- On December 17, 2015
Do you ever have an ‘off’ day?
You have lots to do and find yourself avoiding or undecided about what needs to be done? This could be procrastination. However it can also be a sign that the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) of your brain is not optimally engaged.
Or you have lots to do and are head-down cranking through it, shutting yourself off mentally from outside inputs. You are keeping your nose above water, barely, hoping a wave doesn’t corm crashing in.
I’m having an ‘off day’. Actually, I’d say it’s an ‘off week.’
I returned last week from a 2 week trip to Namibia where I was disconnected from Internet for all but the 1st and last day. When I returned I had TONS of things to do–client meetings, reports, 2-weeks of piled up email. To top it off, smack dab in the middle of holiday season prep. Surely this To DO list would keep me busy non-stop! Well it would… if I could get myself to do it.
This may sound counter-intuitive, but all those tasks left me with too little stimulation.
Working at our peak requires a ‘just right’ dose of catecholamines (norepinephrine and dopamine) in our Pre-Frontal Cortex. That is when the high-level functioning that the PFC is designed for can kick in. The PFC controls necessary functions such as working memory, planning, taking action, critical thinking and decision-making, envisioning abstract concepts, and relating to others.
Think of that unproductive work meeting that leaves you absolutely bored and distracted. Once you are feeling unstimulated (from a too little dose of catecholamines), it is really hard to turn yourself on to any productive or creative thought.
Think of when you are absolutely overwhelmed. Working under a deadline; the boss is calling; kids have to be picked up on time; and there’s the dinner reservation you need to make. Your PFC is super-dosed and goes on auto-pilot, plowing through what you need to get done reactively and mindlessly. There is little room for reflective or creative thought, empathy, or taking in new information.
Interestingly, whether you are bored out of your skull or dealing with far too much on your plate, it has the same effect on the PFC. Whether the boredom generates too low a dose of catecholamines, or the overwhelm generates a too high dose, in both cases–too little or too much– it clouds the ability of the PFC to do its job.
For me, the culprit of the too much or too little is the same–a big To Do list.
Before I left on my trip I was overwhelmed with tying up projects, packing, making sure everything would stay on an even keel while away. Don’t even bring up a new item; I’m liable to bite your head off. I’m running on auto-pilot, knocking things off the list. The two days before a trip are absolute hell and I hate them.
When I get back from the trip, I also have the big To Do list. Yet, this time instead of working with mindless intensity towards a deadline, it manifests by avoidance and a blank mind as I try, futilely, to move myself to action.
To be effective, the PFC requires the right neuro-hormonal balance. That balance will be different for everyone and is impacted by gender, environment, and upbringing. Recognizing when you are ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ is the first step to giving control back to your PFC.
How do I ‘snap out of it’ and balance to the ‘just right’?
For me, it’s finding something meaty that I can immerse myself in for a few hours. Something that releases creativity and is do-able enough that I can finish it in one sitting and see that I am making progress.
Like writing this blog post. There. I feel much better now.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock II Rob Bryon 20905024