Cross Training Your Mind


For so many of us in the professions, we’ve spent our adult work lives acquiring and perfecting skills that are designed to take us on a path to success. But as a Civil Service officer, what happens when we get to the top of our career ladders? We’re at the highest grade and we’ve essentially topped out. How do we continue to excel at our jobs yet keep it fresh?

From a fitness perspective, cross training improves athletic performance and helps you break through a plateau. It is also one way to cross train mentally.

I came across an article on cross training your mind by naval officer Ken Kleinschnittger in a leadership journal from 2013 that suggests acquiring a physical skill can alter the way a person thinks and accelerate mental development.

Kleinschnittger writes that reading a book or listening to a podcast may have an effect on your thinking, but this does not leave a physical imprint from the learning.

Cross training your mind through any physical activity – from traveling to gardening to running to doing – allows your mind to work in a creative and friendly mental space that among other things has a different set of expectations. What I like most about Kleinschnittger’s perspective is his comment that cross training your mind consciously and unconsciously helps you reflect as you learn.

Kleinschnittger also talks about how improving mental agility by alternating ways of thinking and viewing problems can help develop a healthy relationship with adversity. I am consistently challenged by my physical activity at the gym – from the concentration it takes to coordinate my muscles and connect them with my brain to the resiliency necessary to recover from a workout that leaves me depleted.

Yet fitness is just one way to cross train your mind.

For example, Kleinschnittger works on a beat-up Jeep for years. He says he found the times he was most effective or innovative at his job were also the times when he was tinkering with the Jeep. He says it’s not so much that he had “a-ha” moments while physically working on the Jeep, which he did, but it was more like the Jeep jump-started his creativity and put him in the mindset to face the challenges at work.

And there are other ways too.

It may seem like a long shot to convince your boss to let you seek a short-term detail assignment that at least on the surface has very little to do with your job. But this is actually the point of cross training. In the same way that biking, swimming, and running work different muscle groups but support the body electric, challenging yourself with an assignment outside your knowledge base stretches your mind to work in innovative ways.

Many Foreign Service officers have perfected the art of cross training. Every two or three years, they take on new assignments, learn new languages, and jump into new environments and welcome new challenges. This keeps them sharp and agile.

And engaged.

Over the years, the State Department has begun to offer the Civil Service corps increased opportunities to serve detail assignments both domestically and overseas. This is one way for the corps to remain energetic and fresh, and I’ve seen positive results in my office as Civil Service colleagues return from assignments in such places as China, Brazil, and Sierra Leone.

Cross training your mind is not any different from adding cross training to your fitness regimen. In order for it to mean anything, you need to make a commitment.

“This is not something in which you dip a toe,” Kleinschnittger writes.

Since December, when I joined a running club, I’ve incorporated my running schedule into my work week calendar. While weekends are devoted to longer runs, weekdays are broken up into cross training chunks. If you were inside my brain, you’d probably conclude that I plan copiously for my next run.

Instead of tinkering with a car, I’m using fitness to kick-start my creativity at work. And as I am on my first overseas detail, I am focused on flexing my mental muscles.

Travel has the potential to keep you open to experiencing different customs, which of course is another way to cross train your mind. Learning a new skill, whether in Washington or overseas, is like adding resistance to your workout to get you over your plateau. And it might just put you in a mindset to face the challenges that lie ahead at work.

The views expressed here are those of Ms. Walker and not those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.

Carolee Walker is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Jenny Groome

Working in a library, I miss the more physical work where I would be in the stacks actually handling the material. I learned the collection better when I was processing discard lists from FDLP selective libraries, or when I was in a selective library and physically selecting what to weed. And shifting – a 15-20 minute stint shifting a collection and my mind is reset for more reference/research work.