“Every task we perform that requires executive functions like planning, analytical problem solving, short- term memory, and decision making is handled by the prefrontal cortex of our brain,” says Madeleine Homan-Blanchard, master certified coach and co-founder of Coaching Services at The Ken Blanchard Companies in a new article for Ignite!.
“It’s where we choose our behaviors and then act according to how we choose. But in order to keep our brain operating effectively for ourselves, we have to keep our prefrontal cortex nourished and well-rested,” explains Homan-Blanchard.
“Our prefrontal cortex is a resource hog in terms of glucose and rest. Its performance is also impacted by hydration, exercise, and sleep. In some ways it’s like a gas tank. Every decision we make—from the mundane to the most critical—uses up a little bit of gas.”
“That’s why it is so important to know yourself and know how to schedule certain kinds of activities when your brain is going to be at its best. You want to schedule planning, brainstorming, and other creative activities while your brain is fresh. What you don’t want to do is schedule a meeting or a challenging conversation where you’re going to have to use a lot of self-control at the end of a brutal day.”
The one time when no answer is the best answer
Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida State University and co-author of the best-selling book, Willpower, says that the people who are known for making the best decisions are usually considered the most well-balanced and the smartest people. But, he notes, what may be really be true about those people is that they just know when not to make to make a big decision.
Homan-Blanchard echoes that opinion and also has some advice for couples.
“You know the old adage that in marriage, you shouldn’t go to bed angry? Well, that’s wrong—especially for couples who work a lot, have kids, and have bills piling up. Having a serious discussion, and trying to reach resolution to an argument, late at night, is really a bad idea.”
So is forging ahead when someone comes running into your office demanding a big decision at 6:30 in the evening when you’re packing up and walking out the door, explains Homan-Blanchard. “The only decision for a leader to make in that position is to wait until the morning, because, chances are, you are not capable of making a good decision in that moment. Unless you’ve previously thought about it, made the decision, and just haven’t reported it back, that’s different. But if you actually haven’t made the decision yet, it is unwise because it simply won’t be the best decision.”
Three strategies for better decision-making
For leaders looking to improve the quality of their thinking and decision making, Homan-Blanchard recommends a couple of strategies.
- Set limits. Identify your best times for creative, innovative, and challenging work situations. Create, protect, and utilize those times for your most difficult tasks.
- Create processes and routines. The more routine that you can create for yourself, the more “gas” you can save for other decisions.
- Practice extreme self care. Don’t underestimate the importance of proper rest and good nutrition.
Clear, calm, well-reasoned thinking is a hallmark of all good leaders. Don’t forget the physical dimension of mental processes. Take care of your brain so it can take care of you.
To read more of Homan-Blanchard’s thinking and advice check out her complete interview here. Also take a look at a webinar that she is conducting on April 3, The Leader’s Guide to the Executive Brain. It’s free, courtesy of Cisco WebEx and The Ken Blanchard Companies.