Many times, I’ve seen business leaders send their employees off on time management courses in the hopes that the training will help increase engagement and productivity.
Many times, I’ve seen those same leaders show bewilderment when the training doesn’t seem to have any impact—or worse yet, results in employees being less engaged and less productive.
Why is this happening?
Traditionally, companies have believed that, to create higher-performing workplaces, employees must:
- Be more committed and dedicated to the cause;
- Stay later and come in earlier; and
- Make more of an effort—that is, “try harder” (such as by learning new skills).
In other words, organizations seem to think that sheer determination is the key to helping employees perform their absolute best.
Now, I’m not going to lie: time management courses can be helpful.
But when a person is depleted of energy, all the skills and know-how in the world won’t be able to help them, especially when it comes to managing their time.
That’s because wherever you see high performance, you will see the efficient management of energy.
February is National Time Management Month. And it’s time that business leaders start looking at time management differently—through the lens of brain science.
Understanding the executive function
First, a little science lesson.
The brain is, inarguably, a very powerful organ. It controls how we think, feel, behave, and perceive and understand the world around us.
Moreover, within the brain lies a remarkable central processing unit called the “executive function” (EF). Capable of astonishing levels of value creation, the EF enables us to:
- Process: analyze, predict outcomes, and problem-solve
- Focus: memorize, pay attention, and verbalize
- Self-regulate: maintain impulse control, self-monitor, and cognitively flex
- Initiate: prioritize, plan, and decide
But wait, there’s more! The EF also helps us:
- Think strategically: addressing systemic issues, uncovering root causes, and predicting the downstream implications of decisions and actions
- Collaborate broadly: influencing and aligning stakeholders across the organization
- Communicate clearly: providing context, making meaning, harmonizing competing priorities, and resolving conflict
- Execute decisively: drawing out the best information possible, making a call, and closing the loops to ensure complete follow-through has been achieved
Directly or indirectly, every one of the above capabilities is related to our ability to 1) manage time and 2) be productive.
In other words, the executive function is absolutely critical to how we manage our time.
Science shows that the brain is also one of the most fuel-hungry organs in the human body—which makes sense, given that it houses the very important EF.
The body’s use of fuel is judicious. It considers safety a necessity, and self-actualization a luxury. As such, when the body’s energy tank runs low, the brain prioritizes the use of fuel: giving first dibs to things like autonomic responses (blinking and breathing), immune and digestive systems, balance and locomotion, and flight/fight safety features.
When we are low on energy, our base-level thinking continues to function. However, the mind’s “power tools” fail to operate: those tools that enable us to think strategically, collaborate broadly, communicate clearly, and execute decisively.
In other words: when we are depleted and our brains aren’t well-fueled, we lose the ability to properly manage our time.
How this shows up at work
Here are a couple real-life examples I’ve seen throughout my career, which further demonstrate how essential the executive function is to time management.
- On an individual level: A manager or employee is driving to work, thinking “I need to have that tough conversation with Ellen.” However, resolving conflict requires the ability to pay close attention, maintain impulse control, and come up with solutions—all enabled by the executive function. If that person already feels run down and low on energy, they may put the task off until the next day—even indefinitely. By the time they get to work, they may still be determined to be productive; but determination just won’t cut it. Depleted, they may check their email, watch a YouTube video, organize their office, or drop in on a colleague—anything but one of those value-adding activities that requires so much of one’s energy.
- On an organizational level: Knowledge workers without well-fueled brains are unable to think innovatively about how to get to root causes and fix systemic issues. Lacking energy, they may allow unaddressed concerns to fester and simmer; or resort to quick fixes, workarounds, and reactive firefighting that only provide band-aid solutions. This can lead to ongoing depletion into the system, eventually requiring multiples of additional energy, time and mind-space from everyone in the organization.
How to energize the executive function
Here are three ways businesses can help reinvigorate the executive function, and make time management easier for their employees.
1. Minimize distractions
Like any technology, the brain itself has a limited amount of “RAM”—and will become bogged down if too many “applications” are open at the same time. As a result, when people’s focus is continuously split between multiple responsibilities, the impact is intense mental exhaustion.
Minimizing distractions that interrupt employees in the middle of “flow” can make a positive difference on employee performance. If minimizing the number of employee tasks is impossible, consider holding fewer meetings—or at the very least, holding fewer impromptu meetings.
2. Combat negative thinking
The emotional part of the brain is much more powerful than the rational part. In fact, the brain will not allot us the resources to do something unless we are convinced it is possible. As a result, when people feel negative, this depletes their energy and makes them significantly less productive. But according to science, it is not our capability but our belief in our capability that makes us effective.
The good news is that negative thinking and unhelpful beliefs can be overcome by strengthening the anterior cingulate (the “clutching mechanism”) between the emotional and rational parts of the brain. Leaders can pave the way toward more positive thinking by encouraging employees to meditate regularly.
3. Make meaningful connections
Science shows that when you have meaningful, face-to-face conversations that demonstrate value, respect and care, this releases three high-performance hormones in the brain: dopamine (which enhances pleasure, cuts pain, and increases creativity), oxytocin (which increases bonding and trust, and decreases stress), and serotonin (which reduces fear, tension and worry).
Even within just two minutes of talking, conversation can stimulate the executive function—forming a feel-good energy cocktail of connection, calm, concentration, creativity and curiosity. Quality conversation requires being present in the moment, so business leaders must ensure they focus closely on the person they are speaking to, show genuine curiosity, and not appear distracted by other things or thoughts.
It’s time to look at time management differently
Without energy, the ability to manage one’s time is simply not possible.
But by understanding and honoring how the human brain works, business leaders have an opportunity to better equip employees toward being more productive, and create companies that make the most efficient use of time.