Self-leadership: Maximize your daily performance

by | Jun 16, 2024

The alarm goes off. Check the phone. Reply to emails. Get up, quickly into the shower. Wash hair or not? White or blue shirt? No, iron the green. Find the black bamboo socks. Shirt looks a bit worn; make a note to get a new one at lunch. Getting late, skipping breakfast. Quickly get to work. Made it, 2 minutes until the day’s first meeting. Phew! Hmm, that meeting could have been an email. Manager wants to discuss how to retain our best client. Long brainstorming session. Missed lunch. Grab a cinnamon roll and a banana. Called into an extra meeting. Write the brief for our new strategic partnership. Feeling tired, hard to focus. So many email pings! All quiet rooms are taken. Headphones on. Come on, focus! Head home for dinner. Must finish the brief before the day can end. Find a better idea. No, that won’t work. Think! Ok, good enough. Exhausted, brain is spinning. Can’t fall asleep. Ok, only one Netflix episode tonight.

Some version of this scenario is not uncommon for many people today. Daily habits often prevent people from getting the brain to perform at its best. Two of the most common enemies holding back performance are distractions and unnecessary stress.

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The distraction dilemma

Your brain uses lots of energy; it consumes about 20 percent of the body’s oxygen. Every single decision requires energy, and there is no infinite source of it in a day. Think about a mobile phone fully charged. When you wake up after a good night’s sleep, feeling rested and alert, the battery is charged to 100%. Depending on what you focus on, how well you manage to keep distractions at bay, and what energy-craving activities you choose, the brain’s battery can quickly run out of power. Some of the most energy-craving activities for the brain are decision-making and allowing distractions to split your focus.

When you let distractions run your schedule, you often risk using up your brain power in the wrong areas at the wrong time of day. Unlike your mobile battery, your brain cannot recharge unless you sleep or take a nap. Reacting to distractions is easy, and therefore, knowing how to make the best use of the brain’s energy is key to performing well.

“Knowing how to make the best use of the brain’s energy is key to performing well.”

The difficulties of unnecessary stress

The brain is sensitive to stimuli that cause stress. When a stress response is activated, cortisol levels are increased, preventing the brain from allocating energy to the frontal lobe, which is the brain region important to decision-making, strategic work, and executive functions. Instead, energy is sent to the body’s muscles as the brain cannot differentiate between stress stimulated by thinking and that of fight-or-flight. When we stress, the brain signals for an increase in cortisol, which impacts even more cortisol release. In other words, the more we stress, the higher the level of cortisol will be. To maximize performance, you must manage your stress levels to keep the energy flowing to your brain.

“To maximize performance, you must manage your stress levels to keep the energy flowing to your brain.”

Self-leadership best practices

Below is a 24-hour quick guide on what to think about to make the most of your day and optimize your performance.

  1. Sleep: Get your sleep in order and prioritize 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Should you miss out on enough sleep some nights, try not to stress about it, but get back on a good sleeping schedule as soon as you can.
  2. Micro naps: Taking a short nap during the day can restore energy and focus.
  3. Eat: Your brain needs glucose to function well. Knowing what to eat to boost brain energy is key.
  4. Digital distractions: Smartphones provide opportunities for easy, quick, and unearned dopamine kicks, creating a digital addiction.
  5. Plan your day: In the morning, minimize the number of decisions, set your circadian clock, focus on deep thinking tasks in the morning, arrange your workstation correctly, adopt a growth mindset, and use physical exercise to increase blood flow.


1. Sleep

Sleep is fundamental to well-being and performance. It is the main brain-based habit to sort out. Our brains are wired to need 7-9 hours of sleep each night to recharge fully. The brain relies on the environment, being light or dark, to tell it when to sleep and when to be awake. To fall asleep and stay asleep, the brain needs melatonin, which is released by the end of the day and navigated by the circadian rhythm. The brain prefers to be on the same circadian rhythm every day. This is why sleeping well and enough is especially difficult when changing time zones.

Using your smartphone, computer, and other types of screens at night increases light exposure when the body should start to release melatonin, disturbing the sleep cycle. One of the things impacting melatonin release negatively is the blue light, emitted from all digital devices. Blue light disrupts the production of melatonin and impacts not only your ability to fall asleep but also the quality of your sleep. Staying off digital devices 60 to 90 minutes before sleeping time is key to a good night’s sleep. If you wake up in the middle of the night, checking what time it is on your smartphone is not helpful. To get the best out of your sleep, go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, sleep in a dark and cool room, use an alarm clock, and stay off digital devices before falling asleep and if you wake up before you are done sleeping.

2. Micro naps

If you need to restore energy during the day, take a nap no later than 2 p.m. and no longer than 20 minutes, as it might otherwise impact your sleep quality in the evening. Napping is a quick way to recharge the brain’s focus and attention and can improve your work quality.

3. Eat

Eating the right nutritious food makes a difference to your brain’s performance. Some examples of brain power food:

  • Nuts are a great source of protein and healthy fats, and walnuts, in particular, might also improve memory. A study from UCLA linked higher walnut consumption to improved cognitive test scores.
  • Green leafy vegetables. Leafy greens such as kale, spinach, collards, and broccoli are rich in brain-healthy nutrients.
  • Fatty fish. Fatty fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, healthy unsaturated fats that have been linked to lower blood levels of beta-amyloid—the protein that forms damaging clumps in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Other sources of omega-3 are flaxseed, avocados, and walnuts.

Berries. Research shows that berries are rich in flavonoids, which help improve memory. A study done by researchers at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that women who consumed two or more servings of strawberries and blueberries each week delayed memory decline by up to two-and-a-half years

4. Digital distractions

Smartphones radically changed our digital lifestyle in 2007. One study has found that smartphone use is up to 5 hours per day. This can cause many distractions and add to unnecessary stress. Smartphones, or any digital device, offer multiple choices for switching attention from one app to another. Switching between tasks frequently and allowing tasks not to be completed drains the brain’s attention and focus. Every time the brain returns to the unfinished (work) task, it must trace back where it left off to pick up again. This energy is costly to the brain. If you aim to balance your brain’s energy to last throughout the day, you must minimize distractions and disruptions and allow for tasks to be completed before starting a new task.

5. Plan your day

Planning your day can significantly improve your performance by steering your work to when your brain can deliver the best results. There are several steps you can take to plan your day, the most important being:

  • Minimize the number of decisions in the morning: Each time the brain must make a choice, it requires energy and focus. This includes simple choices such as picking your outfit for the day. Deciding the night before what to wear, eat at breakfast, and bring to work removes the need for making this decision in the morning, which will save energy for the brain to use later in the day.
  • Set your circadian clock: As soon as you can after waking, go outside for at least 5 minutes, but preferably around 30 minutes. Studies show that daylight (even on a cloudy day) causes the waking hormone cortisol to increase. At bedtime, melatonin, the sleep hormone, is produced. To fall asleep and stay asleep, it is imperative that melatonin production is not disturbed, which it easily can be if you expose your brain to light—such as using your mobile—at bedtime.
  • Do deep thinking work in the morning: The brain is most capable of approaching deep thinking and challenging tasks in the first 4 hours after waking. Therefore, plan your work accordingly. For example, read emails only in the afternoon so you can spend your precious morning time on tasks that require strategic thinking.
  • Arrange your workstation: Ensure your workstation is set up correctly. Raise your screen high enough for your eyes to look slightly up, not down. Downward-facing makes the brain think it should rest. Looking slightly up signals that it should be on alert. Ensure your lighting comes from above, not below your eyes, as the brain reacts to low light as sunset, which is a signal that it soon is bedtime. The best is to switch between sitting down and standing up.
  • Adopt a growth mindset: Do not reply to emails right after you read them. Let the information sink in and give your brain a chance to process it before you reply. Today’s society encourages quick replies, but your answer will probably be different if you let it sink in for your brain to consider it for longer.
  • Use physical exercise: Engage in moderate-intensity physical exercise before a deep thinking time period to raise blood flow to your brain. This helps increase productivity and focus.


Take a moment in the morning before you answer the next pulse survey and spend time in Populum reflecting on your and your team’s measurement results. Consider what led to these results and what could be done differently to achieve a better outcome. Think about what you can do to influence the impact you and your team want to see and how you can use the past outcomes as learnings.

Your brain-optimized day

Adopting habits that optimize your brain’s performance will make your day look a bit different and can significantly improve your well-being and performance. Changing one habit at a time will help you eventually live more in alignment with how your brain works. It is not about changing your entire life around, but small, highly relevant steps can make a big impact. With a culture of social belonging, an inclusive leadership style, and practicing self-leadership that optimizes the brain’s performance, you are set up to do the best work of your life and have well-being at work.

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