cognitive fatigue

The dangers of “running on empty” will be clear to most leaders by now. Months into a crisis, tempers may be short and you may find yourself being less empathetic, with an attitude of “I don’t care anymore, let’s just get it done”.

According to research by graduate business school Insead, being on a video call requires more focus than a face-to-face chat, because we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, vocal tone and pitch, and body language — which consumes extra energy.

These are some of the signs of cognitive depletion. This is when we no longer have the mental energy to make our best decisions. And, while we may be able to see that someone else is reaching the end of their tether, we tend to be slower to see it in ourselves, says Juliet Bourke, author of Which Two Heads are Better than One?.

“We don’t notice cognitive depletion until the battery has almost run dry,” warns Bourke, who leads Deloitte Australia's diversity and inclusion consulting practice and co-leads the leadership practice. She says that during physical isolation, leaders are juggling multiple inputs and struggling with back-to-back videoconferences, trying to “read” multiple faces on the screen at once, and deal with overflowing email inboxes, simultaneous chats and presentations in multiple time zones.

Bourke recommends directors save their energy for the crucial decisions. Think of your decision-making ability as a battery, which is partially drained with every decision you make and needs to be recharged by rest and sleep.

Two leaders who recognised this phenomenon and then cut inconsequential decisions from their days are former US president Barack Obama and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing, because I have too many other decisions to make,” Obama told Vanity Fair in 2012, referring to his practice of wearing only grey or blue suits. Zuckerberg has used the same theory around “frivolous decisions” to explain the grey T-shirts he wears each day.

Less may be more

The issue of director workloads has become more acute during COVID-19 as those with multiple boards have found themselves having to respond to multiple crises. Board adviser and non-executive director Julie Garland McLellan FAICD says organising your portfolio so you are busy 24/7 is a risk to diligence and reputation. “When something goes wrong you tend to get the domino effect, which can make life very difficult.”

She knows of directors jostling for the next career step who have suddenly left. “Their attitude is you have a problem, I can’t cope with this.” While supportive of the idea of career progression, McLellan says it must be coupled with strong ethics and an understanding of your duties to each organisation you govern. “To leave when a problem surfaces is completely unacceptable.” She says boards should have a plan so as not to be unduly impacted by a departing director.

Take a pause

Bourke recommends deliberately scheduling intermissions in your day — “breaks in which you can refuel, have some food, a mental break, look outside at the view, go for a little walk… will help to refresh you”.

Research on decision fatigue shows decisions become more conservative throughout the day. However, preparedness to take more risk improves after rest and snacks, according to the study of the Israeli parole board, co-authored by associate professor of business at Columbia University Jonathan Levav.

Bourke recommends boards break from meetings every 90 minutes and that participants do not use the time to check emails. Some boards have experimented with a camera-off break, where people are encouraged to stretch at the same time, but in private.

“The break has to allow your brain to refresh itself so that you can apply concentration again,” says Bourke.

Look for divergent views

One of the risks of cognitive depletion is that it will lead to “groupthink”, resulting in irrational or dysfunctional decision-making.

“We all want to get along with other people and we all want to have a sense of cohesion. We don't want to rock the boat,” says Bourke. “It's a very energetic activity to be disruptive — and to want to listen to disruption.”

Dr Connie Henson, author of BrainWise Leadership: Practical neuroscience to survive and thrive at work, recommends boards create environments that are inclusive of different perspectives. In virtual meetings, check in with attendees regularly to confirm they are being heard.

This will help overcome our natural cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias — an underlying tendency to notice, focus on and provide greater credence to evidence that seems to confirm our own beliefs. Henson suggests that rather than asking divergent thinkers to speak up, inclusivity may involve asking others to speak less.

Meetings: rest, revive, survive

  1. Cut administrivia Agree to the minutes by email, not in your meeting time. University of Sydney’s Dr Massimo Garbuio, who lectures in entrepreneurship, says the most ineffective meetings are weekly or fortnightly catch-ups that lack a specific set of objectives.
  2. Turn off the tech Turn away from your tech devices and monitor your tech usage through apps such as RescueTime, Screen Time and Digital Wellbeing.
  3. Divergent views If something sounds wrong, ask for more information. Research by University of Michigan professor Scott Page found that without diversity of thinking, mistakes will be made in around 30 per cent of decisions.
  4. Be energy smart Reorder the agenda to put the toughest decisions first and keep meetings as short as possible. Before COVID-19, Microsoft Japan banned meetings over 30 minutes and trialled a four-day week, finding that productivity increased by 20 per cent.
  5. Chisel out time Build 15-minute breaks between online appointments to allow time to digest the decisions made and plan for the next meeting.
  6. Your teacher was right Good posture improves concentration. Mayo Clinic endocrinologist Dr James Levine studied why some people gain weight and others don’t. He found that the negative effects of extended sitting can't be countered by short bouts of strenuous exercise. The answer is to incorporate standing, pacing and other forms of activity into your normal day, for example, with standing or walking meetings. “Step one is get up. Step two is learn to get up more often. Step three is, once you're up, move," advises Levine.