How to Boost Your Cognitive Performance at Work

Singapore is a fast-paced city and life can be stressful. From work demands to family engagements, and from everyday commitments to social events, it seems there is no time left to rest and recover. If this resonates with you, then you might be familiar with the outcome: you probably feel stressed and sleep-deprived, trying to catch up with life, rather than planning and being in control. As you know, this lifestyle has negative effects on your cognitive performance, especially at work. In fact, it even extends to your overall health and well-being. But it does not have to be that way. So, what can you do to achieve peak cognitive performance?

The “Always On” Culture
We live in an “always on” culture. The combination of technology and modern lifestyles has created a dangerous situation where it is difficult to completely switch off. Sleep and rest are neglected and replaced by caffeine, which is not the most effective strategy in the long run. Unfortunately, (or fortunately), the human body is not designed to operate in that fashion. From a physiological point of view, human beings are meant to alternate moments of focus and effort with moments of relaxation and let-go, including deep restorative sleep. If you deny the second part, you create an unnatural imbalance with detrimental effects on your physical and mental well-being, where your productivity and performance are diminished rather than enhanced.

The Peak Cognitive Performance Strategy
Let’s face it: you simply can’t be always “on” and push ahead. It’s time to realise that for peak performance and optimal health, you need to follow a balanced rhythm. Considering that most of your time is normally spent at work, it’s crucial to find that balance during the workday. Imagine your typical workday to be an endurance race: it can be long and tiring and you need to manage your energy wisely. You can think of balance at work as an endurance activity and take lessons from elite athletes. Elite athletes alternate heavy bouts of training with periods of rest and recovery. It’s a well-known fact that overtraining damages athletes’ health, and it’s not helpful for sporting performance.
So how do you design a plan for “cognitive endurance” which helps you boost performance and productivity? The idea is to balance the “activity-intensity” during your workday and be flexible. You need to learn how to alternate low-demand activities (rest and recovery), medium-demand activities (menial tasks), and high-demand activities (focus and analysis). Basically, peak-cognitive-performance at work is a dynamic state where you smoothly shift gears according to your personal rhythm and resources.

To accomplish that, you need to listen to your body and understand when it’s time to go “all-in”, and when it’s time to re-charge and recuperate. In addition, each individual has a unique circadian rhythm. So, it’s important to find that out and play according to your strengths by following your natural biorhythm, rather than working against it. For example, if you are a morning type, prioritise high-demand activities early in the day when your energy level is at the peak; and leave the low-demand activities for later in the day, when your energy curve is declining.

Discover Your Stress/Recovery Triggers
The good news is that modern technology allows you to look into your physiology in an objective and scientific way, so that you can pinpoint exactly which daily activities drain your energy, versus the activities that replenish it. In this way, you can learn when to prioritise rest and recovery to recharge your battery without running the risk of energy depletion and over-exertion. Once you become aware of your stress/recovery triggers, you can plan your workday accordingly. The Firstbeat Lifestyle Assessment helps you achieve exactly that.


Figure 1. This Firstbeat Lifestyle Assessment report illustrates a prolonged sympathetic activation dominance (red colour = stress). This type of prolonged stress, combined with short amounts of sleep, contributes significantly to poor cognitive performance.


Figure 2. This Firstbeat Lifestyle Assessment report illustrates a well-balanced distribution between sympathetic (red colour = stress) and parasympathetic activation (green colour = recovery). This is the most effective way to ensure enhanced cognitive performance and general well-being.

Forget the One-size-fits-all Approach
One-size-fits-all does not work because it does not take into account your unique individuality. What triggers stress/recovery for you, may not do the same for the person next to you. Through the Firstbeat Lifestyle Assessment you can identify exactly what activities are beneficial specifically to you. And by tweaking things just a little bit, you can be on top of your game and improve your cognitive performance both at work and in life.

Marc Abel Lim
Marc Abel Lim