In her new book Switch Craft: The Hidden Power of Mental Agility, Elaine Fox, PhD. draws on 25 years of scientific research to share with us her step-by-step guide to what she calls ‘switchcraft’: the set of skills we need to navigate a complex and uncertain world. Discover how expanding and improving your mental agility—your ability to flex your thoughts, feelings, and actions—can transform your life, bolster your resilience, boost your brain health, and foster your zest for living.

Read an excerpt from Switch Craft, The Hidden Power of Mental Agility below.

Training your cognitive flexibility in day-to-day life

Cognitive flexibility is a vital brain process that supports agility and flexibility in everyday life. For instance, many everyday situations such as taking up work again after a break, winding down on a vacation after an intense period of work, or simply shifting from one activity to another, require cognitive flexibility to operate smoothly. Here is a simple exercise to improve this fundamental aspect of your mental agility:

  1. Write out three or four tasks that will take no more than about 10 to 15 minutes each to do. They can be something like writing a short email, making a phone call, booking theater tickets, or tidying up your desk.
  2. Work out a sensible amount of time for each of your activities and decide on the order in which you will tackle them.
  3. Now, set a timer for your allocated time and begin the first task. When that time is up, stop. No cheating, no matter where you are in your task, even if you have almost finished; you must stop as soon as the buzzer sounds.
  4. Take a short break. Then reset your timer for the appropriate time and get on with your second task.

This simple assignment is surprisingly helpful. Firstly, it will help you to find out how good you are at estimating how long certain tasks will take. Hint—most of us hugely underestimate how much time simple tasks, like sending an email, actually take. Second, you will also learn to switch more efficiently from one task to another. If you do this regularly, perhaps once a week, you will dramatically improve your cognitive flexibility—the bedrock of your broader agility.

More advanced versions of this exercise involve setting a timer to go off at random intervals. In some studies, people are given three tasks to do over a thirty-minute period. A timer is set to buzz at six random times during that period. If the buzzer goes, the person must instantly switch to the next task. There’s no break this time because you are training your cognitive flexibility directly rather than trying to be more efficient. So, you must stop what you are doing instantly and shift to the next task. Done regularly, this exercise will do wonders for your brain’s powers of agility. It’s also a great way of clearing a few chores that you have been avoiding.

“Remember that multi- tasking is largely a myth—what actually happens is that we rapidly switch from one task to another. So, if at all possible, try to plan your time so that you can concentrate on one thing at a time. Flipping back and forth between different tasks is very draining.”

 

 

Multitasking drains your energy

While shifting from one thing to another is a great exercise to boost your cognitive flexibility, it is also an important reminder that switching like this takes up energy and effort. Remember that multi- tasking is largely a myth—what actually happens is that we rapidly switch from one task to another. So, if at all possible, try to plan your time so that you can concentrate on one thing at a time. Flipping back and forth between different tasks is very draining. I’m often guilty of this, stopping to check out an email that’s just come in when I am in the middle of something else. It’s hugely distracting and an inefficient use of time. As I am writing this, for instance, I have switched off all email alerts and other notifications. So, if you have several tasks to complete during a morning or a full day, be disciplined about planning your time and try to focus on just one thing at a time. Not only does good time management support your well-being, it will also give you the energy and focus required to perform at your best. A good starting point is to decide on a couple of things that you need to do in a day. Once you have made this decision, be rigorous about allocating a certain amount of time for each task—and be realistic. This requires discipline. Try to follow this routine on a
regular basis:

 

  1. Start the day with a plan to undertake two or three tasks. It might not sound like much, but any more than three tasks in a day and the cost of shifting your mental settings will start to really eat into your efficiency and energy. The tasks should be specific rather than open-ended. So, rather than having a vague intention to “work on my book,” I might “complete a specific section in Chapter 2.” It’s important you define the parameters of the task so you don’t end up feeling like you’ve failed when what you set out to do wasn’t possible.
  2. Once you have chosen your two or three tasks, you then need to prioritize them in order of importance or urgency. If one of them must be finished that day, then perhaps that should be your only task for the day depending upon how long it is likely to take. Again, be realistic and don’t put yourself under unnec- essary pressure.
  3. Now, give yourself a sensible time frame to complete each of your tasks. To begin with you will probably vastly underestimate the time a particular assignment will take. With practice, however, you will become better at figuring out how long some- thing will take. Because we know that switching from one activity to another requires energy, make sure to account for this by having a break of at least fifteen minutes between tasks. This vital gap will help to disengage your mind from the first assignment. Only then can you truly shift your mental setting to the next task and get on with that. If you adopt that principle consistently you will not only end up being more efficient but also have much more energy at the end of each day.

It’s also important to schedule in rest periods, opportunities for exercise, and time to check emails. Like most academics, I regularly receive about 150 to 200 emails each day and find my inbox can be overwhelming. The only way to manage this is to spend an hour in the morning and the evening working through the most urgent of them. I’m not always rigorous about this—and when I’m not I suffer for it, as hours can easily be soaked up by emails and then I end the day feeling stressed and frustrated because I have not completed the things that I wanted to do.

If you want to go to the gym, get out for a run, or have a yoga session, schedule a time—and stick to it. You may have to get out of bed an hour earlier in the morning, but it’s important to schedule in a time and then be disciplined in carrying out your plan.

From SWITCH CRAFT by Elaine Fox and reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2022.