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Adaptive capacity: How to give yourself the space to pause, think and respond

In today’s fast-paced and changing world, the busyness trap has become a common struggle for professionals at all levels. We often prioritise work above all else, wearing our hectic schedules as a badge of honour. This constant busyness is taking a toll on our well-being and effectiveness. It’s time to shift our focus from sheer productivity to building our adaptive capacity. 

Adaptive capacity is the product of time, energy and attention that allows us to have the opportunity to anticipate, respond to and in many cases take advantage of changing conditions.  It’s the thinking and breathing space all managers and leaders need to continue to make the right decisions for the future.  

And it actually IS rocket science. Ozan Varol, author of Think like a Rocket Scientist, shares that most rocket scientists spend their time in quiet contemplation, thinking about problems and very little time at the blackboard undertaking complex calculations. He refers to these moments as “thought experiments” which are largely associated with Einstein but can be traced back to the early Greek philosophers. In a nutshell, it’s the time and space to think that makes all the difference in coming up with optimal solutions. 

When was the last time you protected time for “thought experiments”. For years researchers have proved time and time again the positive impact of restful activities: 

  • Daydreaming, and even boredom promote creative thinking.
  • Non-work-related activities that both rejuvenate and excite you will provide the energy you need when it’s time to get down to work.  
  • Being in flow (Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, 1975) helps us get more done.  Up to 500% more according to a McKinsey study
  • Socialising: We get cognitive boosts from social interactions, and we also experience higher levels of intellectual performance. 
  • Disconnecting from work makes us healthier, more engaged when we are at work and less prone to procrastination. 

Rather than filling our cup to the brim and operating at maximum capacity, we need to create space for the curveballs that are inevitable and growth into the future. Just as a cup overflows when it’s too full, lacking capacity in our lives can lead to snapping at others, forgetfulness, and overwhelm. 

This requires being intentional about how we spend our time to ensure that our actions align with our priorities. By increasing our adaptive capacity, we create room for thinking, recharging, and seizing opportunities in times of change. 

Building in a 15% buffer, approximately one hour per day or half a day per week, allows for this essential adaptive capacity, so here are some strategies to help you give yourself and your team the space to think and work more effectively: 

  • Purple patches: Block out dedicated time each day, like a daily one-hour meeting with yourself, to create space for thinking space and recharging. By setting aside a dedicated hour each day, you create a space free from distractions where you can choose the best way to spend your time rather than being in demand.  
  • Wiping the mind: Clear your head each day by spending five minutes in the morning writing down everything that is on your mind, allowing you to unload mental clutter and increase focus. By externalising your thoughts onto paper (or, if you must, a digital platform), you free up mental space and improve your ability to focus. This simple daily practice enhances clarity and decision-making by reducing noise and enabling a clearer mind for the day ahead. 
  • Batching work: Group similar tasks together and work on them in short, focused bursts without interruptions or distractions, improving concentration and efficiency. By focusing on one type of task at a time, you reduce mental switching costs and maintain a state of flow. 
  • 25-minute meetings: Identify a clear purpose for meetings and minimise the number of participants, reducing the meeting time while maximising impact.  

Adaptive capacity is key to navigating the busyness trap and unlocking our full potential as managers and leaders. By giving ourselves the space to pause, think, and respond, we can improve our well-being, increase productivity, and embrace change with resilience and agility. 

Donna McGeorge is a global authority on productivity, and best-selling author of the “It’s About Time” book series. Her latest book, “Join the ChatGPT Revolution” (published by Wiley) is set for release in July 2023.

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