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Posted on Harvard Business Review: June 3, 2011 11:13 AM
This week the US government revised the food pyramid—that diagram that's been with us for decades that is supposed to remind people how to eat well. The model needed a revision, and the new version, called Choose My Plate, is a big improvement.
However, there's a different epidemic happening out there that's getting less attention, perhaps because it is less obvious than the epidemic of obesity we're experiencing. It seems we may be entering an era of an epidemic of overwhelm. A time when too many people's mental well-being is being stretched through multi-tasking, fragmented attention and information overload.
The trouble is, we are short on simple, clear information about good mental habits. Few people know about what it takes to have optimum mental health, and the implications of being out of balance. It is not taught in schools, or discussed in business. The issue just isn't on the table. Businesses schedule time as if the brain had unlimited resources, as if we could focus well all day long. Every week I talk to an organization who says that their biggest problem is simply the overwhelm their people are feeling. Without good information about the mind and brain, we may be stretching ourselves in ways that may have bigger implications than poor eating habits.
So, my friend and colleague Dr. Daniel J. Siegel and I got together and decided to create what we're calling the Healthy Mind Platter. This platter has seven essential mental activities necessary for optimum mental health in daily life. These seven daily activities make up the full set of 'mental nutrition' that your brain needs to function at it's best. By engaging regularly in each of these servings, you enable your brain to coordinate and balance its activities, which strengthens your brain's internal connections and your connections with other people.
The seven essential mental activities are:
Focus Time. When we closely focus on tasks in a goal-oriented way, taking on challenges that make deep connections in the brain.
Play Time. When we allow ourselves to be spontaneous or creative, playfully enjoying novel experiences, which helps make new connections in the brain.
Connecting Time. When we connect with other people, ideally in person, richly activating the brain's social circuitry.
Physical Time. When we move our bodies, aerobically if possible, which strengthens the brain in many ways.
Time In. When we quietly reflect internally, focusing on sensations, images, feelings and thoughts, helping to better integrate the brain.
Down Time. When we are non-focused, without any specific goal, and let our mind wander or simply relax, which helps our brain recharge.
Sleep Time. When we give the brain the rest it needs to consolidate learning and recover from the experiences of the day.
We're not suggesting a specific recipe for a healthy mind, as each individual is different, and our needs change over time too. And we're not suggesting that business suddenly changes everything and reorganized all of work. The point is to become aware of the full spectrum of essential mental activities, and just like with essential nutrients, make sure that at least every few days we are nudging the right ingredients into our mental diet.
Just like you wouldn't eat only pizza every day for days on end, we shouldn't just live on focus time and little sleep. Mental wellness is all about giving your brain lots of opportunities to develop in different ways. In organizations, from a practical perspective, this means allowing people to work from home more, to be more flexible, to give people more autonomy.
In short, it is important to eat well, and we applaud the new healthy eating plate. However as a society we are sorely lacking in good information about what it takes to have a healthy mind. We hope that the healthy mind platter creates an appetite for increasing awareness of what we put into our minds too.
Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.