The modern leader is in constant motion. One foot in front of the other, constantly striving to accomplish more. To be more efficient. To create and add value to the world. We delude ourselves into thinking that there is no time for a walk, or to take a longer lunch in search of healthier food and a good laugh with a colleague. Making time for certain activities can replenish, invigorate, decrease stress and increase bandwidth.
Take sleep, for example. Many professionals stay up late, wake up early, and pride themselves on being able to press on in the presence of sleep deprivation. Getting 6 hours of sleep instead of 8 hours put two hours back into the day, right?
Sure, but two hours of what? A day spent in a relative haze, fighting the urge not nod off and experiencing the cognitive and creative detriment that comes alongside sleep deprivation? (Davis, 2019)
I recently presented a leader with an easy math question: would you rather have a 1lb bar comprised of 85-100% gold, or a 1.25lb bar of 50-65% gold? He pulled out his phone for a quick calculation, though the answer was obvious.
No one who is truly aimed at productivity would want a greater quantity of lower quality.
And yet we make those decisions all the time. We forget that health and wellness impact our abilities, so we squeeze the dried fruit of our exhaustion even harder, somehow expecting to extract what’s no longer there. We have to slow down. Take time to refresh.
Though it may seem counter intuitive, the busiest among us should take time away from producing to maximize their productivity, however one might define it.
Move Toward Focus and Calm
I work for a nonprofit foundation called the Good Athlete Project, which is an education consulting foundation aimed at building future leaders through sport. We recently partnered with the good people at BrainCo Technologies and, under the guidance of their President, Max Newlon, conducted field research to identify the impact of exercise on the brain. We used electroencephalogram (EEG) technology and were specifically interested in two affective states: Focus and Calm.
In the experiment, 20 participants wore BrainCo’s EEG-measuring headband while taking a cognitive assessment known as the Stroop Test, which was selected for its straightforward directions and its use in other, similar studies (Scarpina & Targini, 2017). After the exercise routine, we administered the Stroop test again.
The exercise routine we selected was part of an educational intervention called the 8-2-8-2 Model, designed by the Good Athlete Project in 2016. The 20-minute intervention is broken into multiple categories
The Stroop Test scores were nearly irrelevant (though they did, on average, improve slightly). What we really hoped to measure was brain activity while taking the test. After a 20-minute round of exercise, the FocusCalm scores rose an impressive 37.91%. Based on the positive results of previous studies, we were optimistic about what we would find, but this was more than we could have anticipated.
If a 20-minute round of exercise can improve focus and calm by nearly 40%, it seems well worth the time commitment. Professionals are regularly aiming for improvements in focus (as indicated by record consumption of stimulant beverages, pharmaceuticals, even caffeinated candies and gums), and calm (as indicated by the billion-dollar market of modern mindfulness). Turns out, all they need is 20 minutes and maybe a pair of running shoes.
Sure, one could take 20 minutes to slog away at their keyboard, growing ever more sluggish as the day presses on. Or they could get up and get moving. Even if one is not interested in their health, the increase in productivity while calmer and more focused is an obviously sensible exchange.
One of the participants wearing FocusCalm EEG wearable device, before and after exercise.
It is important to again note that this is a limited study that should not be assumed to have any scientific merit beyond thoughtful field research with intentions to positively influence practice. It is also important to note that in one of these cases (Participant 3), the score went down. In that case, Participant 3 happened to be a mother who brought her child to the experiment. Approximately fourteen (14) minutes into the experiment, the child (who was being supervised by the participant’s mother) began to cry. Follow-up questions with the participant leads us to believe that this explains the interruption to the participant’s ability to focus and maintain calm during the experiment.
Further studies would limit this sort of situation, where possible. However, it is important to note that while exercise seems to have positive impacts one’s personal state, it cannot overcome environmental factors (like a mother hearing her child’s cry).
Still, the EEG results are promising enough for us to recommend exercise as an intervention to improve the student or employee experience, especially considering its additional health benefits. The other benefits of regular exercise include improved cardiovascular health (Pinckard, Baskin, & Stanford, 2019), decreases in risk for many preventable diseases (Lao, et al, 2018), and a likely increase in self efficacy (Tikac, Unal, & Atug, 2022).
Whether you want to improve your health, productivity, or state of mind, physical wellness should be prioritized, with regular exercise as a key component. There’s only one way to do it: take a step toward that goal, then another, then another…
To schedule a coaching call, REACH OUT here. I’d be happy to support your journey.
Davis, J.D. and Newlon, M. (2022). Exercise Induced Enhancement of Focus and Calm. BrainCo Technologies, whitepaper.
Davis, J.D. (2019). A Sleep-Deprived Nation: the importance of sleep in education. Usable Knowledge, Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Lao, X.C., Deng, H., Liu, X., Chan, T., Zhang, Z., Chang, L., Yeoh, E., Tam, T., Wong, M.C.S., and Thomas, G.N., (2018). Increased leisure-time physical activity associated with lower onset of diabetes in 44 828 adults with impaired fasting glucose: a population-based prospective cohort study. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 53(14), 895–900.
Pinckard, K., Kedryn K. Baskin, K.K., and Stanford, K.I. (2019). Effects of Exercise to Improve Cardiovascular Health. Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine, 6, 69.
Scarpina, F., & Tagini, S. (2017). The Stroop Color and Word Test. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 557.
Tikac, G., Unal, A., and Altug, F. (2022). Regular exercise improves the levels of self-efficacy, self-esteem and body awareness of young adults. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness, 62(1), 157–161.
James (Jim) Davis works with teams and individuals on leadership development, culture enhancement, and performance psychology. He studied Human Development and Psychology at Harvard University and is a sought-after speaker, author, and coach. In 2020 he received US Marine Corps’ ‘Excellence in Leadership Award’. To work with Jim, CLICK HERE.