Why cognitive agility matters

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This is the second post in our six-part series on resilience, where we examine the key drivers of resilience that provide a recipe for building resilience for yourself, your teams, and your workforce. Each post will feature real-world stories of human resilience.

In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about cognitive agility. But, if you’re like many, you may still be scratching your head as you wonder what exactly is it, and – more to the point – are you good at it? And, if you’re not, are there ways to get better at it?

Spoiler Alert: Yes, there are ways to strengthen your cognitive agility … at any time, even during a crisis.

Understanding cognitive agility

Cognitive agility is the extent to which we adapt and shift our thought processes when doing so leads to more positive outcomes. The easiest way to understand and recognize cognitive agility is to see it in action in the real world against the backdrop of challenge and change. In this way, we can better understand what it is and learn why some people are able to adapt and grow during tough times while others get stuck. 

Let’s dig in a little deeper by looking at my own story of maternity leave during COVID-19.  

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this”

A few weeks before the true seriousness of COVID-19 was recognized in the U.S., I had a baby girl. And I couldn’t be happier. I had imagined a maternity leave filled with long stroller walks, plenty of quiet moments for bonding, and coffee dates with old friends. Instead of easing into life with my newest child, I found myself taking on the role of elementary school teacher as I homeschooled my fourth- and second-grade daughters while also converting the graduate course I teach at Georgetown into an online format. And, of course, responding to all the needs of a newborn. I felt especially sad that we wouldn’t have the usual parade of guests to welcome my little one, not even her own grandmothers would be able to meet her in the foreseeable future.

For most of us, the natural response to sudden changes to our well-laid plans is a feeling of loss, unfairness, self-pity, and wanting to blame. In my situation, I felt short-changed from my maternity leave and focused on all the things that I was losing—the long list of things I’d imagined I’d be able to experience and accomplish during this precious time. 

But, this is where cognitive agility can be a game changer. If we can tap into ways to move beyond this initial response, we can learn how to thrive in almost any circumstance. But what makes one person successful at this kind of “reframe” while another struggles? 

Comparatively, those who can recognize how and when to pivot exhibit the following behaviors: being open to new approaches in the face of changing information, considering multiple solutions to a given challenge, and ultimately shifting their thinking to drive a more beneficial outcome. We commonly see the following type of shifts and reframes in people who have high cognitive agility: 

  • From feeling victimized by uncontrollable circumstances to becoming empowered to take action within your span of control
  • From feeling resentful of what’s been lost to appreciative of what you still have 
  • From believing you are stuck with no options to feeling creative about developing new options
  • From seeing well-laid plans as ruined to problem solving with new information

Making the shift

When we are stuck in a mindset that isn’t serving us, cognitive agility can help us pivot. By recognizing how shifting your thoughts can also shift your feelings, you can drive powerful changes to your actions and, ultimately, the outcomes you want to achieve. There are many tools out there, but one I like is called the Thinking Path. You can see it in the chart below. Developed by organizational psychologist and coach, Alexander Caillet, it’s a simple framework that you can use to help you make the connection between your thoughts and outcomes. 

There is no right or wrong way to use this tool, but I find it most helpful to assess my current situation from bottom-up, then redesign from the top-down. I provided an example below of how I applied the Thinking Path to my situation. I started by deconstructing my current experience in the left hand (“From”) column. After noticing the thoughts I had about the loss of my imagined maternity leave, I moved onto feelings. I closed my eyes and sat with that thought, and observed the emotions it brought to mind for me. Noticing sadness, loss, and resentment, I wrote those down and moved onto the actions (desired or enacted) that those feelings led to. I thought back to the extra long showers or long morning walks before the kids were awake that had offered me a way to escape. I also thought about the extra time I was spending reading articles on my phone rather than being fully present with my girls. Ultimately, I landed on the results—a feeling of disconnection. 

That isn’t what I wanted, so the next step was to move to the right column (“To”). This time, I started at the top. I didn’t want to feel disconnected. I had more time than ever with my family and I wanted to appreciate it. I wanted it to bring us closer together. Then I moved onto actions. What actions could I take to help me feel closer to them? It occurred to me that the path was through connection—not escape. I’m more likely to connect from a place of gratitude than loss or resentment. This led me to refocusing on what I had to be grateful for—all of the unexpected time we had to bond as a family.

Going through this exercise, I was able to shift my focus to the unexpected time we had to bond as a newly-expanded family. It didn’t mean that I didn’t experience feelings of overwhelm while homeschooling (what is this “new math” anyway?!), but the feelings were passing. When they did come up, I reminded myself how lucky I was to have all three of my girls home together. The dominant feeling became gratitude for the time I had with the four most important people in my life and I found ways to involve the whole family, including my two older daughters, in problem solving instead of taking all the responsibility of figuring it all out.

But does it really make a difference?

Our research at BetterUp shows that people in the top 25% of cognitive agility are 6.3x more likely to be in the top 50% of resilience. This is important because resilience acts as a buffering force against the negative impacts of disruption. As an example, people high in resilience were better able to maintain social connection and even experienced 36% fewer sleep issues during the intense first few months of the pandemic.

 Shifting your mindset in the face of sudden changes and challenges enables you to see and pursue new paths forward, driving the best outcome given the changing situation. Not only does this shift help reduce stress levels and increase your sense of control, it also unlocks creativity and innovation, which is a differentiator when we are living and working in extreme constraints. In BetterUp’s Resilience and Innovation Index (RiX), we found that people with high resilience score 22% higher on innovation compared to those with low resilience. 

And to all my fellow working parents in the constant struggle to manage demanding jobs, homeschooling, and home daycare, know that you are a walking example of resilience. Our research shows that parents are 2.3 times more likely than others to be high in cognitive agility. This means that as parents, we are psychologically prepared for change and uncertainty, have stronger coping skills and higher optimism for the future, a nice side benefit of raising kids. 

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In today’s world, we’re moving so fast that we barely have time to think, let alone think about our thinking. But, as you can see,  building cognitive agility can make the difference between whether you thrive or struggle. I encourage you to spend a few minutes thinking about your own opportunities to flex your cognitive agility. Start with becoming aware of your thoughts and the impact they are having on you. If this isn’t coming naturally to you, you’re not alone. It takes some practice and mindfulness exercises such as meditation can help you build your awareness of your thoughts. Then, taking it one step further, journal exercises can help you deconstruct these automatic thoughts and “put them on trial.” You can practice responding to new challenges and information by reviewing different scenarios and thinking about how you would respond. Check out this resource that facilitates this kind of practice in a safe environment. 

If you remember nothing else, remember this: While we can’t control the situation, we can control the story we tell ourselves about it. Let’s make it a good one, shall we? 

Last week:  Recipe for resilience: Five key ingredients
Next week: The role of emotional regulation