Mental Agility: The ability to be flexible always

Bill Gates once said, “Success today requires the ability and drive to constantly rethink, reinvigorate, react and reinvent” And this means we have to be alert to constantly be able to react and reinvent ourselves.

The human mind is a very complex matter, and simplifying it may be one of the hardest tasks. Being able to simplify thoughts and transfer them effectively, think on your feet and solve problems in the most efficient way and learn in the most effective manner requires mental agility. Mental agility is the capacity to respond to events in a flexible way and be able to move quickly between different ideas. If you’re mentally agile, you can take in change and find the best course of action to move forward despite unpredictable events. It’s not about having all the answers – but about being confident that you can figure out a new way of doing things to get where you want to go.

One of the key skills today and in the future is mental agility. This ability to switch between tasks and ideas will be a very valuable asset everywhere and especially in the workplace in particular. Mental agility is linked to an area of research called psychological flexibility. Studies have shown that those that have higher levels of psychological flexibility are less likely to be depressed, anxious or stressed and more likely to report well-being in general because of the way they think about situations and how they choose to respond to events.

But how do we achieve it and why is it important for us and our children? One of the most important benefits of an agile mind is the ability to learn fast, however, that’s not all. For children, there are many benefits of mental agility like better problem-solving skills, creativity, the ability to stand up for themselves, calmness, evolved reasoning skills, greater comprehension of events, improved social skills and strong communication skills. For adults, the benefits of mental agility include being more efficient at home and at work, being more organised, feeling less stressed, open to new opportunities and being able to adapt to mandatory changes.

Here are some ways we can use mental agility to thrive in the uncertain world we live in:

Accept the situation: Sometimes things happen that throw us off course and if it’s a change that we’re unhappy about, it’s natural to want to fight against it. However, when the situation is beyond our control, the first thing to do is simply accept the new circumstances we find ourselves in. This isn’t always easy, and it’s OK to process emotions around major shifts in order to get to that acceptance, but the important thing is to acknowledge that we need to move forward in a different way.

Stop and think: We often react quickly and emotionally to unexpected events, which sometimes leads us to act in ways that aren’t useful. I am especially guilty of this and this tip is spot on for me! If you can give yourself some space and time to think before doing anything, it can mean that you approach the situation more strategically. Take at least a few moments to breathe, take in what is going on around you, and ensure your response is appropriate to the situation and not just an automatic panic reaction.

Get creative: When faced with difficulties or in a rut, it’s easy to fall back on using tried and tested ways of dealing with problems but this isn’t always the best solution. Brainstorming ideas, seeking out differing opinions, and thinking about all the different courses of action you could take to solve the issue are some way to see the issue. Consider various possible scenarios and how you could respond to each. If you can, test new approaches and see what works best for you. Sometimes, doing what you’ve always done will end up being the right move, but examining whether you could do things differently will get you in the habit of looking at situations from different angles, which is useful for building your mental agility in the long run.

Have a growth mindset: Believing that you can always continue to learn and develop, even if you’re an expert in your field, helps you keep growing, stay ahead of the competition, and understand what you can do to up your game. A growth mindset is key to mental agility, as it will ensure you regularly challenge your perspective and come up with innovative ways to tackle challenges. It will also help you to view failures as learning opportunities. Not everything you do will always work the first time, but it could be a step in the right direction and you’ll learn something from the experience.

Focus on support: Support is important when building resilience. Building a support network can be challenging in a virtual world, when how we work, socialise and interact with other people has changed so drastically. But having someone to bounce ideas off of, debrief with, or simply who can lend a listening ear, whether that’s a colleague, friend or mentor, can help a person work through a problem and decide how to respond to an event.

Fight Sameness: Expose yourself to the unfamiliar and go places you don’t normally go; read books and see movies that wouldn’t traditionally appear on your list. Stimulate your brain by operating outside your routine. This will allow you to be able to react fast and easily.

Embrace the Unknown: Visualise the problem through a story-board or pro/con list. Ask questions to tease out the problem. Ask questions like what’s missing? What else could be true? Why does that work? Treat mistakes and failures as learning lessons and don’t curl up in a ball if it doesn’t work the first time.

Read More: Reading is great exercise for your brain with varied and impressive benefits. Reading helps relieve stress and it improves cognitive functioning skills. It’s entertaining, it helps increase empathy and it can even improve your memory. So, while unwinding by scrolling social media during your downtime on your phone might be tempting, try picking up a book instead. Reading can help protect memory and thinking skills, especially as they start to decline with age. It slows this decline by improving mental flexibility overall and keeping important parts of the brain working. Research found that the brain scans of individuals who had recently read poetry showed increased activity and connectivity.

Focus on finding lots of possible solutions, not just the best one: Part of the reason why it can be hard to think on your feet is that you want to do a good job and come up with the “right” answer. You’re setting the bar awfully high when you’re overly focused on trying to find the best solution. Instead, start with a brainstorm. Allow yourself to think of as many potential answers or solutions to a challenge that you can. A study from 2011 assessed folks’ levels of divergent thinking by asking them to come up with as many uses for a paper clip as they could. Some came up with 10 or 15 uses, but others generated a list closer to 200. This exercise can help you sharpen your divergent thinking skills. Practice coming up with multiple answers and not just one answer, when challenges come your way. The more you do this, the easier it will become.

Exercise: Regular exercise correlates with a host of physical and intellectual benefits. It boosts your energy, improves your mood and helps you sleep well at night. If you want to boost your mental agility, committing to getting more exercise is a great move. Your exercise routine doesn’t have to be strenuous in order for you to benefit. In fact, studies have shown that walking just two miles a day, five times per week lowers your risk of dementia. And, being in nature also helps to both ease and sharpen the mind. It boosts mood, concentration and overall wellness.

Be protective of your mental energy: Another great way to boost your brain power is to learn to be more careful about how you spend it. Expend your mental energy wisely. Don’t waste it ruminating about things you can’t control. The past is over and there isn’t anything you can do about it. And, you can’t control what others do or think either. So, instead of spending your time and energy worrying about things you can’t do anything about, focus on only those things you can control. You’ll be better prepared for the future if you spend your energy on finding solutions and making preparations. Making a conscious effort to shift your focus isn’t as hard as it sounds. The more you practice being protective of your mental energy, the easier it will become. When you direct yourself away from thinking about things you’ve deemed a waste of time, you’ll begin to form new and healthier habits.

Try new things: Staying in your comfort zone can be relaxing and restorative and there’s certainly a time and place for that. However, you’re more likely to improve your mental agility if you learn something new once in a while. Trying new things can help prevent memory problems in older adults, but there are many benefits to learning new skills, at any age. Challenging yourself with activities that exercise entirely different parts of your brain can help keep you sharp. For example, if you love to do crossword puzzles, keep it up. But, maybe learn chess on the side, too — especially if it’s something that you’ve always wanted to do. If you love to read, try picking up a book from a different genre. You might also sign up to take a cooking class or learn to play a new sport. Pushing yourself to do new things can help boost your mental agility.

Eliminate distractions: Your ability to focus waxes and wanes according to your environment. It stands to reason that it’s more difficult to think clearly when you’re being interrupted all the time. Still, work environments that are rife with these kinds of distractions are still the norm. Minimising distractions can go a long way toward boosting your ability to focus and your mental agility. If possible, set aside a time and place for some quiet and focused work each and every day. It doesn’t have to be for long. Even just an hour of uninterrupted work time can go a long way. Also, when you are doing focused work, try to do just one thing at a time. The science on this is clear — multitasking just doesn’t work. So, don’t try to get more done by doing a bunch of things at once. It won’t work. You’ll be more productive if you focus in on just one task at a time.

Let go of self-consciousness: Nothing kills creativity faster than self-consciousness. It’s impossible to be creative when you’re worried about being judged by others. If you want your abilities to really shine, you have to believe in yourself. Research shows a relationship between self-efficacy — or, your belief in your ability to perform specific tasks — and workplace performance. It turns out that how you see yourself has a big impact on your ability to learn and perform at your best. The voice inside your head is more powerful than you might think. If you’re constantly telling yourself that you can’t do something, it’s going to have an impact. And, the opposite is also true. So, if you really want to strengthen your mental agility and perform at the top of your range at work, be aware of this effect and use it to your advantage. You’ll be better equipped to face the cognitive and intellectual challenges you encounter if you do.

Write down as many approaches as you can: When something happens that requires you to rethink your path forward, focus on working through all possible ways of responding to the situation and put them on paper. Think not only about what you would do, but about how others might respond. Challenge yourself to write as many solutions as you can think of within 30 minutes. Doing this will flex your problem-solving muscles and help you see options more clearly.

Learn from the past to direct your future: Look back at how you have responded to challenges in the past – this is probably something many of us have had plenty of practice with in 2020. What did you do well and what could you do better in the future? Is there anything you would replicate or change about your reactions and behaviour? Write your thoughts down so that you can go back and look at your notes later.

Review and refine: Once a week as you’re working through challenges, take some time to reflect and jot down what has gone well, what hasn’t, and what you’d like to do in the future. This shouldn’t take a long time – while the above is a greater reflection exercise, this should be simple, just a few lines focusing on the here and now. Putting pen to paper will help you understand the situation, boost your self-awareness, and visualise how you can improve.

Hope the above tips will help you (and me) to become more mentally agile as we navigate a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

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