Cognitive flexibility a key skill for 2020

by Nov 25, 2019

A top 10 skill to be valued in 2020


The end of 2019 has come around fast. The World Economic Forum published a list of the top 10 skills which will be valued in 2020 and showed the shift in emphasis from 2015.


Now this is the WEF and there is an almost a mystical reverence of this list. Almost every conference I go to at least one speaker references it. So, in this series from 3Plus before the end of the year we will be looking at key skills for 2020 and giving you tips and tricks to upskill.

Cognitive flexibility

Cognitive flexibility references an ability to “switch between thinking about two different concepts, and to think about multiple concepts simultaneously.”  A person who is cognitively flexible has the ability to learn quickly, solve problems creatively, and adapt and respond to new situations effectively which is why this skill is important. In today’s fast paced and uncertain workplaces that type of agility carries a high value and will be of increasing importance to an employer.

cognitive flexibility

Not all of us are naturally cognitively flexible but it is possible to become better and here are 6 tips to get you started.

How to become cognitively flexible

 1. Mix-up your daily schedule

All of us get into habits which can eventually become ruts. Take a look at your day and if you repeat it Monday to Friday, consider changing it. Step out of your routine and doing the same old stuff. Make a point of changing your diet, taking a walk at lunch time, having coffee with a different crowd of colleagues. Anything that mixes up your week and the way you do things.

2. Stretch yourself

Although this was meant as a metaphor it could be more, if you spend 8 hours plus a day at the computer, a physical stretch won’t go amiss. The intention here was to create new experiences that increase your motivation which will heighten your awareness and powers of observation, improve your memory and speed up your processing skills.

Volunteering for stretch assignments in work, sign up for new training opportunities, learn a language, a musical instrument  or a new software programme. If your job or hobbies are more cerebral, try a physical activity or one requiring manual dexterity or even physical labour. Anything to open up your mind to different and diverse experiences.

3. Think out of the box

We all have a tendency to go with what we know. This usually produces the fastest idea, but not necessarily the best. Bring together a diverse group of people and vision board an idea. Leave your devices outside the door and start brainstorming without feedback and judgement. Even if you are on your own, brainstorming can be an impactful tool for individuals to focus personal goals and growth. Use these common elements: consider all the possibilities, seek outside input, ask for feedback, go for quantity not quality in the first instance because volume produces add-on and bounce back ideas. You can drill down later. Don’t rule out even the craziest of thoughts.

cognitive flexibility

Write your ideas on your vision board and check for any themes or commonalities.  Maybe in the midst of all the chat you will have one or even two concepts worth pursuing. Remember Post Its were invented completely accidentally by a man wanting to put use non-stick glue in a hymnal. This is one situation where it is OK to chase rabbits not elephants!

Research tells us that people who are especially creative tend to re-conceptualize a problem more often than their less creative colleagues. This suggests that they are more open to considering a number of different options than one stand alone solution. Don’t be afraid to try something crazy. One 3Plus client told us that she always gets her best ideas in the period just before she is fully awake. As a result she now sets her alarm 15 minutes early and in a semi-meditative state between sleep and consciousness she will get some inspiration.

“I don’t know if it’s a researched thing” she said “but it works for me. It’s about knowing when you are at your most inventive . Most of us will have different triggers. My husband gets his best ideas jogging through the forest.”    

4. Exercise your brain

Today we won’t think of leaving the house without our phones. We are app assisted from getting directions, to counting our steps, to looking for traffic jams, adding up bills and spell checking. This enables us to make decisions and complete tasks faster than ever, but without going through the processing ourselves. Our brains are under exercised and like any muscle they get flabby and floppy. Nothing gets put on our mental hard drives, other than how to manipulate the tech. This can have a negative impact on our cognitive flexibility. As E.M. Forster said “Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.”

To get over that we have to commit to not taking the easy option. Calculate bills in your head, remember the way to a place and try not use GPS, play Scrabble and Sudoku. Take up crosswords or bridge. Any activity to keep those brain cells active and alert .

5. Diversify your network

Make an effort to meet people outside of your usual networks personally and professionally. This could involve you in volunteering, joining new groups reaching out to a different set of colleagues or industry sector connections.  Listen to what they say and open your mind to learning from them. People with different backgrounds may have different ways to approach problems that you and your immediate circle have never thought of or have considered but rejected.

Research shows that diverse teams are more creative than homogenous ones. So if you are a hiring manager try to recruit for cultural value rather than cultural fit.  Diversity of thought is one of the best ways of stimulating creativity.

Networking should be a daily habit, regardless of how busy your life is. Try our Daily LinkedIn routine for today’s super busy women.

6. Let the fear go

Fear can hold us back from being different or trying something new.  It might be fear of failure, or concern about lack of acceptance of our new way of doing things or worse still, push-back if people are upset or challenged. Cognitive flexibility should be one of the most valuable and creative tools in our business world. Yet many associate it with conflict and divisiveness rather than differences to be leveraged for something positive.


If you are stuck look for a coach or mentor to help you overcome whatever barriers are holding you back.

If it is one of the top touted skill for 2020, we need to get our heads around cognitive flexibility.

3Plus welcomes any writers to join 3Plus as a Staff Writer. If you are an expert in Job Search, Career and Mentoring or just want to share your experiences, contact us! We would love to give you a voice!

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