As the digital transformation of the training industry has arrived in the midst of a pandemic, we can no longer equip people for the movement in a way that isn’t digital. Our current technology climate reflects the necessity of connection from afar in these turbulent times. However, virtual experiences and opportunities are struggling to aptly support the brain in times of exceedingly high stress.

Our brains are struggling. It’s hard to focus long enough to retain information and perform at our best while managing training that is more engaging, timelier, more effective and more productivity-driven than ever before. The pressures also include fewer resources due to layoffs or strategic pivots or, in some cases, the battle smaller organizations are facing to stay solvent. It feels a bit like a “fight to the finish,” while formerly there was more focus on efficacy and less focus on volume and speed.

So, how can training managers stay focused, feel supported and deliver virtual training successfully while stress continues to increase? Here are some useful insights into reclaiming brain productivity and focus when you’re at your emotional limit:

Your Brain Is Busier Than You Think

You have got a lot going on; your brain processes a lot of thoughts in one day. There are two key networks that are involved in keeping your focus where you want it in the sea of all these thoughts: your default network and your control network.

Your default network is like the radio station that’s always playing in the background. It’s not focused, but it’s where your creative and innovative thinking happens. Your subconscious brain processes information to come up with all those great new ideas. Your control network is where the focus resides. It’s the network involved with aligning your behavior with your goals, such as prioritizing work.

There are two other networks that play a part in trying to move your focus away from your control network, and sometimes these networks sabotage your focus. Your affect network pertains to your emotions and can sometimes distract from your thinking. On the other hand, your reward network drives your enjoyment and motivation, which is part of getting focused to begin with.

These four networks operate both in collaboration and in competition for your limited resources. How do you consciously manage them when things are overwhelming?

Harnessing Your Brain Power

To regulate and reset your focus amid all of that brain activity while coping with unprecedented stress, a combination of conscious awareness, prioritization and acceptance is necessary not only for you but also for what you are building for others in your training programs. Acknowledging the variations in productivity due to our cognitive responses can enhance results of any training curriculum. It is crucial to cultivate and lead with better tools for yourself and your learners.

Awareness, Prioritization and Acceptance

Awareness can come in the form of integrating information and understanding of how your brain is operating through uncertainty and crisis into how you work: into meetings, trainings, and project timelines and deliverables. For most of us, our affect network has had moments of taking over the rest of our brainpower, driving emotional responses. It can make it difficult to perform, make decisions and lead others.

The same occurs in our organization. Integrating virtual training sessions and discussions on cognitive performance topics like emotional regulation, mindfulness, and anxiety and stress management can give you and your learners tools to work through these natural responses.

Prioritization demands a lot of our cognitive resources, and if we are already struggling because our affect network is hijacking our control network, it’s going to be difficult to know what to do next. Speed is also a contributing factor, making it more difficult to know what needs to happen next and what you need to line up programmatically to empower learners to function effectively. In fact, reminders, courses and job aids on how to prioritize are particularly useful in times of uncertainty. They create patterns of certainty and break down tasks into achievable components, providing a sense of reward and motivation to keep going when things are tough.

We need acceptance that what we may have perceived as productivity gaps in our work now indicate our need to spend time in our default network to think, process and cultivate our ideas in a wandering mind. In our current fast-paced environment, many employees may be trying to be productive 100% of the time — which, eventually, will lead to burnout. People are spending more time working at their desks, since commuting has been removed from the equation. They may also be juggling school tasks as parents and attending back-to-back meetings, since it’s so easy to jump on a videoconference. Helping people balance to avoid burnout means establishing processes to separate and acknowledge productive time from play time, thinking time, family time and self-care time and giving permission to schedule these times and respect them in our calendars.

As talent development leaders, not only do we have to model these behaviors, but we must find ways to communicate them clearly in our organizations.

Training Beyond the Noise

Talent development that acknowledges the need for better productivity support systems in a time our brains may not have experienced before is training development that will yield growth. As learning leaders, it is the time to create programs that take care of and empower learners as much as possible in a cluttered and hectic digital world.