If you wanted to win a race, you’d warm up. Why wouldn’t you do the same when it comes to your mind?
I’m something of a fitness buff, as some of you know. I’m also pretty driven academically and professionally. There is plenty written about the top professional athletes and their strategic thinking abilities. The best players are not only physically skilled, but they out-think their competitors, often including those with more physical skill.
One thing I’ve found, though, is that the physical experience can also lead to better mental performance.
I long ago learned the value of doing a warmup before going for whatever big performance I have planned. Whether it’s a 5K race, 100 mile cycling event or even a good interval workout, it is important to get your body warmed up so it can perform optimally. For example, if I get right onto the elliptical machine first thing in the morning, it can feel like a resistance setting of 15 is tough on the machine I use. If I run a mile first, 17 seems like a good resistance, but not even as tough as 15 seemed before the run.
Believe it or not, I’ve seen the exact same thing with mental performance. Whether that’s my own performance, or the performance of a group working together, there is clearly a benefit to getting mentally warmed up.
For myself, if I have a big problem to tackle, I often do what I can to give my mind time to get used to the problem and thinking about it. I might gather materials and give a quick look over them, plan out how I’m going to tackle it, or break off a small portion of the problem. That applies to big strategic issues at work, or even my writing work. I Do a Day, actually. I don’t write an entire article all at once. I think about the general idea I want to write about. Then I think about a couple of potential title ideas (I got that guidance from my editors at Inc. Magazine
, and despite thinking it was weird to write the article after writing the title, it really did help me focus my message better than doing it the other way around).
If you find yourself in a leadership role, the value of mental warmups is even more important because you have the sum-total of several productive brains vs. the waste of several unproductive brains at your disposal. The benefit of the warmup is multiplied.
For all day meetings, this can be really easy. Start the day with some sort of fun warmup exercise. It serves two purposes. It gets everyone’s mind functioning, and it helps to bring the group together more. There are lots of great examples out there, like the ones listed here
I use one I participated in years ago. The setup is that some common food or item, like popcorn or wire clothes hangers (the two I’ve done it with) are no longer legal for the original use (e.g. the FDA has said popcorn is deadly if eaten). You are a maker of that thing with warehouses full of finished goods. What other uses can you come up with for the item?
Give people two or three minutes to list out every idea they can think of, and then go around the room and have people share their ideas. You also want to ask them how many ideas they came up with. What is really interesting in this exercise is that children tend to think of dramatically more ideas than adults because they haven’t yet had their imagination tamed by the grind of reality. For example, kids think of things like powering airplanes with popcorn or making rocket ships out of hangars. What adult would ever think of those ideas?
At the end of the exercise, people are awake, engaged and their mind is in creative problem solving mode.
For short meetings, this can be tricky as you cannot really take 30 minutes out of an hour-long meeting to do a warmup exercise. But you could structure the discussion to crack off a smaller, easier part of the issue first to set people up to think about the meat of it second. It’s the same approach I use when problem solving on my own.
Whether you’re working alone or in a group, at your job, side-hustle
, school or anywhere else you need your brain, treat it like you would your physical body.
Performance is better when you’re primed for it.
This article is inspired by my book, Do a Day, available in print, ebook and audiobook at www.doadaybook.com or at your favorite book sellers.