How to Be Resilient When You Have No Time to Think

“Stop the treadmill I want to get off!” is a silent scream of many dedicated professionals. We are paid to think, yet we have no time to think. Though stress and overwhelm seem inevitable responses to a relentless bombardment of demands, we experience this ‘treadmill’ because we use the part of our brain that only knows how to perpetuate it, and not the part of our brain which sees alternatives.

These parts of our brain correspond to two parts of our nervous system and their associated modes of thinking. The “On” button (sympathetic nervous system) provides energy to run between meetings and focus to solve problems. The “Off” button (parasympathetic nervous system) brings calm, rejuvenation, and perspective.

“On” button mode of thinking reacts to stresses right in front of us (an incoming email, a senior leader comment which threatens our sense of competence, an interruption from a colleague, a glance at the clock when we’re late to pick up our child.)

“On” button thinking sees stimuli as a problem to be dealt with, seeks only short term solutions, and emotionally scans for how the situation affects “me” and “mine”. It reinforces a vicious cycle by approaching challenges with emotional reactions and band aid solutions that seed further crises.

“On” button thinking can ONLY reference the past to know how to solve problems. The theme song is “just tick as much as you can off your ‘to do’ list, and in the same way you’ve been doing it.”

No matter how hard we work, new ideas or future possibilities are not available in this mode. Once “On” this cycle, it’s hard to get “Off.”

Companies want people who are engaged, have big ideas, and coach others. These come from “Off” button thinking, the source of our Genius.

This mode of thinking enables a person to see the big picture, and to access creativity. It is strategic, enabling visibility to emerging trends and long term perspectives.

When we press the “Off” button, time slows down. We experience calm concentration and focus on facts — the faculties of resilience. They generate innovation, distinguish highest from lowest priorities, and solve problems at root causes.

“On” button mode is helpful and necessary to carry out tactics, but it makes performance reactive. To shift from reactive to resilient, the solution is to balance “On” and “Off” button thinking.

Here are 3 ways to balance “On” and “Off” button thinking during busy days:

1. Take a midday ‘mental vacation’ to reset priorities — Mind follows breath. An efficient “Off button” activity is a mental reset breathing technique which gives the calm, focus, and expansive thinking of a 90 minute yoga class in 2–3 minutes while at your desk. Use a “3 part breath” in which you inhale-hold-exhale in equal parts. (The great yogis and spiritual masters breathe with this approach about 1x/minute, that’s why they have an enormous perspective and ‘presence’.) The “Inhale” part strengthens the endocrine system, which manages emotions like anger. The “hold” strengthens the cardiovascular system. The “Exhale” strengthens the nervous system to quell anxiety. Balance “within” creates a template for balance in the rest of your life.

2. Schedule “Off” button thinking — Require yourself to set aside a minimum of 1 hr/wk of “Off button” thinking to “connect the dots”. To avoid diving into tactics as you look at a blank screen, designate a question to answer (e.g., what do you want for your career trajectory? how would you synthesize industry trends?) Change your scenery and go to a place where you have uninterrupted time to think. Or detach with an activity that permits reverie, such as walking outside. (Yes, this is the same mechanism as flashes of brilliance in the shower!) You can also optimize your decision making with “Off” button thinking: toil to compile all relevant information about your decision through “On” button research tactics. Then allow the information to marinate in a scheduled “Off button” period (e.g., physical exercise, free writing.) You will get better solutions with less effort!

3. Remind yourself you have control — Feeling that you don’t have control immediately activates a stress reaction and puts you on the ‘treadmill’ of reactivity. Train yourself to immediately list out what you CAN control (Your 50%) and what you CAN’T control (the other 50%) and then focus on the matters you can control. Practice the mantra: Be Impeccable for your 50%! Reminding yourself to maximize effectiveness of what is within your control gives you that proverbial “take a step back” perspective. You will see options that were not available to you when you were only focusing on matters outside of your control.

Become aware of the signs when you might be on the ‘treadmill’ of that “On” button reactive cycle (responding to emails regardless of priority? Waking up at 2am with thoughts racing about your ‘to do’ list?) As a leader you create the weather on your team. Find ways of proactively stepping “Off” that vicious cycle and creating a virtuous cycle — your own performance and that of everyone around you will benefit from your resilience.