How to use ‘cognitive budgeting’ to prioritize proactive strategies for success in remote/hybrid work environments?

Faced with increasingly complex work arrangements and uncertainty on all fronts, many of us tend to overthink, even ruminate. These recurring cycles of unhelpful thoughts gets us nowhere and are detrimental to our performance.

‘Cognitive budgeting’ is a powerful tool that enables us to create a personalized plan to proactively direct our mental energy towards productive tasks and to avoid/eliminate distracting ones – so that we can achieve our goals and improve our well-being.

The creation of a ‘cognitive budget’ will prove particularly useful in remote or hybrid work environments, where cognitive performance has been proven to be impaired: firstly by a lack of peer pressure, secondly by insufficient cross-fertilization, and thirdly by isolation – all of which encourage work-related ruminations that undermine motivation and commitment.

The intentional creation of a personalized cognitive budget optimizes the use of our resources, improving our productivity and quality of life. 

Building a 'cognitive budget' for a most effective mind 

The neurosciences are clear: our brains can only process a fraction of the information at their disposal, so our mental energy is fixed.

Just like financial budgets, our time and intellectual capital are finite resources. Since we only have a limited amount of time to think, it's wise to establish a clear, personalized plan of where to intentionally spend our mental energy for the day.

So what's the best approach to avoid wasting our limited energy on things that don’t serve us? 

A budget, of course, to forecast resources, estimate needs and establish a plan for future decisions. Simply craft a "cognitive budget" and review it regularly. This will allow us to apply both proactive and reactive strategies for greater efficiency and happiness, explains Jordan Birnbaum, MIT- SMR (Sloan Management Review, February 3, 2022). In a way, the cognitive budget acts as a filter to help us identify which topics deserve reflection and will lead to beneficial results, and which ones need to be eliminated, so that we can direct our energy as effectively as possible.

Most of us will benefit from a budget that separates professional and personal preoccupations, to make them more manageable.

Set up a ‘cognitive budget’ for each team member

Let's illustrate with an example how cognitive budgeting can help employees better direct their mental energy, reap the rewards of their reflection, and avoid the pitfalls of rumination.

Albert heads up a sales and marketing team. His role entails reflecting on the strengths and struggles of his direct reports, and then helping them to develop their ‘individual cognitive budget’ or action plan, to perform at their best. Both Lucy and Mark are very creative, but feel that their qualities are insufficiently recognized, probably because of their inability to meet deadlines. Joseph, instead, feels sidelined for his lack of creativity, even though he is very good at streamlining workflows and meeting deadlines. To address these issues, Albert tasked his team with identifying the skills that drive their proactivity, but also any negative thoughts that prompt them to ruminate. What emerged is that Lucy excels at coming up with innovative ideas, while Mark knows how to turn them into successful sales pitches. And Joseph could help them to deliver on time.

In this context, a cognitive budget for Lucy will need to encourage her to constantly think outside the box to identify new avenues that could lead to profitable results. Mark and Joseph will also need to adopt a cognitive budget that plays to their strengths: whereas Mark will focus on bringing Lucy's new ideas to life and transforming them into marketable concepts, Joseph will ensure that processes are in place to enable them to meet deadlines.

Since all team members are working within their respective comfort zones, none of them is plagued by the sterile, scattered thinking that previously prevailed. They all feel that their personal contribution is better appreciated and rewarded.

There is no doubt that a working climate fostered by an approach that encourages proactive goal-oriented thinking rather than pointless, distracting thinking will have a considerable impact on team performance.

Budgeting for reflection, especially critical thinking – avoiding rumination

The creation of a ‘cognitive budget’ – a plan to direct our energy use – helps us to do 2 things: proactively direct our mental energy where it’s productive and rewarding (reflection) and prevent it from reactively going where it’s distracting and unhelpful (rumination).

Reflection involving cognitive skills play an essential role in everyday work activities. They are involved in critical thinking, memory, task initiation and completion, and emotional intelligence. Critical thinking represents the most valuable form of thinking there is, because it allows us to call on the very best of our minds, from the brightest (our genius) to the noblest (our passion, willpower, generosity and capacity for joy). 

Some examples for reflection at work, include: how can I successfully complete this mission under tight deadlines and within strict financial constraints? How can I progress both professionally and personally? How can I improve my interpersonal relations and motivate my teams?

Rumination, in contrast, is the primary antagonist of the cognitive budget. Psychologist Amy Summerville compares rumination to the repetitive cycle of cows chewing, swallowing, regurgitating and re-chewing their food. When we ruminate, we replay events indefinitely in our minds, without learning from them or moving forward. 

Cognitive budgeting can help us proactively spot ruminations and put a stop to them. Here are a few examples of ruminations at work: How can I deal with my perception of being excluded from decision-making, of missing out on promotions, of lacking support, of being overloaded with tasks, of suffering incivilities, of dealing with unresolved conflicts, etc... 

Peer pressure effects on productivity:  Evidence from professional chess players 

With the recent increase in remote working practices, we are witnessing a decline in worker productivity, particularly lower cognitive performance, due to weaker peer pressure in the workplace. 

The effect of peer pressure on cognitive performance has been shown to play an important role in a variety of contexts, including sporting competitions such as professional chess.

Stephen Künn and colleagues compared the levels of cognitive performance achieved by professional chess players in remote online tournaments and traditional face-to-face tournaments. 

Their analysis covered 214,810 individual moves. It revealed a statistically significant drop in the cognitive performance of remote players, mainly due to lower peer pressure, lower player concentration and the absence of a "tournament atmosphere".

Final thoughts

Our actions are a product of our thoughts, which is why we should prioritize the most effective thoughts. Cognitive budgeting is a valuable tool that helps us create a personalized plan to direct our mental energy towards productive tasks and to avoid/eliminate distracting ones.

Taking a cognitive budgeting approach will prove extremely useful in remote or hybrid work settings. All team members should hold a cognitive budget that inspires them to think intentionally about the things they need to do to achieve beneficial outcomes. This also implies that they become more aware of, and better able to cope with, the stress typically associated with the workplace.

A work environment grounded in a cognitive budgeting approach encourages goal-oriented thinking rather than distracting, pointless thinking, which has a considerable impact on team performance.

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