Break out your yoga pants, cognitive flexibility is listed as a critical skill for 2020.
This means that we need to become really comfortable with being able to shift between thinking about multiple concepts, simultaneously.
Cognitive Flexibility refers to our ability to stop what we are doing on one thing and shift our attention seamlessly onto thinking about something else. It also means the ability to think about several concepts at the same time (Moms… I know what you are thinking, we are already so 2020 fit!)
Why is this so important as we enter into 2020? Because, if you think about it, to be cognitively flexible means that you are able to learn quickly, to adapt, engage more in creative problem solving and ultimately you are able to shift your perspective and respond more appropriately to situations.
So yes, similar to yoga, developing your cognitive flexibility looks easy enough. Especially when you’re watching a master Yogi at work illustrating the ‘Eagle’ or the ‘warrior’, but when it’s your turn to move into that pose it’s about as easy as touching your tongue to the tip of your nose.
I’ll never forget a yoga class I once attended, it was post babies so we were a group of moms all struggling with our deflated belly’s, and we were all desperately trying to move into a particular Sana when our instructor finally announced “Ladies…Just lift your stomach and move it slightly to the left” In that moment it dawned on us that you could actually do this and yip just like that we were able to move more easily into position.
In some ways developing your cognitive flexibility is similar to improving your flexibility in yoga. You need to understand what is getting in your way, you need to be willing to step out of our corporate wear, move beyond the familiar and stretch yourself, your perspective, and find strategies to move you beyond this. We need to employ strategies that will consciously help us to move into this mental state more fluidly when required.
One of the ways we can do this is to seek out and explore new things and experiences. So often we stay with what we know. We tend to learn things in our area of expertise, we seek only to deepen our knowledge. My challenge to you here is to seek out completely novel experiences and learnings in completely unrelated fields. Any time you engage in some novel experience you are actually growing new neural connections and releasing dopamine which makes you feel good at the same time. Making this an excellent team building initiative. I challenge you to find something to do that you have never done before, commit to doing one new thing a week, commit your team to this too, challenge each other beyond the familiar and enjoy the dopamine rush.
Secondly, we need to realise that thinking about thinking is important and that we need to make time to think. We also need to practice and employ strategies to help us think more creatively, more innovatively, more divergently. Practice this with your team, use a time box i.e. set a time limit, choose a topic or a challenge and just brainstorm as many ideas or associated thoughts around this as possible, then look at the connections and associations between these, look for the themes. And only then start looking at the feasibility of each of these ideas. Sometimes it helps to plot the brainstormed ideas on a cost / effort graph to see which of these could be your quick wins, which would never really be achievable etc. this is a great strategy to follow once you’ve generated this list of unconstricted divergent thoughts.
Lastly, another way to encourage cognitive flexibility is to look for ways in which you can apply what you have learnt in one area to another context. Look for what could apply to this new challenge, how would you approach this using the knowledge gained in another area. You could really stretch your team with this and make it fun. For example, how could we approach this ‘challenge’ if we were to apply psychological principles to this, or even something as divergent as how would a Chef approach this, what would the recipe be, what key ingredients would we need versus what we are missing?
So again, I say to develop your cognitive flexibility, break out your yoga pants. Stretch yourself with new experiences, meet as many people from as many different cultural backgrounds as possible. Explore the new, and look for new ways to apply the old. Try to see the connections between things. And practice, practice, practice…make thinking, divergent thinking, a daily habit.