The Sharp Solution: A Brain-Based Approach for Optimal Performance by Heidi Hanna (Wiley, 2013) is a one-stop shopping book for decreasing stress, increasing energy, and improving overall health, happiness, and performance. I’m not being sarcastic here. It is one of the better self-help books I’ve read in some time. Admittedly, I don’t read anywhere near as many self-help books as I do investing and trading books. Sometimes I think I’ve got things backwards; sometimes I’m convinced I’m wasting my time with both. That’s usually the point at which I pick up a good novel.
But enough about me. Back to Hanna’s book. The SHARP solution has five phases: balance your brain with strategic relaxation and recovery, engage your heart (create a clear vision statement that incorporates passion, purpose, and motivation), focus your mind, energize your body, and strengthen your community.
In this post I want to deal with phase three—focus your mind. First, a couple of stats. “It has been said that we only spend about 10 percent of our time in the current moment, 50 percent anticipating what’s ahead of us, and 40 percent reflecting on what’s behind us.” And “considering the fact that we have approximately 60,000 thoughts every single day, and that each thought that catches our attention requires us to spend energy, it’s no wonder that we feel as if we’re running on fumes by the end of the day.” (p. 66)
How can we better manage our mental energy? Hanna offers three suggestions. First, spend wisely. “Most people are so busy during the day they fail to even consider that they might be spending beyond their limit, which often leads to burnout and fatigue. Try to avoid spending carelessly by bringing more mindful attention to each present moment.” Second, conserve when necessary. Hanna recommends chuncking your day so that you can shift from multitasking to multi-prioritizing. And finally, invest strategically. “It is important to recognize that the same energy source fuels our brainpower and our body. This means that you will deplete the energy that’s available for your mental demands if you don’t invest in your physical energy throughout the day.” This investment involves eating high-quality food every three to four hours and “taking breaks to get short bursts of physical activity each hour. … Ideally, you should aim for about five minutes each hour to turn off your mind and engage your body for optimal brainpower.” (p. 67)
Focusing the mind also involves transforming a negative, survival-based mindset into a more positive, opportunity-based one. “Training our brain to have a positive, growth-oriented, opportunity-based mindset provides flexibility training, which compels us to be resilient in complex situations and see the positive in even the most challenging of circumstances. It also decreases our knee-jerk reactions to events in our lives that spike unhealthy cortisol levels so that we can be in our optimal energy and performance zone.” Making over one’s mindset is possible because, as William James wrote, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” (p. 76)
Hanna continues: “[P]eople with a fixed mindset tend to be more sensitive to the negative events they experience and more aware of needs to protect themselves for long-term survival. This is similar to people suffering from chronic stress. … Take, for example, a stock market crash. The shock of what occurred may initially feel like an acute stress, but eventually, you are left in financial turmoil, which may last for a long time, keeping your system on high alert.” In this state “cortisol calls the shots in the brain. … This is one of the reasons why stress has been linked to excess fat storage: It not only stimulates a desire for comfort and distraction, but also pushes the brain into energy-storage mode.” (p. 77)
A simple (but, as the mantra goes, not easy) shift in our mindset “can change our physiological response, making us feel challenged (and releasing harmless adrenaline) rather than threatened (and releasing inflammatory cortisol). This is often based on our perception of what’s called our locus of control: that is, our belief that we can make an impact on the situation at hand, rather than feeling helpless. One particular study of 7,400 employees found that people who believed they had little control over the deadlines that other people had imposed had a 50 percent higher risk of coronary heart disease than their counterparts.” (p. 78)
In brief, you should focus on the intersection of things that matter and things you can control. A diagram from Farnam Street, a wonderful blog recommended by one my readers:
Have a happy, challenged day!