Improve your cognitive flexibility

Mental agility is key to success in a world of work where change is the only constant

There’s no denying it: every facet of financial services – from banking and wealth management to advisory and accounting – is being reshaped by artificial intelligence, automation and other innovative technologies.

To stay relevant and be able to work alongside machines, professional accountants are now required to have a range of skills that is much broader than ever before. You need not only your accounting qualification, but also data analysis, strategic planning and project management skills, as well as strong soft skills such as communication and collaboration.

Increasingly, open-mindedness and adaptability to change are also cited as crucial for success in today's fast-evolving world of finance.

How do you react to change?

Catherine Smith, behaviour change expert at professional coaching consultancy Equal Talent, suggests you consider these circumstances:

  • Do you grab unpredictable moments positively and resourcefully or do they derail you?
  • Can you cope with and manage lots of balls in the air?
  • When responding to the unexpected, are you able to adjust your thinking and your behaviour or is your response linear and rigid?

You need good mental agility (or cognitive flexibility) to be able to switch your thinking easily from one concept or task to another in response to changing circumstances. In fact, the quicker and more easily you can do that, the greater your level of cognitive flexibility. Mind you, this is not the same as ‘multi-tasking’.

Colette Reilly, Business for Good Consultant and Catalyst, explains: ‘Cognitive flexibility is not about being able to do lots of things at the same time – we know this is ineffective and wastes vital brain fuel. It is simply about being able to appreciate different perspectives and shifting your approach depending on the situation to get the best result. It's important to focus on one task at a time and perform it optimally.’

Why is it so important in the workplace?

Good mental agility helps you succeed when circumstances change: if you encounter a problem, for example, you don’t get flustered but tackle it and seek out several alternative solutions instead.

Smith says: ‘You need cognitive flexibility to stay resilient in the face of pressure, which in turn is necessary for good mental health.’

If you have strong cognitive flexibility you can better balance your job and your coursework, and you can easily switch between projects and clients if expectations or deadlines change.

You don’t feel overwhelmed when presented with new challenges, and you learn new concepts and skills quickly and more easily. This is particularly important when you have to adapt to new ways of working, be it working with a new type of software, process or new legislation.

‘Also, you don’t get distracted easily – you simply concentrate on getting things done,’ says Smith.

How can you get better at it?

With awareness and practice, you can improve your ability to be ‘cognitively flexible’. Here are some practical tips:

Live healthily

‘Exercise, diet and sleep – many of the obvious healthy living options improve cognitive flexibility,’ says Smith. Quality sleep helps regulate your emotions so you stay calm under pressure. It’s even said to increase your creativity and reasoning abilities. Regular exercise is as good for your brain as it is for your body, and a diet that includes healthy fatty acids such as omega-3 has been shown to help improve the brain’s cognitive function.

Practise mindfulness meditation

Studies have shown that it increases the ability of the brain to switch between tasks. Smith explains: ‘Meditation and mindfulness are brain training techniques that help rid the brain of distracting thoughts, open it up and make space for creativity and new thinking.’

Read and play games

Reading activates several regions of your brain at the same time, leading to improved neural function, which in turn aids mental flexibility. It also makes you challenge your assumptions, fixed thoughts and beliefs, forcing you to shift your thinking in response to the different ideas, situations and characters that you encounter on the pages of a book.

Games also keep your brain stimulated – they are even said to help build new neural pathways. ‘This is true of any game, from the good old-fashioned board and card games through to Xbox and PS4,’ says Smith.

Expose yourself to new experiences

‘Learn new things – from a new language to a new piece of tech, stay curious, experiment and take risks,’ Smith suggests. Seeking out new experiences stretches your mind and makes you do and think about things differently.

Give your brain a break

On the other hand, your brain needs downtime to function properly, so allow yourself time to zone out. Paradoxically, perhaps, this can also improve your cognitive flexibility – if you allow your mind to simply wander, you may stumble upon novel ideas, and new ways of looking at things.

Develop your emotional intelligence

ACCA has identified emotional intelligence – ‘the ability to identify one’s own emotions and those of others, harness and apply them to tasks, and to regulate and manage them’ – as one of the ‘professional quotients’ of success for the accountant of the future.

If you are able to put yourself in the other people’s shoes, this will help you understand and take into account the viewpoints of others. ‘Remember, cognitive flexibility means being open to listening to and taking into account different perspectives and ways of doing things,’ says Reilly.

‘It’s very easy to dismiss colleagues who appear to be a pain in the neck, but challenge yourself to identify the strengths, skills and perspective they bring to the table.’ Engaging with people with different views allows your mind to stay open and inspires new ways of thinking.

Change your habits

Shake up your everyday routine, says Smith: ‘Take a different route to work, swap desks with someone else, even change your working environment – for example, when you have a problem to solve, take a walk outdoors.’ Even the smallest changes can help build and strengthen new pathways in your brain.

Person bathing in sunlight sitting on lake pier

Limit distractions

Your phone constantly pinging away with notifications is sure to redirect your attention and thoughts away from what you are currently doing. ‘Interruptions are deadly to cognitive flexibility – they don’t allow you to remain focused on a single action and see it through to completion before you move on to something else,’ says Smith.

Written by: Iwona Tokc-Wilde, journalist


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