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ATD Blog

Develop Mental Agility to Thrive in Turbulent Times

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Human beings need agility to survive. In a bygone era, we needed the physical agility to run from predators and the mental agility to think quickly on our feet. In today’s business world, we need agility not only to survive but to thrive in the disruptive and somewhat unknown future that we face.

Agility helps us survive in business by enabling us to execute quick pivots while learning new skills and lessons. It helps us to thrive as we let go of old models for success, get unstuck from negative mindsets, and are present to the needs of a changing workplace. While most agility training focuses on methods and processes, mental agility is critical for success. Mental agility is the ability to quickly shift between having laser-focus and seeing the bigger picture.

Laser-focus (zooming in) and seeing the bigger picture (zooming out) are needed for high performance in uncertain environments. When zooming in, we remain present, engaged with our tasks, and efficient. We are focused on critical details and our important priorities. We can execute our tasks with precision and excellence.

When zooming out, we identify our larger priorities and find comfort with complexity. We can see what new skills are needed to survive and maintain an openness to learning them. We can better strategize and make fresh connections between different things. We don’t get overwhelmed because we see the ups and downs within the greater context of our organization’s history and our lives.

According to professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the former chief editor of Harvard Business Review, “Effective leaders zoom in and zoom out. I’ve come to this conclusion after more than 25 years of observing how leaders respond to unexpected events.” For most of us, the past year has been an unending series of unexpected events that required more mental agility than perhaps ever before.


Unfortunately, our brains are not naturally wired for agility. We have a difficult time zooming in and finding laser-focus. According to research, we are distracted, on average, 37 percent of the time we’re at work. The average employee loses 2.1 hours a day to distractions and interruptions and is distracted roughly every 10.5 minutes.

We also have a difficult time zooming out to grasp the bigger picture. Research shows that as the brain experiences distraction, it loses the ability to solve problems flexibly and set priorities. And in addition to our own natural inclinations, stress makes things worse. We have a negativity bias that routinely scans for bad news, which the brain fixates on with tunnel vision, losing our sense of overview. Zooming out has become increasingly difficult in a pandemic age where life is fraught with uncertainties and the unknown.


The good news is that mental agility can be trained. It is a critical building block for success as we move into this next chapter of business and life. Cultivating a habit of mental agility can help you:

  • Develop greater focus, efficiency, and performance for daily work tasks.
  • Enhance strategic thinking, prioritization, and innovation.

There are both short- and long-term strategies for enhancing focus and seeing the bigger picture, which can lead to gains in performance, innovation, and resilience. For example, in the short-term, we can block out time in our calendar to zoom in on our priorities without interruption and to zoom out by taking a walk or exercise break (which research shows enhances creativity and holistic thinking). In the long-term, we can develop mental agility by formally training the mind. A simple but effective mindfulness practice has been shown to develop focus (zooming in) and awareness (zooming out) in just 10 minutes a day, with a literal rewiring of the brain’s circuitry.

So how mentally agile are you, your people, and your organization? Do you have the practices in place to help you not only get laser-focused, but to also keep the bigger picture in mind? As we march forward into this new world of work, devoting time to the development of your own mental agility just may be the key to thriving in a post-pandemic world filled with constant change and increasing complexity.

Want to learn more? Join me during the ATD 2021 International Conference & Exposition for the session Develop Mental Agility to Survive and Thrive in Turbulent Times.

About the Author

Marissa Afton is an international partner and head of global accounts with Potential Project. She is a change management professional who has led culture change solutions globally for clients including Cisco, Accenture, Bloomberg, Eli Lilly, and Verizon. A sought-after speaker and contributor to publications like HBR, Marissa helps people realize their potential by training the mind for high performance. A mindfulness practitioner for over 25 years, she brings expertise in executive leadership development and workplace mindfulness to support Potential Project’s global clients.

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Great article! Love it! Thanks!
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Hi MariSo glad 2 see U mention Mindfulness Practices, since we have between 18,000- 58,000 Thoughts per day; some of those preconceived Mindsets we have set in place, may need an actual Mind-shift. Another Study which reports, "Research has found that we're distracted from what we do 47 % of the time". ("The Mind Of The Leader" by Rasmus Hougard & Jacqueline Carter, Pg. 46), even more alarming-an awesome Read. They reveal Leaders are distracted 73% "'some or most of the time'". Pg 46.
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The word "agility" seems to be thrown around more everyday and if I'm honest....I'm not sure my definition is right. I loved this article and the practical advice for zooming in...and zooming out!
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