How to thrive as a leader when the going gets rough

Every leader’s performance—positive or negative—is directly influenced by the ways in which they work. Peak performance requires the optimal use of your cognitive storehouse, your brain. Not just how you use it—but when. And that’s especially true during turbulent times when stressors begin to mount, and you can easily become overwhelmed.

When you blend that approach with a strong commitment to the practices that help you sustain your health and well-being, you’ll be making a powerful addition to your ability to thrive, whatever the circumstances you face.

What does it take to thrive?

When you take a brain-savvy approach to how you organize your work and your schedule, you will minimize overload and maximize your brain’s cognitive performance. Thereby optimizing your effectiveness and overall performance when you do.

Perhaps most notably, this approach will help you strengthen the health and functioning of your brain’s pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of your brain that regulates your executive functions, influencing your critical cognitive abilities for skills such as decision-making, problem-solving, emotional awareness and management functions. As these are the skills you need to lead and perform consistently at your best, shoring them up in more challenging times is essential.

Here are five practical, proven ways you can optimize your brain – and leadership performance – to keep you thriving during turbulent times.

(If you missed my companion article about how leaders can help their teams thrive when the going gets rough, you can read it here.)

1. Maximize your ‘prime time’

Know and use your ‘prime time’ for your most important, often more complex work – and make a habit of doing this work first. The key is to zero in on when you’re at your best and plan your day around it.

For example: If you’re a morning person, pay close attention to how you start your day. Ensure you schedule the heavy lifting that requires more complex or creative executive processing skills first (think strategy, planning, problem-solving and decision-making). For you, the start of your day is when your brain is at its optimum and best used to tackle your most important work.

Not a morning person? Focus on the time of day/night that’s prime for your brain and plan/schedule your work accordingly.

2. Set schedules and boundaries

When challenging times arise, it’s easy to feel like you need to be on call 100% of the time. However, allowing yourself to become run down does not serve you, or the team you lead.

Schedule the time you plan to be available – whether for meetings, taking calls or being open to informal conversations or check-ins. Set boundaries as well about how much time (and when) you’ll be available online to review and respond to messages. Doing so ensures you’re not sacrificing your prime working times or neglecting your self-care.

Then let others know when they can expect to hear from you, barring an emergency.

With these two steps, you’ll begin to take control of your schedule. As you design your schedule around your peak performance time, notice how much more resilient to adversity you can be.

3. Manage distractions to support boundaries and prime time

Eliminate and/or reduce the volume of incoming messages, notifications and reminders that may be filling your day and draining your brain of its processing reserves.

Regardless of whether you are processing an incoming message, text, notification, or phone call—each one distracts your attention and causes your brain to ‘switch.’ Then, it must switch again to return to what you were attempting to focus on.

There is a cognitive cost each time you switch your focus, as neuroscientists such as MIT’s Earl Miller have confirmed, and it can quickly add up. The more switching you do, the greater the cognitive load you place on your brain’s daily reserves. This leads to brain fog and a marked decline in your ability to make good decisions or complete tasks effectively.

Take the time to notice your daily habits—and make conscious choices about how you will work and interact with information, social media, and colleagues.

During ‘available’ times, you can take calls, meet virtually or in person with staff, or allow incoming notifications on your computer, phone, and mobile devices. During the ‘unavailable’ time, all of these can be turned off!

4. Monotask

You’ll be investing in your ability to thrive when you work on one thing at a time, in blocks of time that optimize your cognitive capacity. This is especially important when you want to tackle anything complex.

Research confirms that our brains max out after 90-minute work blocks and need a break then to rest and restore. When you use this insight to your advantage, you can plan your day for peak performance – achieving dedicated work effort in each 90-minute block, then pausing to refresh.

Set a timer to allow you to concentrate on the work in front of you during each block (ideally, with your devices and notifications off), then take a brief, energizing break to stretch and move around when the timer rings. When you do this every 60 to 90 minutes, you will notice how much fresher you are for what’s next in your day.

5. Pause with Purpose

Your brain gets tired throughout the day, just like your body. The corresponding drop in physical and cognitive energy is even greater if you’ve not investing in the fundamentals (enough sleep, exercise, nutrition, hydration, and restoration), or you’re leading through especially challenging times, and stressors are adding up.

When you build purposeful pauses into your routine, you can help your brain refresh throughout the day. For example, if you sit at a desk most of the day, schedule regular breaks to get up, move around and get a glass of water. Even five minutes an hour can make a difference.

Another easy option? Try this simple practice I weave into leadership effectiveness workshops; I call it ‘look out; look up.’ Set aside your tasks for a few minutes and go to a window—or better yet, go outdoors. Look out and up, focussing entirely on what you notice outside the window. Pay close attention and allow the outdoor setting to occupy your thinking brain, inviting your thoughts to drift like clouds. When you return to your desk, you may be surprised how much ‘fresher’ your brain feels as you move on to your next challenge.

Your performance as a leader is strongly correlated to how and when you approach your work – even more so during turbulent times. Brain-savvy approaches support your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Even more importantly, they ensure the cognitive skills so critical to your leadership performance can function at their best.

It’s a given you’re going to have times when the going gets rough. Remember these five strategies when it happens, and you’ll be well on your way to thriving, whatever the challenge you may face.

Michelle Lane

Michelle Lane is a leadership development coach, consultant, and facilitator with 40 years of diverse leadership experience in the public, private and non-profit sectors. Michelle can be reached at

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