Previously published on Forbes
Have you noticed that you begin thinking the moment you wake up? Often the mental chatter doesn’t stop until you fall into bed at night. You might even say that you’re actually passing out from thinking too much!
The more I work with leaders, the more I understand the importance of mental mastery—having power and choice over thoughts and subsequent emotions. You won’t become a clear leader by listening to the flotsam and jetsam of your mind. You can’t think your way to authenticity and creativity.
Understanding your brain waves
Of course, thinking starts with the brain, and we know it operates on four brainwaves, like electrical currents. The first is the “Beta” brainwave, which is emitted when we are consciously alert, as well as when we feel nervous or tense. Beta brainwave frequencies range from 13 to 60 pulses per second in the Hertz scale.
Neuroscientists are also discovering that brainwaves are contagious. If you’re in the room with someone who is “buzzing” at this fast brainwave frequency, in just a few minutes your ECG will show the same brainwave frequency. In other words, one person in a meeting could “speed up” a whole room full of people.
Alpha is a slower frequency. It’s accessed when we engage in routine tasks, such as showering, using the washroom or going for a walk. When our minds move more slowly, we can learn new information, perform challenging tasks and analyze complex situations, bringing new ideas and intuitions to bear. This is why we often have an “aha!” moment when we get up from an intense conversation and take a break.
You can also access Alpha brainwaves intentionally by quieting your mind. Quieting the mind produces significant increases in levels of beta-endorphin, norepinephrine and dopamine, which is linked to feelings of increased mental clarity and intuition. It also allows you to have a better sense of humor and be more easygoing.
Slow down — and get there faster
Accessing Alpha brainwaves means slowing down, but it actually speeds up your results. Some of the world’s stickiest problems have been resolved by accessing this part of the brain.
Here’s one example:
Friedrich August Kekule was a German chemist in the 1860s who was trying to work out the molecular structure of benzene—an important endeavor for the petrochemical industry. He worked at it for years, doing what chemists do: lab work, painstaking experimentation, following procedural steps. But the answer came in an unexpected way.
One day, he dozed off and had a dreamlike vision of a snake swallowing its tail. When he woke, he knew what it meant: Benzene is a six-membered ring of carbon atoms with alternating single and double bonds. This scientific breakthrough came not through deductive reasoning but through an intuitive flash of insight when the mind had quieted down.
Reining in your wandering mind
Mastering your mind means consciously choosing what to place your attention on, despite the demanding and arbitrary commands of your mind. It involves training and discipline.
I often say that the mind is like an untrained puppy. You know how it goes: You put the puppy on the paper in the kitchen, and, before you know it, the puppy has wandered off and piddled on the floor. So, you pick the puppy up and put it back on the paper. And when you turn your head, it wanders off again. Yelling at the puppy won’t help, and it may make things worse! You must just be patient and put the puppy back on the paper time and time again until it is trained.
It is the same in our attempts to gain mental mastery. We sit down to quiet our minds and before we know it, our minds have wandered off to worries about the economy, that task we didn’t finish yesterday or humming a little song that you just can’t get out of your head. The puppy has wandered off the paper.
Your job: Pick it up gently and put it back. Train your thoughts to follow your command.
A 5-minute regimen to train your mind
The mind is an amazing instrument if used well. Gaining mental mastery means that you begin to use it for your truest priorities and purpose.
When I work with executives, I encourage them to sit for five minutes a day. They set an alarm on their cell phones so they will know when to stop. For five minutes, they are to focus on their breathing, in and out of the nose. Whenever the mind wanders, they bring it back to the breath. In this way, a leader is training her mind to fall silent when commanded to do so. This will come in handy when she's in an important meeting and needs the full attention of her mind on the conversation right in front of her.
Just like consistent exercise makes you more fit, so will five minutes of sitting a day produce greater mental mastery. It takes discipline and a commitment to the great benefits that Alpha brainwaves make available.
“Alpha” is the second brainwave and is accessed when we are in a state of physical and mental ease, with frequencies of 7 to 13 pulses per second. The third is the “Theta,” at 4 to 7 pulses per second, which is a state of reduced consciousness that is present just as we are drifting off to sleep. And finally, the “Delta” brainwave is operating when we are in deep sleep.
For our purposes, I will focus on just two of these brainwaves: Beta and Alpha. Beta brainwave is a fast wave and indicates agitation. Most of the leaders we work with find themselves in Beta brainwave most of the time.