Our brains are constantly on the lookout for signs of threats or rewards – clearly the survival of early man depended on this.
The decisions we make about what to pay attention to are based on our brain wanting to reduce fear (and move “away”) from threats or to feel better because of rewards (moving “towards”). These responses happen automatically and stir up emotions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the emotions triggered by a threat are much more intense, come on faster, and last longer, than those that come when we sense a reward.
Emotions are important in helping to make decisions, but emotional overdrive, stops you thinking clearly and rationally. The areas of the brain linked to emotions take up so much energy and processing power, that the rest of the brain doesn’t have enough resource left to think clearly and react quickly. It’s surprising how little it takes to set the brain into emotional overdrive.
On a typical day at work, most of us are faced with pressing project deadlines, overwhelming amounts of email, difficult stakeholders and potentially conflicting priorities. All these situations are “threats”, putting our brains into “away from” mode and high emotional overdrive.
People working in large organisations often have to deal with greater change and more unknowns. Our brains strive to make patterns from the information available and fill in all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle; they crave certainty.
One way that we pursue certainty is through autonomy and control – the freedom to make choices. Daniel Pink in The surprising truth about what motivates us* says autonomy is one of the three key elements that motivates people. Anyone who has been micro-managed, with no leeway around how they get their job done, will appreciate the importance of this.
When we’re under pressure and feeling anxious, we try and suppress these feelings, and ignore them. But this just takes up even more energy and doesn’t deal with the problem. The first step in dealing with this is to become more self-aware, recognising what is going on. The next step is to take control of what is happening in our brains, and get back in the driving seat.
An effective way to do this is to focus on those things that you can influence and do something about. Even the smallest perception of choice affects the brain’s emotional response, so it doesn’t feel so threatened. For instance, if you’re stuck on a train due to signalling problems, you can focus all your energy on how frustrating and annoying this is, or save your energy and choose to use the time to read or relax.
You may feel you have very little choice over your challenging deadlines or the departmental change that has just been announced – but finding a way to make small choices will have a big impact on the signals your brain receives. It’s a question of moving things from being perceived as a threat to being a reward. This reduces stress and helps you become more effective in your job. No matter what the situation, you always have a choice about how you respond to it.
Over the next few days notice what you choose to focus on.
* Daniel Pink, 2011, Canongate Books
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