How to think clearly and creatively under pressure

With ever greater demands on our cognitive abilities and increasingly distracting workplaces, it can be tough to ensure high-quality thinking. Tim Segaller explains how mindfulness can help

Today’s workplaces are not very conducive to clear thinking. With high levels of noise and other sensory stimuli, and constant interruptions from phone calls, emails and meetings, the average office can often feel like the worst place to think properly.

This is richly ironic, given what’s required of employees today – especially those in senior roles – calls for the clearest thinking. There are ever greater demands on our cognitive abilities: information retention and retrieval, data analysis and interpretation, decision-making, organisational skills, time-management and prioritisation... the list goes on.  

All this is in the context of our competitive market economy, which creates increased demands on all of us to do more, quicker, and with fewer resources. Technological developments arguably add more challenges than they take away. While task automation frees up our time, we have to continually adapt to the new realities it creates.  

Given all these harsh realities, how can we ensure high-quality thinking at work? Part of the answer is about improving the external conditions – things like office design and working practices. There are great examples of best practice in this regard: the likes of Google, Apple and other tech firms. But sometimes we forget to also pay attention to internal conditions – or rather, how we manage our minds. The most effective set of tools and techniques for setting up the best inner conditions for cognitive performance come from the practice of mindfulness. This is about simple daily exercises to develop in-the-moment awareness, so you can consciously choose where to place your attention and intention. You can use a simple ABC formula:

Awareness – of your mental and physical experience

Being with experience – creating space to deal with intractable problems and challenging emotions

Choosing wisely – responding flexibly instead of reacting automatically, leading to clear thinking

To understand how truly clear and creative thinking works, let’s make a distinction between two mental ‘modes’ and two corresponding types of thinking. First, there’s ‘autopilot’ mode, which evolved in our prehistoric past to come up with instant solutions to danger. It takes care of basic body functions, and is vital to our survival. However, when unchecked it can step in to solve complex problems it’s not suited for. This leads to ‘rumination’, when we chew over problems in an unproductive way, leaving us feeling drained.

The other mental mode is ‘intentional’, with a corresponding thinking style of ‘reflection’ that’s more flexible and productive. It allows you to step back and see things more clearly, without getting caught up in the fear-based emotional responses of autopilot. Here are a couple of tips for using mindfulness to step into intentional mode:

Re-engage your critical thinking

1. Notice you’re currently caught up in autopilot thinking. Common signs are mental tiredness or physical tension. 

2. Stop what you’re doing. Sit quietly and take some deep conscious breaths into your belly. Allow your whole body to be flooded with awareness. If you can, walk about for a bit and allow your senses to be fully engaged – notice what you can see, hear, smell, taste and touch. As you do this, allow thoughts or emotions to just come and go.

3. Return to what you were doing, allowing your freshly engaged intentional mode to do its best thinking for you.

Flex your thinking 

A key cognitive skill in the workplace is the ability to move freely along a ‘perspective spectrum’; some activities require ‘big picture’ awareness, some call for close attention to detail, others need a blend. Focusing on the wrong part of the spectrum for the task at hand, or getting stuck in one task to the neglect of others, can lead to rumination. 

Mindful awareness helps you realise when this has happened. If so, take yourself through the previous exercise, and then consciously decide where on the perspective spectrum you need to place your attention.

Tim Segaller is a leadership and executive coach, resilience trainer and author of The ABC Guide to Mindfulness