Strategies for Managing Stress and Boosting Brain Bandwidth

ConcentrationNew Behavioral Economics, Cognitive Science and Social Psychology Research Findings Help Research Administrators

If you’ve been a research administrator or financial administrator working in research administration for any length of time, you’ve figured out one thing: the tremendous pull this job has on your concentration and focus. If you’re like the talented team in my office who are performing cradle-to-grave research administration, the orientation to details, double checking formulas and worksheets, and the weight of forms and online data entry, it’s a sea of work. It’s vitally important to develop strategies to manage cognitive overload, so that you can see your work (spot errors before they are entered), think through the logic of your work process (what is required of your application or your financial process – not to perform it on autopilot), and adjust/incorporate new information in the process of managing work.

Common Strategies for Managing Stress and Maintaining Concentration

  1. Taking a break – at least once an hour for 5-10 minutes, away from your computer.
  2. Eating healthy food and snacks during the work day (my office has nuts, granola bars, green tea and popcorn to fuel hungry minds).
  3. Ask for help – reach out and have your colleagues review your work when you develop Excel blindness or are stuck on your application budget.
  4. Facilitate communication and head off surprises so that you can focus on the work at hand.

Mindfulness and Increased Attention

Harvard Social Psychologist Ellen Langer has conducted research for the last four decades on mindfulness in a variety of aspects of human life, including the performance of complex work. Langer defines “mindfulness” as the process of actively noticing new things – being actively engaged in work or life, rather than not thinking about what you are doing when you are doing it. (Think about it – it happens a lot!)

Langer contends that a mindful context for addressing complex work is identifying the best way to apply rules and guidelines given the context of a particular situation. Langer’s definition of mindlessness in complex work is “one size fits all.”

Langer has shown that mindfulness lead to better performance, increased attention, and better outcomes. In one study, she had symphony musicians, who are often bored to death with playing the same music often – play differently. One group was told to play the same as usual. The second group was told to play the same music, but to play it mindfully. It was the same music, but they brought to the performance in small and perhaps imperceptible ways, their own personal touches. However, this group of musicians were paying attention in a new way. And the results showed that this performance was rated higher.

Langer does not like checklists – she believes that they foster mindlessness (unless they trigger us to be mindful).

Strategies for Improving Mindfulness

  • Are there aspects of your work that are repetitive and boring (like reviewing workflow requests for purchasing, etc)? How can you turn these aspects of your job into something mindful, and challenging? Can you improve the process, turn it into a “game” of sorts, make it new?
  • Can you teach an aspect of your job to someone else, and in the process, become mindful of your work?
  • Is there an aspect of your work that you would like to improve (quality control)? Can you find a team member or colleague that has a similar concern and offer to provide proof reading, etc to them if they will do the same for you?

Brain “Bandwidth” – Factors Affecting Cognitive Capacity index

A team of researchers from Harvard and Princeton have conducted studies to define the effect that specific internal thoughts have on our ability to perform daily tasks. More specifically – they wanted to know if types of external and internal thoughts and experiences could distract or disrupt the cognitive capacity of individuals to such a degree that it would affect their educational achievement or work performance. The answer was yes.

Researchers have known for 40 years that external stimulus (loud repetitive noise) can affect cognitive performance. Sendil Mullainathan, a Harvard economist, and Eldar Shafir, a Princeton psychologist have learned through their research studies that scarcity, an internal stimulus, can also affect cognitive bandwidth available for performing work tasks.

What is scarcity? It’s the internal monologue that occurs when an employee is worried about paying bills, an ill family member, or the cost of day care. Scarcity captures the attention of the employee – because it relates to a pressing need – and reduces attention and focus for other tasks, producing what the researchers call less “bandwidth.” They consider bandwidth to include two aspects of mental functioning – cognitive capacity (problem solving) and executive function (attention, planning and judgement).

Interestingly – it’s not just adverse circumstances that affect cognitive bandwidth. Mullainathan and Shafir found that study participants who were dieting also had bandwidth deficits.

BandwidthCultivating Cognitive Bandwidth

Develop plans and processes to manage aspects of life automatically – to free up bandwidth.

  • Sign up for automatic bill payment and an employer’s 401K plan
  • Schedule breaks and develop an exercise plan for health with a friend or personal trainer.
  • Use services to complete your grocery shopping (Peapod, etc) and stock your pantry with nutritious food. Freeze and reheat healthy meals. Have a group of friends over once a month to cook lunches for everyone to take to work (splits the work of cooking and is lots of fun).
  • If your thoughts are taking over at your desk – get up and walk around – give yourself a time limit to worry (2 minutes, 3 minutes)  and go back to your desk with a bottle of water and your mind clear.
  • Create a space at work for you to go if you need to think about something that you are worried about – or – if you need to capture your thoughts, write them down, but create a process or place where you can boundary your worry and provide yourself a space and a time that you feel better and can productively capture your thoughts and feelings in a time frame that is usable. When you get home, you can review the information and put it to work. The idea is to get the information off your mind at work so you can concentrate and feel better.
  • Most importantly – if you are having long term concerns of any kind – there are often programs through the HR office of many universities that can help you address these types of concerns raised here – use them.

In general – if something is distracting you and it’s minor – take care of it. You will be able to work more effectively if you handle what’s on your mind first. If something more significant is on your mind, and you’re having trouble focusing, it’s best to engage your supervisor to develop a plan on how to manage your work in the short term.

We now have proof that there isn’t enough Diet Coke in the world to power through the data we handle on a regular basis. It’s really important to manage our health, get regular sleep, take breaks and to use the processes here to work smarter – our institutions are counting on it.

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