In a fast-paced office, it can be challenging to keep up with the flow of work. Factor in priorities and urgent work, as well as long-term and short-term projects, and you may find yourself keeping track of multiple schedules and timelines. You’re also probably expected to move through tasks quickly yet thoroughly — which is easier said than done when you need to focus on the big picture in addition to accomplishing more immediate tasks with finer details.
If you find toggling between these two categories of work difficult, you’re not alone. Neuroscience actually explains why this is can present such a challenge. As Tony Schwartz, president and CEO of The Energy Project and the author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working writes in the Harvard Business Review, we use two different parts of our brains for these distinct functions. The first is operated by our prefrontal cortex, and mediated through our parasympathetic nervous system, he explains. This is the part of the brain that recognizes the importance of keeping up with long-term projects and staying on top of those that are only short-term. As Schwartz puts it, it’s calm, measured, rational, and capable of making deliberate choices.
Then, there’s the other part of the brain, run by our amygdala and mediated by our sympathetic nervous system. This is the one that senses danger and acts accordingly, causing us to be reactive and impulsive, Schwartz explains. It responds to stress — and does so largely subconsciously, leading us to act in ways that our normal, rational self would typically avoid.
So what’s a person in a demanding job with pressure to perform quickly and precisely to do? Here are three strategies to help you navigate the duality of attention and focus, and how to tap into each at the right time.
Our ability to engage in self-reflection is one we should take the time to cultivate, as it is a significant asset. Based on his research with leaders of organizations, Schwartz says that the antidote to our amygdala-based reactive thinking and actions is being able to observe how both parts of your brain are working, in real-time. The effective self-observer, he says, can acknowledge the duality of their brain — without judgment — and then take the most appropriate action. For example, if you have a last-minute deadline on an important project pop up, it can help to be observant enough to recognize that you should shuffle your schedule around to allow you to meet it, but also do so without going into panic mode (which is counterproductive and can use up valuable time).
Watch out for negative emotions
As you’re being self-observant, Schwartz suggests starting by pinpointing any negative emotions that arise, like impatience, frustration, or anger. These are strong signals that you’re giving into the part of your brain that impulsively responds to stressors, and thus may not make the best, most thoughtful decisions. It may seem simple, but Schwartz says that even by just naming these emotions, it helps you gain control over and distance from them. This is especially important if you work in a fast-paced environment: The pressure for speed may act like a stressor, triggering these negative emotions if you’re not on the lookout.
Find a work buddy or group
In a fast-paced workplace, everyone may feel responsible solely for their own work and operate largely independently. But Schwartz notes that it can be helpful to find colleagues who are experiencing a similar workload and pace. He encourages co-workers to build small groups and meet at regular intervals to share their experiences. Even if projects are completed on an individual basis, the combination of support, community, connection, and accountability offered in a group setting tends to be beneficial to the participants. Once you find a person or group of people you trust at the office, you can then solicit feedback from each other, in order to sharpen your skills, share each other’s most productive habits, and keep each other accountable for staying on top of things.
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