Monday, October 18, 2010

Don't do your Inbox

What do you do first when you get to work? Do you go straight to your email or do you start on the toughest project that you have to do?

Most of us open the Inbox.

And there’s a good reason why.

Other than the size of it, usually an Inbox is low threat. It needs nowhere near as much brain energy as the big project and we get an instant sense of satisfaction as we delete, delete, delete and clear lots of messages.

And if you ever near the bottom of your inbox – wow, now that’s a buzz.

Your amygdala prefers the Inbox

But why do we do things in that order? You guessed it; it’s The Almond Effect®. We put off the demanding projects because there is much more riding on it than clearing the Inbox.

The project is demanding - we have to focus, concentrate, solve problems and create solutions. And that’s stressful.

In other words, your amygdala senses the project as a threat (The Almond Effect®) so to avoid the threat, you do the non-threatening things first i.e. your Inbox.

Brain drain

The problem with that approach is that even though you are taking the relatively unstressful course of doing your email, you are using up brain energy leaving you less fresh to handle the project when you’ve got no other reason to procrastinate.

Now our brains only have so much capacity before the glucose runs low and our ability to think clearly and innovatively is compromised. Then we have to take a rest and eat or drink sugar.

And our brains will naturally channel our activities to save brain energy where possible – not only is it hard work to use the working memory in our brain but we might need the energy for later when the sabre-tooth tiger appears in our office or home :)

The same thing happens when we need to change – ourselves or others. We put it off because our amygdala senses a threat i.e. it's The Almond Effect®. Unless we think about it and alter the course of action, our brain will guide us to less challenging things first. And before you know it, the day’s simply disappeared and it’s time to go home!

How was your day?

So think about your day. What did you do first when you were fresh, alert and your brain was full of glucose and ready to go? Did you do the tough stuff or did your amygdala take over and guide you to an easy task first to defer the threat?

Try this

Here are some suggestions that might help you do the hard things first – and it’s all about being mindful about what you do and think:

1. Monitor your usual patterns of behaviour to find out (or simply confirm) when you tackle the more mentally demanding work. Do you do it at your freshest or does your amygdala sabotage you in some way?

2. Be very clear about your short and long term goals – make sure the way you do your work is congruent with your objectives

3. Don’t impose the need to be perfect on yourself

4. Watch what you’re saying to yourself mentally e.g. it’s really hard; I need a clear run; I’ll just stuff it up if I start now; I’ll have plenty of time tomorrow; it won’t be any good; I’m just not ready to do it; etc. etc

5. Don’t let your sensitivities and fears hold you back from doing something

6. Break the hard task down into small steps e.g. just do 150 words on it; or cover off on item 1 of the project

7. Give yourself congratulations for the small steps as well as the big ones.

Almonds all around us

The Almond Effect® catches us out in so many ways. It’s not just the big things eg: the fear of restructure, the presentation you have to give or the boss wanting to see you. It’s not just your daughter not coming home when she said she would. There are myriads of everyday occurrences when our amygdalae cause us to do something that is simply not the best course of action if you were to think about it.

So next time you go to your Inbox, just ask yourself if it’s the best time to be doing it? Or are you are putting off doing something that would benefit from the energy you are using up on reading chain mail, the ‘cc’s and pressing the delete button?

If you answered yes to the second question, you know what to do next!

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