Perform at your best: stop, breathe and step outside

Directed Attention Fatigue. It’s a long name yet the meaning is clear: distracted leaders who are mentally burnt out. Not only do leaders lead an organisation, they are often frequently called upon to attend meetings, conference calls, to make decisions, and to resolve problems.

Over the course of a week, their time is spread thin. All the while, leaders are expected to make big decisions effectively. Yet, when leaders are burnt out, the knock-on effect for the business is that important decisions are made in a rush, or even avoided.

Making decisions in a go, go, go environment

Directed Attention Fatigue is when the brain becomes fatigued due to concentrating on one task while simultaneously inhibiting other distractions. In business, this could mean leading a team or completing client work while fielding phone calls and answering internal emails. When the brain is overworked in this way, it can cause burn out. The outcome for the individual ranges from exhaustion to high stress levels – with brain and body functions far from optimal.

When we’re busy, it feels like we’re being productive. However, constant demands on attention negatively impact the individual as well as their ability to lead the organisation. It’s something that we see frequently during the course of our work at Farscape.

Business impact

It’s not only the individual that suffers when they are burnt out. Leaders don’t always have the luxury of time when making decisions which affect the business; and while deadlines are often pressing, it’s vital that leaders are able to devote their best thinking and attention to the process, however little time is available.

When fatigued or under strain, leaders have to make decisions in the heat of the moment. The time that is dedicated to thinking is unlikely to be effective and the decision may prove to be unfavourable to the organisation.

Overcoming knee-jerk reactions by understanding the body’s stress response

 Another reason for impulsive decision making, is fear.


If it sounds a little strong when used in relation to work, ask yourself the following. Have you ever experienced thoughts such as “I need to sort this now, or the board will be furious…” or, “the client won’t renew their contract…” or, “we’ll never meet the deadline on time.”

Decisions made and actions taken in light of those thoughts are at best hasty, at worst rash. The individual is operating in ‘threat brain’. The response is a knee-jerk one that is simply a reaction to a stressor. Their brain perceives danger and prepares the body to fight or to run away. The ‘fight or flight’ response is extremely effective at keeping us alive in the face of danger, it isn’t conducive to considered decision making at work.

Farscape works with leaders to help them avoid reacting to events by changing their behaviour and encouraging them to stop and think. In the heat of the moment, this could be something as simple as taking a breath. Over time, coaching gives leaders the spaceto approach a problem from a fresh perspective and in an unhurried manner.

Taking time out is vital for effective decision making. Equally important, if not more so, is the coaching environment. Coaching that happens in a meeting room is a no-no! Being somewhere away from the office, where the stresses and strains are physically far removed from the leaders’ immediate vicinity permits clear thinking. In this situation, leaders are able to access ‘safe brain’, the state that is responsible for healthy brain and body function, rather than fight or flight. The effects? A feeling of calm and the ability to think clearly and make good decisions.

Taking time out when time is short

For many business leaders, it’s a difficult circle to square. How can they justify taking time out to think, when there is a catalogue of things to do./

It’s something that leaders and senior executives battle with. It makes sense: of course, when faced with impending ‘danger’ it feels counter-intuitive to stand still and ponder. The important difference between our evolutionary senses and modern office life, is that decision making in the city-centre office blocks of the twenty-first century is seldom a life or death situation. However, our stress response is exactly the same.

Does time out really matter?

A pause – whether that be a deep breath or a coaching session somewhere outdoors – gives a chance for individuals to discern what is behind their response. Recognising what is driving their behaviour, threat brain (fear) or safe brain (reason), means that leaders are in a much better position to make a considered assessment of the situation and decide on appropriate action.

Taking time outside

The outside world has long been recognised as simultaneously relaxing and stimulating. The ‘distractions’ such birdsong, the breeze, or the sun’s warmth, don’t demand the same effort of inhibition from the mind as does a ringing phone (S. Kaplan, 1995). This allows individuals to think freely, without mental strain or diverted attention. That’s why we at Farscape tailor all of our programmes and coaching sessions to the individuals in question. We help leaders to find a suitable venue; inspirational places that allow the mind to wander are most effective. And executives with clearer, free-range minds make more astute business decisions – which benefits the entire organisation.

In an ‘always on’ world, business is fast-paced and demands those in its sphere keep up. Innumerable perceived threats and ongoing distractions leave leaders mentally burnt out. The impact is not only detrimental to the individual, but the whole organisation which suffers in the long run. Stopping feels counter-intuitive. In reality, time away from the office is the most effective way to deal with burn out and a rush, rush, rush culture. It leads to better decisions, made with greater care, and gives your leaders the commercial advantage they seek.

To give your leaders a commercial advantage, call us. We’re on 0117 370 1800 and we’d welcome the opportunity of a conversation.

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