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Self by Timo Kuilder
What is mobility?
If you’ve ever been on any quest for physical fitness, you’re bound to have heard of flexibility training — or mobility. Physical mobility is the potential of movement through a given range of motion — or just what your body is capable of doing. While mobility is extremely important for one’s health and daily functioning, it also prevents, or at the very least reduces the risk of injuries. But there’s also mental mobility, which is far less discussed. Mental mobility, or cognitive flexibility, refers to the ability to disengage from one task and move to another or to think about and process multiple concepts simultaneously.
Why do designers need to consider mental mobility?
As a designer changing your frame of mind several times a day is expected. Whether you’re juggling multiple clients, multiple projects, or different modules of the same project, every few hours you’re putting on a different hat. Think about the last time you worked with the dev team on a project. Was it the same as it was with your design team? Or did you have to rephrase every thought, reconsider your documentation, and break everything down for a completely different perspective? Working with different teams on the same module can also be very taxing since it forces you to switch gears and consider the same project from a different angle.
Each time you switch gears, you’re using up mental energy. Like all consumables, it’s a limited resource, and once it runs out, the fatigue sets in. You find yourself being unable to respond to tasks that might’ve seemed easy before. Some part of this can always be attributed to needing a break, but in numerous instances, you’ve just exceeded your range of cognitive motion.
You’ll notice how so-to-speak jaded professionals seem unfazed even in times of severe duress. That’s why we call them jaded right? They have experience with similar situations. And that’s one way to get to a certain level of flexibility. But you don’t necessarily need to toil in toxic work environments for years to get there. Just like you can engage in flexibility training to improve your physical mobility, there’s plenty of stuff you can do to increase mental mobility too.
What informs mental mobility?
Before you jump into any kind of training routine, ascertain awareness. Learn about your limits, and what informs them. Consult your therapist for an in-depth assessment, or if you’re looking to get an indicative marker of your flexibility level, try one of these tools:
Cognitive flexibility scale
While this tool wasn’t made to evaluate executive functions, as one might face in the workplace, you could use it to get a general indication of your flexibility. This is a survey-based assessment — so if you’re ready to get real with yourself, try the demo here.
The Flanker test assesses you on several variables, including reaction time. The basic idea is that you need to respond to stimuli that are “flanked” by irrelevant stimuli without letting the irrelevant stimuli affect your responses. While this demo is a little different from the original implementation, you might still find it rather telling.
2020 by Timo Kuilder
If you’re asking yourself ‘Why am I not more flexible by now?’, it’s time for some good-old self-reflection. Consider the factors that might be influencing your mobility negatively. You can start with the below:
Materiality constitutes key aspects of the space that surrounds you, and the items that occupy it. Is your environment overly distractive? Or is it not stimulating enough? What you’re surrounded by can affect your productivity levels. If you agonise over finding the perfect pen and the perfect book for a project, then you’re on the right track. Although, materiality isn’t limited to physical spaces anymore. The way you organise your digital workspace can also have a large impact on your output. Model team workspaces after a brainstorm held in a beautiful conference room — a very orderly layout, with just enough room for chaotic explorations.
We’re built for diversity. From our genetics to our gut health, everything responds to diverse input. The key to better cognitive flexibility is building enough different neural pathways that allow you to switch gears smoothly. The best way to do that is to engage in new and challenging activities as often as possible. Check your routine for signs of mundaneness, or stagnation. If you’re not spending any time outside your comfort zone, or not being challenged enough, it’s time to remedy that. Daftness can be graceful if engaged with curiosity.
Are you giving yourself enough time to learn before pushing yourself to perform? Every task, no matter how mundane, can be perfected with time. Giving yourself time to familiarise yourself with something can feel counter-intuitive when you’re on a tight timeline, but can save you twice that in the long run. How? Reaction time. We’re not just talking about how quick you can press the red button. Reaction time can also include the amount of time it takes you to reconfigure your mental state to a different part of the project, or the time it takes to evaluate which strategy would be the better approach. If you’re always pressed for time, renegotiate some timelines. At the same time, giving yourself too long a deadline can be counter-productive, and only create room for distractions, along with procrastination. Find your balance.
Disequilibrium by Timo Kuilder
So, what does cognitive flexibility training look like?
Just because something sounds fancy does not mean it has to be overly complex. Some simple things you can do to gain flexibility:
Change your routine periodically
You can strengthen neural pathways by changing up simple tasks in your daily routine. Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand, take a new route to work, or go for a run outside instead of hitting the gym.
Power of repetition
Creative thinking, and more specifically design thinking spans numerous techniques, with several different mental models within each of them. While learning them can comprise familiarising yourself with new techniques, it’s only through repeated practice that you’ll strengthen neural pathways, and the ability to transition between them.
Make things difficult
As designers, we spend a lot of time trying to make everyday experiences easier for our users. But easy isn’t helping your flexibility. There’s plenty of research showing that ‘desirable difficulties’ can lead to better and deeper learning. Challenge yourself with simple tasks, and you’ll see the results in the bigger tasks.
If you haven’t felt this yourself, you would’ve certainly heard about how inspiration can come from anywhere. Most of those unrelated inspiration stories sound exactly like it — unrelated. What most people are employing without realising, is the power of the ‘default mode’ of the brain. When you stop obsessively trying to solve a problem and completely disengage from that subject, is when your brain gets the downtime it needs to replenish itself, and actually solve it for you. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence supporting how diversification and boredom can give your brain the downtime it craves.
To quote Paula Scher herself,
“I realize that when I’m sitting in a taxicab in traffic, or on my way to the airport, or waiting to get on a plane, or trapped in some other boring situation, that’s when I get the best ideas because I’ve got nothing else interfering with it. I have to stop reading emails or being anywhere near the internet to be able to create.”
Another way to shake up your own perspective is to understand another perspective altogether. Empathy remains a big part of psychological work, but there’s plenty you can do outside your therapist’s office as well. Pick up the latest fiction novel of your favourite genre, and allow yourself to understand and empathise with the protagonist. The ability to empathise with others will eventually translate to being able to empathise with other stakeholders and open the doors for you to engage your users through emotional design.
🐟 by Timo Kuilder
The future is more ~ mobile ~
From having multiple different skill sets for your job to having side hustles — there is a growing need for us to be able to transfer our skills across industries. Professionals with higher mental mobility are also far less likely to break down when faced with personal challenges that affect their ability to perform.
Mobility = Resilience
With tech updating as fast as it does, people are headhunting for adaptability. If you’re afraid of becoming the proverbial dinosaur, start working on your mobility. But remember, cognitive flexibility is not developed overnight, so allow yourself to fail. For most of us, letting go of rigidity in the learning process might just be step one of becoming more mobile.
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Do designers need flexibility training? was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.