Many modern-day jobs are not very conducive to clear thinking – with constant interruptions from emails, notifications, phone calls and meetings. It’s a rich irony, given that what’s required of people – especially in senior roles – calls for the clearest thinking. There are ever greater demands on our cognitive abilities: information retention and retrieval, data analysis and interpretation, decision-making, organisational skills, time-management and prioritisation, etc…

So how can we safeguard high quality thinking at work? Part of the answer is about improving ‘external’ conditions – the working practices and culture that organisations engender. But we also need to pay attention to ‘internal’ conditions – how we manage our own minds.

As a coach, I help leaders and fellow coaches set up these best internal conditions for optimal performance. In particular, I use the practice of ‘mindfulness’: cultivating in-the-moment awareness, so that you can consciously choose where to place your attention and intention. I use a simple ABC formula:

Awareness – of your mental and physical experience

Being with experience – creating space to deal with intractable problems and challenging emotions

Choosing wisely – by responding flexibly instead of reacting automatically, leading to clear thinking

As context, there’s an important distinction between two mental ‘modes’. First, ‘autopilot’, which evolved in our prehistoric past to take care of basic body functions and routine tasks. Sometimes it tries to solve complex problems it’s not suited for, which leads to ‘rumination’ – chewing over problems in an unproductive and exhausting way.

The other mode is ‘intentional’, which is more flexible and productive. It allows you to step back and see things more clearly, without getting caught up in fear-based emotional responses of autopilot. Here are two tips on how to step out of autopilot and into intentional mode:

Re-engage your critical thinking

  1. Notice you’re caught up in autopilot thinking. Common signs are mental tiredness or physical tension.
  2. Stop what you’re doing! Sit quietly and breathe deeply into your belly for a couple of minutes. Allow your whole body to be flooded with awareness. Allow thoughts and emotions to come and go.
  3. Return to what you were doing, allowing your freshly-engaged intentional mode to do its best thinking.

Flex your thinking

A key cognitive skill is the ability to move freely along the ‘perspective spectrum’: some activities require ‘big picture’ awareness, some call for attention to detail, others need a blend. Stress and poor-quality thinking often come from getting stuck at the wrong point on the spectrum for the task at hand.

You can use the same mindful approach here to good effect: pause and breathe for a moment, then ask yourself: “Right now, what kind of thinking do I most need?”


Tim Segaller is an Executive Coach and Mindfulness Teacher, and author of ‘The ABC Guide to Mindfulness’. He helps leaders reconnect with their natural energy, creativity and inspiration. As a pioneer in the fusion of mindfulness and coaching, he also runs ICF accredited training on using mindfulness techniques to enhance coaching practice. To get in touch, email:

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