The Mental Whetstone: Unconventional Ways to Hone Your Wits

“Make sure you take the time to feed yourself with what your spirit has to offer.” — Darren L. Johnson, American author.

The Mental Whetstone:  Unconventional Ways to Hone Your Wits by Laura StackNo doubt about it: you have to keep your wits sharp to successfully lead a team. Some experts claim that doing tough mental exercises will help you sharpen your mind: the New York Times crossword, Sudoku, logic puzzles, reading, learning new tasks, taking classes, and so on. While there’s nothing wrong with any of those activities, some scientists say these studies are flawed—the jury’s still out on that.

I tend to intuitively believe the studies that show dementia and Alzheimer’s have large genetic components, so I’m always eager to know how to keep my wits sharp. But the way I look at it, I’m getting plenty of mental stimulation from the challenges of running a business and doing my job on a daily basis.

Think about it. In addition to juggling umpteen projects, you’re constantly busy planning how to delegate them to your team members, trying to balance the summer’s vacation schedule, digging up more work for when times get lean, clearing workflow blockages, jumpstarting new projects, mediating disputes between team members and/or co-workers, introducing people to others in your network, and handling a hundred other little tasks. That provides enough mental activity for any ten Sudoku volumes, with a Martin Gardner Mathemagics book on the side.

So I’m going to buck the trend here and say that instead of doing more to hone your mental alertness, you should do less.

The Inactive Angle

My specialty as a productivity expert is showing people how to do more in less time. I try to practice what I preach and do get a tremendous amount done. But the most important part of my life revolves around my loved ones, so I want to spend as much time with them as possible.

But in a world where agility, flexibility, speed, and innovation have become watchwords, you can easily get overworked and overwhelmed. I believe doing too much causes you to lose your mental edge, not hone it.

You aren’t a robot. You can’t work nonstop. You must take a little time to back up, breathe—and give yourself a break. Literally. Then you can put your head down and work anew. Try these tips to get you there:

1. Get on top of your to-do lists. While you require to-do lists to structure your productivity, they can get out of hand—especially if you pile on 137 tasks in your quest to get things done. Triage your task lists mercilessly, and then prioritize what remains by importance and due date. Practice purposeful abandonment of the least important tasks and delegate like crazy.

2. Review your goals. Stop, look around, and re-evaluate where you are—and where you should be. Does your current path align with the organization’s? What about your team and personal goals? If things seem hopelessly snarled, take a weekend off and check into a hotel for a 48-hour strategic thinking retreat. You’ll emerge organized and excited.

3. Take your breaks. You have lunch break and weekends off for a reason: to recharge your mental batteries, regaining your edge before you return to the front. You may occasionally skip a break or work through a weekend because of a tight deadline, but don’t make a habit of it—or you’ll pay down the line. And take your full vacations! Escape the hassles of the office, if only for a week or two a year. If possible, disconnect as much as possible.

4. Disconnect for family and friends. Stop checking work email incessantly throughout the evening. Be present with the people you care about most. Even if you stay busy physically, you still need a change that allows your brain to bounce back to its normal elasticity and sharpness.

5. Have fun at work. While we can’t all offer in-house games, personal projects, and free candy like Google and some other companies do, work doesn’t have to mean drudgery. Don’t act frivolously, but do give your people reasons to look forward to work every day. Do things to promote solidarity, celebrate important life events, and publically reward team members who’ve done exceptionally well. Appoint yourself or someone else the Morale Officer, and don’t lose sight of the post’s importance.

Walking That Fine Line

Working hard and doing your job well is important; no one disputes that. That said, you don’t—or at least shouldn’t—live to work. You need to regain control of your productivity so you can get out of the office on time—not only to recharge and recapture your mental edge, but also to devote to the people you care about, and who care about you.

Sometimes work has to wait while you live the rest of your life. Then jump back into the fray when you’re at your best—you’ll end up doing a much better job than if you’d just trudged straight through.