Why it’s Important to Make Space for Adaptive Capacity

Donna McGeorge

  • Productivity coach, author
Donna McGeorge is passionate about enhancing the large amount of time we spend in our workplace (too much, for many) to ensure it is effective and productive, as well as enjoyable. Donna believes that workplaces are complex, but not hard. More often than not, it’s about getting the simple things right, consistently, that has the greatest impact. She also knows that when we decide to be intentional, we can surprise ourselves with what we can achieve. Known as the productivity coach, Donna helps people to work smarter, and she has a range of books, products and services to help you improve your productivity.

In the 21st century, we’re addicted to being busy. “I’m in back-to-back meetings all day” we say, like it’s a badge of honour. We’ve been conditioned to believe that if we’re not always working at 100 per cent or 110 per cent capacity all the time, then we’re being lazy and not working to our full potential.

While we might get praise at work for always going ‘above and beyond’, eventually our addiction to being busy will cause us to feel tired, irritable, and burnt out.  

Your ‘fuse’ is the space between an event (a trigger) and your response. If it seems as though the most minor inconveniences frustrate and upset you daily, it might be because you haven’t left yourself enough capacity between an event and your response, resulting in you having a short fuse.  

When we leave ourselves a buffer between stimulus and response, we have time to be proactive, think things through and handle difficult or unexpected situations more effectively. This is known as adaptive capacity.  

Adaptive capacity is the ability to take advantage of change, to respond to disruptive circumstances positively and to cope when the unexpected happens. Scientifically speaking, adaptive capacity can be described as the ability of a system to modify or change its characteristics or behaviour in response to existing or anticipated external stresses.  

This is not new thinking. Darwin’s theory of natural selection argues a species’ adaptive capacity influences the extent to which it is able to adapt and thrive in a changed environment. You will recognise people in your life who have adaptive capacity. They’re the ones who remain calm under pressure. They never appear stressed or challenged when things don’t go well.  

So, the million-dollar question is, to maximise productivity how much adaptive capacity should you aim to leave yourself, without feeling like you’re wasting time or being inefficient? The magic number is 15 per cent - the equivalent of a whole extra day per week.   

So, if you need help lengthening your fuse and creating more adaptive capacity, here are five things I would recommend:  

1. Slow down: Studies of brainwaves show us that creativity, innovation, inspiration, and intuition are only available to us when our brain is in certain states of consciousness. The Dutch principle of ‘niksen’ means to slow down and opt out of productivity expectations. The idea is you take a big breath, pause, and give your mind and body a chance to rest and reset.  

2. Practice the ‘3Ds of thinking space’: The ‘3D’s’ of thinking space are ‘Decelerating’, ‘Decompressing’ and ‘Deciding’. Decelerating is about slowing down and stopping, taking time out to pause and just be. Decompressing is about letting off pressure and easing the mental load that we all carry. A good way to do this is by grabbing pen and paper and writing down a ‘brain dump’ of everything that’s holding space in your mind. Deciding only happens once we’ve stopped and taken stock of everything, then we can be purposeful about where we direct our energy and our time. Because there’s always a bit of chaos before the feeling of control, it’s important first to decelerate and decompress.  

3. Trade energy for impact: We need to schedule the tasks that require the most focus, creativity and brainpower for when we are at our most alert and energetic. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge advocate for paying attention to our body clock, not the clock on the wall. We’re at our most productive and creative when we structure our day around our natural internal rhythms and cycles. Our body clocks are designed for greater mental agility in the morning and more physical dexterity in the afternoon. This means thinking about when you do something is as important as thinking about what you do.  

4. Set boundaries: Make sure you set boundaries around your most productive time, to keep it free of distractions. I like to call this blocking out ‘purple patches’ in your diary. Take 2 hours a day (usually in the morning, as 80 per cent of people have higher energy levels in the AM) and block it out in purple for tackling your most important tasks. To get the full impact, make sure you protect this time from all distractions, including social media and emails.  

5. Be aware of your triggers: Some things bug us more than others, and if you have self-awareness you can prepare yourself for tense or stressful situations. My father always said, “if it’s predictable, it’s preventable”. If you know your triggers you can manage your response. If the trigger is a person or a behaviour, use the space you have created to ask yourself, “under what conditions would I have done that?”  This is giving others the same benefit of the doubt that you would give yourself. In my experience, people don’t set out to upset others.  It’s generally accidental.

Time is the most precious commodity we have. Learning to use time wisely and effectively to maximise impact and reduce burnout is an invaluable life-skill that will set you up for sustainable success over the long-term. When we aim to work at 85 per cent capacity we can adapt to the challenges of any situation, thrive under pressure, and ultimately create a life by design with more time to spend on the things that energise and revitalise us.  

This piece is inspired by Donna’s book, The 1 Day Refund, where she discusses the many benefits of operating at around 85 per cent capacity, freeing up more time to spend with family or engage with hobbies that bring us joy.



Tags: business leadership, leadership strategy

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