Mike recently got a promotion at work because of his exemplary performance, this resulted in some quite significant changes in the nature of the work. Mike quickly noticed that he was not able to remember details that previously seemed easy. He couldn’t concentrate for as long and found himself more frustrated and consequently having trouble managing his emotions in stressful situations. Mike came to me worried that he was developing Early Onset Dementia, or maybe adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Mike’s story of struggling after a promotion is very common, and more associated with skills relating to meeting novel, unanticipated challenges, resisting temptations, and staying focused. In promotion situations, most people have become very good at performing their job to the point where most of the tasks have become reasonably automatic and seemingly effortless. Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow calls this automaticity System One thinking. With repeated practice, the job tasks become automatic, with most of the decision-making moving from System Two (effortful, analytic thinking) to System One thinking. When Mike got this promotion, the new tasks were unfamiliar, and unpracticed. These new tasks require effortful thinking, and high amounts of inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility- skills collectively called executive function.
Mike’s worries about developing dementia were instead a normal part of learning a new role, and the common increased demands on executive functioning including staying focused, manipulating things in memory, screening out distractions, and switching tasks after a promotion or role change.
For many people like Mike, the pressure on executive functions after a promotion are made worse by other factors. New roles come with increased responsibility, often meaning more time at work, lack of time to eat well, increased worry, working late, less time spent with family, and worry about the increased mental demands. This increased stress, loneliness, poor eating, lack of sleep, and lack of physical exercise all hit these executive functions negatively. Mike was a victim of the promotion double-whammy- increased demands on effortful and exhausting system two thinking, and lifestyle changes that limit the performance of this system two thinking.
The good news is, that this is temporary, and there are some concrete actions Mike, or you can take to improve things.
1) Working memory- your ability to remember and manipulate novel information in your memory will build over time. You can help it by writing things down until you have practiced the task enough that it moves from system two control to system one. You can also use a memory technique called chunking- where you combine units of information together to make them easier to remember. Like phone numbers. Most people don’t remember all seven digits of a phone number 8-6-7-5-3-0-9; they remember them as chunks 8675-309 (If you know what that number is, you can also see the power of rhythm and music as a memory strategy).
2) Inhibitory control- your ability to screen out distractions is lower when working on novel tasks, so you need to do it manually- find a quiet space, use noise cancelling headphones, cover your ears or make a tunnel for your eyes with your hands when you read. Any way you can reduce distractions gives you more executive brainpower to complete the task. Over time, as the new tasks are taken over by system one processes, you won’t need to screen distractions as much.
3) Cognitive Flexibility- Is the ability to be creative, think outside the box, and shift to other tasks quickly. This ability requires working memory and inhibitory control. Focus on building those up first and cognitive flexibility will return. Another strategy is to be more planful and try to anticipate changes in tasks. Make time for different tasks until the tasks become more automatic and less cognitively challenging. Build in some time to reflect so you can make those unusual connections and find creative solutions.
4) Reframe the stress. You just got a promotion! Focus on the excitement of the new challenges. Kelly McGonigal has an excellent book called the Upside of Stress that goes into this in lots more detail- watch for blog posts on her awesome work in the future. Watch this Ted talk that highlights the positives of stress. I highly recommend Dr. McGonigal’s book.
5) Take care of ALL of yourself to increase your performance- meaningful connections to family, friends, and co-workers improve your executive functioning, so taking time to connect with others will improve your performance. Lack of sleep limits all aspects of executive functioning, so do what you can to get enough sleep. Physical exercise reduces stress hormones in the blood, improves sleep, and makes your body more efficient at delivering energy to your brain. Aerobic exercise is best, but any exercise will help. You’ve heard enough about healthy eating, and unsurprisingly it helps maintain brain function, now you have one more reason.
New challenges like a promotion at work or a change of roles brings a new set of demands. You will notice the challenge to your executive functioning, and this is normal and expected. You can do some work to improve things, with the best thing being to notice the challenge and tell yourself you are excited by it. Even though new roles are mentally exhausting, keeping many aspects of System Two Thinking is often far better than many of the automatic decisions that come from over-using System One thinking. Even though promotions come with new challenges, they also allow you to see things differently and apply analytical thinking to the challenges of your new role. Finding a balance between easy, routine system one thinking and analytical, effortful system two thinking will make you the best you can be at your new role.