When do you do your best thinking? Or, maybe a better question is: when is your thinking impaired? I’m guessing it is harder to think when you are tired, time poor, hungry, thirsty, emotional, stressed and/or “have too many tabs open” in your brain.

From an evolutionary point of view, our brains are designed both for thinking and for keeping you safe. Our prefrontal cortex is the CEO of your brain – it does the thinking, weighing up options, taking things into account, deciding, and putting actions into place. Your amygdala is always on the lookout for threats. On detection of a threat, it takes over and sets off your alarm system (fight, flight, freeze, or fawn).

This is really handy for significant threats like bears and lions. Not so handy for checking emails, conversations with your boss or sorting out your self-assessment tax return. And not helpful for creative thinking and making good decisions.

So, what opens up your brain and gets your prefrontal cortex back on track? What works for you? These are some of the things that have evidence: Rest. Food and Hydration. Being in nature. Exercise. Autonomy.

There’s a brilliant and much quoted study of Israeli parole judges (Danziger et al. 2011) – here is the link – showing that they made more judgements in favour of granting parole to prisoners after they had breaks (the judges, not the prisoners). The authors concluded that “when judges make repeated rulings, they show an increased tendency to rule in favour of the status quo. This tendency can be overcome by taking a break to eat a meal, consistent with previous research demonstrating the effects of a short rest, positive mood, and glucose on mental resource replenishment”. They can’t determine from the study what part of the break caused the change in behaviour (was it the food or the rest or the combination?) but it seems logical in applying this to my own experience that having a break is good for you (and your patients, if you’re a health care professional).

I feel I do my best thinking whilst exercising outside. I’m on my own, my thoughts can wander around, I can be creative and I’m getting physically fit at the same time (win-win!). In fact I wrote most if this blog in my head whilst outside! It’s one reason I love coaching (and being coached) whilst walking – freedom to open up your mind in a different way, away from the pressure of a desk and a smartphone.

When do you do your best thinking? I’d love to know.