Reducing Mental Traffic
You’ve almost certainly had this experience: you’ve been driving somewhere new, and the weather was bad, or there was construction right by the road. There was too much competing for your attention, and you felt like you had all you could mentally handle. If your radio was on, you instinctively reached over and turned it down, reducing the inputs your brain was digesting. This was your mind doing something you naturally know to do…reduce the amount of mental traffic so you can better handle difficult situations.
When you’re feeling like your mind is spinning all the plates you can spin, it’s time to STOP accepting more things to think about. This article is purely about what you allow INTO your mind as you are working, not about how to handle the list of tasks that you have to do. In a previous blog, we talked about effective strategies when your list of activities is getting too long and your plate is full.
The distinction between too much work and too much actively on your mind is critical. If you aren’t keeping a list of tasks (paper or digital) and are working to “remember” everything, you’re setting yourself up for failure. PERIOD. It’s a massive waste of your mind’s resources to remember what you can write, type, or schedule, in order to free up your brain so that it’s processing, not recalling.
Lighten Your Load
This is the biggest way to lighten your mental load on a continuing basis: use a notebook or task management app to get things off your brain and organized. I really like Evernote, and there are lots of options to choose from. Just use something to get started and then improve your process as you go!!
Here are other ways to reduce the number and amounts of input into your brain
- Hit mute.
This is what we covered in the initial example, and people will often do this with inanimate objects like a radio. While it feels natural to stop a radio from making noise, it doesn’t always feel natural to ask your spouse or coworker to do the same. They won’t perceive the situation the same way as you, and may not feel as loaded up as you. Be sure to simply say, “I’m processing all I can…give me a minute to think.” Some people around you may see that you’re mentally taxed and they will be quiet, while it may take prompting with others. Practice asking for what you want!
- Ask them to schedule time.
Ask others to set up a time with you at a later date to cover the item they want to talk about. You can say, “This sounds really important…to make sure we’re both fully focused on this and have time to get ready, will you please schedule a call for us in three weeks? I’m heavily focused on this other task right now, and will be ready to give you my full attention then.”
- Verbally cut to the chase.
When you are talking with people and sense a big “wind up” coming and you start to feel yourself getting overloaded, ask the person to shorten it up. I like to say something like, “Hey – I’ve got a lot on my brain and want to make sure I can focus on your real ask, so let’s cut to the chase. What do you really want to know, or want me to know?”
- Write the BLUF.
If you’re writing something to someone who has a lot on their plate, put the Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF). This is best used as a phrase outlining what you want to accomplish. For example, when I send emails to executives and have a short time suspense for something, I will add “ACTION DUE” to the email subject line, to help get their attention. Then at the top of the email (usually in bold), I’ll add a short note defining the action and deadline. An example is, “By 5 pm on 28 JAN, send topics for the 2 FEB meeting—details below.” Then below that, I can list out the key details for that person to refer to. I’ve made it easier for them to meet my expectations by getting their attention with the subject line, then listing the action at the top of the email, with supporting details below. This makes it easy to read and to do what I’m expecting.
- On the clock.
I’ve also found it effective to ask someone to keep their verbal comments within a short time window. This is really useful when asking an open-ended question that could go on for a while, and you want to keep the conversation moving. For example, if something really went sideways in a factory, you may ask the shift leader, “Ok…please take two minutes to hit the key parts of what happened so I understand the essential bits.” You can always ask more questions to fill in gaps.
- Highlight changes or problems.
I recently finished a book about the beginnings of NASA and the mission to get to the moon. One of the small parts of this fascinating story is around mission control and how they functioned when getting ready for those early launches. A lot of verbal updates were provided over the headsets to the team prior to launch. As lift-off neared, this volume of traffic was eliminated by using the rule that only problems were shared and that all other indicators were assumed to be normal.
You can ask team members, “To help us all keep focused on the current situation, please only communicate problems or key changes…if you don’t mention something, we will know things are the same as before, or that it’s on track.” You’ll want to determine what specific process works best with your team.
- Block calendar time to process or prepare.
Giving yourself time to say YES to some things means you will absolutely be saying NO to other things. That’s not a criminal offense—it’s you being deliberate in how you prioritize, and purposefully deciding what to think about and when. DON’T apologize or feel bad for choosing to focus on your biggest priorities during the day…that’s an essential leadership practice!
Like other tools, some of these may not feel normal as you get started, and some may even feel rude. Remember that you are helping yourself through a particularly tough situation and that you are helping the other person know how to best work with you in that moment. That’s a strong way to support yourself and others when they’re counting on you to be aware and to make decisions. By being honest, you create a lot of safety to ask others to do something different, or that might seem unusual.
Start small and keep working these into your practice. Remember that when you want to use these, you will already be in a situation where you are feeling pretty maxed out—adding a “new thing” in the moment is just going to make it worse. Exercise this muscle when you can take a healthy risk, so it’s ready to serve you when you want it the most!