The art of working fast and slow

If you are a leader, you have a lot to do. Your days are long and the work never stops. Most of the time, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. So you stretch the hours by working long days and then Saturday mornings or Sunday nights just to catch up and keep going. You know the drill. Moving fast is the way.

But people demand presence. Whether you’re in a room with your team or in a virtual room on Zoom or Teams, you need to be able to slow down and drop in. It takes the kind of muscle I think of as slow to go fast. If you’re not present, people know it. A lack of presence communicates that you have more important things to attend to, that you are too busy, that people don’t matter. This is obviously not what you want to communicate.

Leadership requires both – moving fast and moving slowly. The trick is knowing who to engage – and when. Having the choice to speed up and slow down is the skill.

Fortunately, we have neuroscience on our side. Today, we know more about the human brain than ever before thanks to advanced technology. And with smartwatches and other devices, we now have convenient ways to measure brain wave activity as well as heart rate. Once we understand more about brain wave frequencies and their relationship to fast and slow movement, we can have more choices these days. In fact, you can deliberately increase or decrease the speed of your brain and heart.

Fast and slow frequencies

The human brain works with brain waves like electrical currents. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on just two of the frequencies we work with at work—Beta and Alpha.

The fastest and first is the beta brain wave, which is emitted when you are consciously alert, as well as when you feel nervous or tense. Beta brain wave frequencies range from 13 to 60 pulses per second on the hertz scale. High beta is the frequency you’re in when you’re moving fast, ingesting a lot of caffeine, and have a ton to finish. Most of the leaders we work with find themselves in beta brain waves most of the time.

Neuroscientists are also discovering that brain waves are contagious. If a team is in the room with a leader who is “buzzing” at this fast brainwave frequency, after just a few minutes their EKGs may show the same brainwave frequency. In other words, your fast brainwave frequency can “speed up” a whole room full of people!

When you’re moving fast, you’re in beta. Your heart rate often quickens and you feel a sense of urgency, sometimes bordering on panic. This may be a necessary state for busy leaders, but understand that it activates stress hormones, so be intentional when you’re in it and know when and how to leave it.

The second brain wave, Alpha, is available when you are in a state of physical and mental ease. It is slower, with rates ranging from 7 to 13 pulses per second. Alpha is available when you are engaged in routine tasks, such as showering, having a simple conversation, using the toilet or going for a walk.

When your mind moves more slowly, you can learn new information, complete challenging tasks, and analyze complex situations, introducing new ideas and intuition. That’s why you often have an “aha!” a moment just after you get up to take a break from an intense conversation.

You can access Alpha brain waves intentionally by taking in slow breaths through your nose and mouth. Slowing the mind from beta to alpha frequency results in significant increases in beta-endorphin, norepinephrine, and dopamine levels, which are associated with feelings of increased mental clarity and intuition. It also allows you to have a better sense of humor and be more relaxed. And you certainly become more present.

5 Minute Slowdown Practice

When I work with executives, I encourage them to intentionally learn to fall into the Alpha brainwave frequency. For just five minutes, they must focus on their breathing, through the nose and through the mouth. Whenever the mind wanders, they bring it back to the breath. In this way, a leader trains his mind to access the Alpha frequency when directed to do so. This will come in handy when she is in an important meeting and needs her full attention on the conversation in front of her.

Just as consistent exercise makes you fitter, so does five minutes of slow practice. It takes discipline and commitment to the great benefits that Alpha brain waves provide.

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