Welcome to API’s Mental Health Reset series, a continuation of the Leadership Reset Series from earlier this year. I’m Sam Ragland, vice president of Journalism Programs and evangelist for healthy journalists. It has been a very fast year. Instead of grinding at half-strength, I’ll ask that you take time to work through some leadership challenges that will directly and positively impact your mental health, and by proxy, the health and well-being of your team.

Multitasking is killing your mental capacity. Here’s how to adjust.

Let’s start with the concept of attentional residue. I like to explain attentional residue with Velcro. There’s a rough side and aphoto of Sam Ragland fabric side, and when you disconnect them, almost undoubtedly, a strand of the fabric will be left on the rough side. The same is true with your mental and emotional capacity as you task-switch (don’t get me started on the lie that is multitasking). A piece of you is left with each task you start, are interrupted by or don’t complete. 

I know the news cycle often demands that we live amid loose ends. But when the news cycle doesn’t demand this, we should shift out of quickly (and incompletely) task-switching into a more mindfully-paced day where we work on a couple of things through completion instead of several things left unfinished.

If you want to end 2023 stronger, with more mental energy and deeper focus than you have right now, I need you to get familiar with attentional residue and how you, yourself, may be your own most detrimental distraction. 

THE CHALLENGE 

You have found yourself in a position of power and authority but spend your days responding to Slack messages and answering emails. Your promotion into leadership feels like a mental, emotional and maybe even spiritual demotion. Instead of making the work more effective and valuable and sustainable, your time is subject to the whim of last-minute pings and urgent emails. You don’t prioritize your day; you log in to a day already prioritized for you because of other people’s access to you.

Stepping out of the day-to-day is one of the most difficult things leaders do — and it’s also one of the most necessary. 

Without it, we’re not able to spot bottlenecks, offer novel and innovative solutions, anticipate hurdles, etc. Yes, for those of y’all who’ve been here before, we’re absolutely talking about getting off the dance floor and getting to the balcony, a concept first introduced in the book “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership” by Marty Linsky (a former journalist) and Ronald Heifetz (a leadership professor at Harvard, a former cellist and a trained psychiatrist). If we stay on the newsroom dance floor, we assign a quantitative value to our work and task our little hearts out: putting out fires, chasing breaking news, assigning stories, forever-ideating but never focusing. 

If you’re no longer an individual contributor, and instead are a people leader with organization-wide responsibilities, you need to take a step back (or 10). As journalist and best-selling author Doria Clark has shared: Busyness is a marker of servitude, not status. 

It also gets in the way of strategic thinking and compounds the impacts of attentional residue. It’s not time that you need to keep yourself whole. It’s space. 

THE ASSIGNMENT 

For our challenge this week, we’ll do a fun little activity that I like to call “Name the Brain.” It’s an energy audit that takes into account the types of work you do and the type of mental energy you need to complete that work. 

In old-school computer speak, our first challenge in the Mental Health Reset series is working to defrag our day, which will lessen the task-switching demands that often leave important work incomplete so that urgent work can be completed. It will also help us avoid context-switching throughout the day, which can, in turn, lessen the brain drain and decision fatigue we feel before the day is even over. 

By examining how we spend our time, we can find ways to open space.

The goal: To understand the kinds of energy you use in the different contexts of your work AND which times of day or contexts drain your mental capacity versus which times and contexts refill it.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

  • What you’ll need: You’ll want to use your calendar. You may also want to trace your email and Slack trails. (Remember: Not everything we do in a workday rises to the level of a formal meeting. And yet, all of it is time spent not doing something else.)
  • What you’ll do: You’ll work through your day to assign a color code to the types of energy you expel at work. For example (these are suggestions, but if you want science you can find it on HBR): Gold: Coaching brain, Grey: Info-sharing brain, Light blue: Casual brain, Blue: Tactical brain, Light orange: Deep thinking brain (solo focus or self investment) 

A sample calendar with different sections color-coded depending on the type of brain being used.

  • After you’ve considered the ways you expel energy, have named that energy and given it a color, start assigning that color throughout your calendar or analog on a piece of paper based on the meetings you’ve had. 
  • Ask yourself: How am I conserving, losing and refilling my mental energy throughout the day? How might I reorganize my time into fewer contexts? How might I bookend my work week with meetings, conversations, strategy that maintains energy on Monday and refills it on Friday?
  • As a final exercise, draft an updated calendar week that prioritizes your mental capacity over others’ demands for your time. This may mean any number of things, for example:
    • Moving all 1:1s to the same days
    • Moving 1:1s to the start of your days
    • Stacking team meetings
    • Reserving the first hours of your day to deep thinking

Download the exercise template here. 

Take it further: This is a great foundational exercise to intentionally time-boxing your calendar and setting your “out of office” to protect deep working hours while managing the response expectations of others. But, it only really works if you, too, abide by it. 

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