygenated brain is necessary for mental resilience and peak performance amid stress and uncertainty.

When all other things are equal, mental resilience is the factor that really distinguishes the executive.

According to Neuroscience ere are four steps you can take to improve your mental resilience, or that of your leaders:

1. Neuroplasticity

Everything you have experienced in your life has molded and shaped your brain to favour certain behaviours and habits.

Learning--particularly attention-heavy subjects like a language or a musical instrument--is the best way to enhance neuroplasticity.
Learning–particularly attention-heavy subjects like a language or a musical instrument–is the best way to enhance neuroplasticity.

But those behaviours and habits may not be optimal. By focusing attention on and repeatedly practicing new, desirable behaviours, leaders can redirect their brains’ chemical, hormonal, and physical resources to create new pathways.

The old ones, meanwhile, wither from lack of use.

Learning, particularly attention-heavy subjects like a language or a musical instrument–is the best way to enhance plasticity.

The fact that you are forced to attend to things that your brain hasn’t experienced before has its own benefit apart from what you learn.

The brain becomes more flexible, which helps things like being able to regulate your emotions, solve complex problems, and think more creatively.

2. Brain agility

To be nimble, you must think nimbly. Brain agility is the ability to switch seamlessly among different ways of thinking: from the logical to the intuitive to the creative.

To be nimble, you must think nimbly. Brain agility is the ability to switch seamlessly among different ways of thinking: from the logical to the intuitive to the creative.
To be nimble, you must think nimbly. Brain agility is the ability to switch seamlessly among different ways of thinking: from the logical to the intuitive to the creative.

Agility is particularly important for entrepreneurs.

The fact that the brain is likely to think in diverse ways or absorb diverse ideas means that you are more likely to spot trends, pivot, be ahead of the curve.

Multitaskers who try to use several modes of thinking at once generally do less well at all of them. Work on problems consecutively and looking at them from different angles.

Leaders can also leverage different thinking styles within their teams.

3. Growth mindset

People with growth mindsets see themselves as works in progress who develop their intelligence and talent through hard work.
People with growth mindsets see themselves as works in progress who develop their intelligence and talent through hard work.

People with fixed mindsets act as if traits like intelligence and talent are settled. People with growth mindsets see themselves as works in progress who develop their intelligence and talent through hard work.

A fixed mindset leads to stagnation: a growth mindset to innovation and progress.

Leaders who find that their choices are limited by thinking should use neuroplasticity to try to move themselves toward growth.

For entrepreneurs, that may not be a stretch. It is about your appetite for risk and attitude toward failure, so it makes sense that entrepreneurs are more comfortable with this.

4. Simplicity

A hyperactive world places impossible demands on limited brains. Stress rises. Decision-making suffers.

Training your brain to aim for simplicity means you will find more of it. Breathing practices such as Heartmath are particularly powerful for lowering stress levels and learning to fall back to self-regulation at times of stress.

Take that simplicity further by reducing non-critical decisions.

Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity. ― Albert Einstein
Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity. ― Albert Einstein

Figure out what you are going to wear the night before or wear the same thing every day. Get all of your menial stuff like your bag ready, decide what to have for breakfast, so you save all of your good decisions for when you get to work. Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs and Barack Obama are just three of the world’s high achievers who took this approach, treating decision making as a precious resource.

Leaders who know how to improve their own brain function can then apply those lessons to their companies.

For example, by creating cross-functional work programs they help employees forge new neuro-pathways and develop brain flexibility as they master unfamiliar knowledge and skills.

Leaders can also use their understanding of the brain to drive fear and stress out of the workplace and to develop trust. Stress spikes cortisol in the brain, which negatively affects thinking and the ability to control emotions. At sustained levels, people go into survival mode.

By contrast, if you are in a really exciting environment where you have got lots of the hormone oxytocin flowing around your organisation, you are more likely to make decisions that are not based on scarcity and survival but on abundance.

Innovation and risk-taking flourish.

Further reading

Why learning about how stress works is important in building resilience

The brain in your gut: how neuroscience research is taking the mysticism out of gut instinct

Matt

Experienced business leader, mentor and coach, with fascinations for technology, psychology and ancient philosophies. A self-confessed techno hippy with a unique talent for bringing the best out in people.

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