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James Hewitt

James Hewitt

23rd Feb 2023

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Have you ever thought about planning your effort, and the type and timing of your cognitive activities, to optimise your wellbeing and performance? As life expectancy increases, and retirement age is delayed, maintaining and even enhancing performance over the long-haul, is becoming increasingly important in knowledge work. We need to start considering our rhythms of work, rest, and peak performance, and develop a plan for cognitive endurance.

15 years ago, I returned to the UK, to study sports science and eventually set up my own coaching business, primarily working with amateur cyclists. Many of my clients had very demanding jobs in London, where my business was based. In the small amount of spare-time they had outside their work as solicitors, architects, management consultants and finance professionals, they trained for very challenging cycling events.

I diligently created their cycling training sessions, but soon realised that I knew very little about their work days, despite the fact that the stress and load they were accumulating during the 12+ hours in the office seemed to be having a significant impact on their cycling performance.
I became curious about what was going on in their work day, which was the genesis of my fascination with knowledge work.

We will live & work for longer than ever

Maintaining and even enhancing performance over the long-haul is becoming increasingly important in knowledge work, but we rarely consider variations and rhythms in the volume and intensity of cognitive effort.

Global life expectancy has doubled since 1900 and retirement age is increasingly delayed. As working life extends, employees need to find ways to maximise health-span; the functional and disease-free period of life, but the requirement to work for longer is not the only pressure. In most jobs, 30% of the work could already be automated.

Remaining human roles will put a greater emphasis on sophisticated and effective cognitive functioning. These shifts should encourage us to be more proactive about maintaining our health and enhancing our cognitive performance.

Preliminary analysis of data from a recent study, in which I gathered over 1000 observations of knowledge worker health behaviours and cognitive performance, suggests that wellbeing, including adequate sleep, managing stress and positive mood, are some of the most significant drivers of cognitive performance.

A plan for cognitive endurance

We need a framework to plan for cognitive endurance, in a similar way that we plan for physical endurance. On average, a full-time employee in the EU works 40.3 hours per week; that’s 2096 hours per year.

Most of us experience the day in three phases: a peak, a valley and a rebound. ‘Chronotype’ relates to our circadian rhythm and describes our ‘peak periods’ and tendency to sleep at a particular time during a 24-hour period. Individuals are often classified according to three chronotypes: ‘morning-type’, ‘neither-type’ or ‘evening-type’.

Our chronotype can determine the order that we experience these three phases, but each phase has distinct characteristics. The peak is generally the best time for focus on complex analytic and productive work, with minimal distractions or interruptions. The valley is the ideal opportunity for rest, recovery, and reflection. The rebound is a good time to get on with the menial tasks and switching work, such as e-mail and administrative tasks.

We can not always be ‘on’

If you wake up at 08:00am, and you’re still awake at 1:00am, the next day, your physical performance would likely be worse than if your blood alcohol concentration of 0.05%. To achieve this through drinking alcohol, a 73 kg male would need to drink two 355ml cans of beer. If you stayed awake until 5am, your performance would likely be equivalent to having a 0.1% blood alcohol concentration: over the legal driving limit in many countries. We need to stop worshipping the ‘grind’ and ‘the hustle’.

Cognitive gears: planning load in knowledge work

Inspired by the concept of ‘training zones’ in endurance sport, I created a framework called ‘cognitive gears’ to create a plan for cognitive endurance. Each cognitive gear represents a type of knowledge work activity. Low cognitive gear represents rest and recovery, high cognitive gear represents periods of intense focus, with just the right amount of time-pressure, and the middle cognitive gear represents time spent on menial-tasks and switching work.

High cognitive gear: when and where to focus effort

High Cognitive Gear is akin to Peak periods in an endurance athlete’s training programme. Create a precise goal for your time, the break your peak period into blocks of 25-minutes of uninterrupted work, followed by 5-minute breaks. This technique seems to be able to reduce procrastination, avoid distraction and help us to achieve states of flow and focus.

Low cognitive gear: resurrect the lunch break

Try to schedule Low Cognitive Gear time to coincide with the valley in your day. Various forms of evidence seem to suggest that the most effective breaks are active, social and natural: go for a walk with someone you like, look at the sky and the trees. Before its recent extinction, I think it was commonly known as a ‘lunch break’. Finally, perhaps most importantly, sleep 7-9 hours per night.

Middle cognitive gear: don’t start your day on someone else’s schedule

We could consider Middle Cognitive Gear as preparation time in our cognitive performance plan. Use this time to ‘clear the decks’ and complete the small tasks, that hang around, freeing you to focus, or rest. Begin by setting boundaries for middle cognitive gear activities, so that this work does not diffuse into all our conscious hours. During the rebound, our inhibitory control is often reduced, which makes it more likely that we will switch tasks anyway, so synchronise middle-gear work with the rebound in your day.

While it’s tempting to look for a hack or quick fix to improve cognitive performance, we need to take a longer-term view. This means thinking more carefully, and proactively, about periods of effort and recovery. The impact of a more human approach to performance could lead to us rediscovering real focus, reduced stress and enhanced recovery. We need a brain and body to go the distance. Knowledge work is a cognitive endurance activity.

IMI Corporate Members can register for the upcoming IMI Future of Work 1: Discover your keys to sustainable high performance with James Hewitt webinar, taking place 21 March.