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Train Your Brain to Focus

| March 5, 2013

by Jim Bruce

Paul Hammerness and Margaret Moore, authors of Organize Your Life, Organize Your Mind point to three ways to improve our focus. Hammerness is assistant professor of psychiarity at the Harvard Medical School and Moore is founder and CEO of the Wellcoaches Corporation and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital. Their original essay appeared on the Harvard Business Review blog.

I’m a multitasker;  we all are!  While multitasking may help us check off more things on our to-do lists, it does make us more prone to making mistakes, more likely to miss important information, and less likely to retain information in our working memory.  Not retaining information impairs our ability to solve problems and be creative.

Advances in neuroimaging are helping us understand more about how the brain works.  As more is learned, we better understand just how easily it is for the brain to be distracted.  The good news is that the brain can learn to ignore distractions resulting in a better focused, more creative, and more productive YOU.

Hammerness and Moore point to three ways to improve your focus:

Tame your frenzy

Frenzy is an emotional state, a feeling of being out of control, often underpinned by anxiety, sadness, anger, and related emotions.  Emotions are processed by the amygdala which reacts powerfully to negative emotions which are seen as indicators of threat.  The negative emotions interfere with the brain’s ability to solve problems and do cognitive work.  Positive emotions and thoughts do the opposite.

So, what do you do?  Work to improve the balance of positive and negative emotions over the course of your day.  Mathematically, according to Barbara Fredrickson, a researcher at the University of North Carolina, the ideal is a 3 : 1 balance of positive and negative emotions.  You tame your negative emotions through exercise, meditating, and sleeping well.  Also, note your own negative emotional patterns.  When you sense one coming, take some deep breadths, and LET IT GO.

Apply the “breaks

Your brain continually scans your internal and external environment, even when you are focused on a task or activity.  The opportunity for distraction is always there.  The good thing is that the brain is designed to instantly stop you and prevent your going off track.

What can you do to stop distraction from getting you off track?  It is simple as ABC:  Be AWARE – become aware of your options;  you can choose – either continue your work or address the interruption.  BREATHE – take a deep breadth and consider the options.  CHOOSE – make a decision.

For your team, insist on distraction free meetings.  Everyone contributes and NO devices are allowed.

Shift sets

While we all like to be in the groove, fully focused, it is sometimes very helpful to find a stopping point and shift focus to a new task.  This gives your brain a break.  As you change your brain’s focus, change your body’s focus as well.  Change chairs, take a walk, take some deep breadths or stretches, etc.  While you make this transition, your brain keeps working.  You may find that new ideas will surface as a result.

For your team, make it a practice to take a five minute break after every hour of meeting.  Encourage team members to do something physical, NOT check their email. This enables your brain to restore its executive function, enabling more and better work to emerge as the meeting continues.

Organizing your mind and your team member’s minds can have a huge payoff.

So, as you think about resolutions for moving forward, this might be a good place to start.

.  .  .  jim