Confronting your inner caveman: being mindful on a deadline
We’ve all been there before. That moment you’ve got to deliver on a fast approaching deadline—and you freeze.
Even if you’re not part of an advertising, marketing, or creative team, deadlines are simply a fact of life in the modern office. As are the stressors that come with them.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take and things you can do to turn that rush of adrenaline that accompanies that little voice in the back of your head (and the back of your head is precisely where it originates) that reminds you just how dire it would be if you were to allow that deadline to slip.
It’s called “mindfulness” or being mindful. And while it may sound all new age-y, science shows it really works.
But first, let’s address just what you’re up against when that little voice tells you to run.
The battle for control of your brain is real.
That nagging voice is coming from deep inside your primitive caveman (or cavewoman) brain, the amygdala, whose sole purpose it is to keep you alive and safe.
It sees your impending deadline as an existential threat, and not being privy to the inner-workings of the modern office, suggests you run for your life. It triggers your “fight or flight” switch, followed by near instantaneous hormonal changes and physiological responses like a pounding heart, faster breathing, surges of adrenalines and beads of sweat.
For all the rest of your body knows, it should be running for the hills or duking it out with an ominous threat so terrifying it can’t be described.
With your caveman brain running the show, chances are you’re not doing your best thinking. Unless, of course, your task is to run like the wind or beating something senseless with a club.
Which creates a bit of a conundrum if it’s your job to lean into your comfort zone and pull out something stunningly terrific. Particularly when you know the other side of your comfort zone is precisely where your inner caveman lurks, just waiting to conk you on the head with his or her club.
But have no fear. If there’s one thing your primitive caveman brain is not—it’s mindful. Fortunately, being mindful is simple and it’s the surest way to short circuit your caveman brain’s hastily made plans.
The Mindful Awareness Research Center at the University of California at Los Angeles describes Mindfulness this way: “Mindful Awareness is the moment-by-moment process of actively and openly observing one’s physical, mental and emotional experiences.”
The goal of being mindful is to shake off the hyper-focus on the dangers of missing your deadline imposed by your caveman brain—and, instead, reconnect with that calm creative, more sophisticated part of your brain where all your best ideas reside.
Luckily, getting there is easy.
Take deep, diaphragmatic breaths.
Just as the amygdala sends out signals to your nervous system that your approaching deadline is a clear and present danger, taking three or four deliberate deep breaths, filling your diaphragm completely, and then slowly exhaling, subconsciously convinces that same nervous system that there is nothing to be nervous about. Try it. You’ll feel the cold sweat subside as your heart rate returns to normal and your body gets itself back on track.
Observe and think deeply about something other than the task at hand.
I know…I know…you’re on a deadline and cannot afford being distracted, even for a second. However, when it’s your caveman brain doing all the thinking, you can’t afford not to. Take a moment, that’s all it takes, to think deeply, really deeply, about an object on your desk or out your window.
For me, a favorite is anything chrome. I peer into it and analyze what it is I’m seeing. The brilliant white stripe amid gradients of gray. What’s causing the gradients? Ah, the reflection of my black baseball cap is responsible for one of the darker stripes. Closer inspection reveals my office phone is the source of another. Before you know it, you’ll discover you’ve unlocked that portion of your brain where ideas flow as freely as a day dream. As you bring your focus back to your project, more often than not, you’ll find your mental paper-jams have been unjammed and you are able to be productive once more.
The more senses and portions of your brain you can engage, the more you loosen the caveman brain’s stranglehold on your thought process.
After all, there’s a reason you’ve probably heard colleagues claim they do all their best thinking in the shower. That’s a place where you are literally bathed in mindfulness. All your senses are at work as the soothing feel of water droplets massages your scalp and white noise serenades your ears. Meanwhile the aroma of your soaps and shampoo tantalize your nose. It’s a full-body experience that gives the modern portion of your brain a break.
Movement can also help.
A short walk, or even writing as you walk, can do wonders for getting your ideas flowing once again as your motor skills exercise regions in your brain other than your amygdala.
Once you’ve nailed your deadline, be sure to invite your caveman brain to the celebration. After all, he or she was only trying to protect you.