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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Train Your Brain to Focus

Harvard Business Review
1:32 PM Wednesday January 18, 2012
by Paul Hammerness, MD, and Margaret Moore

English: A child not paying attention in class.
Image via Wikipedia

… Many of us are proud of our prowess in multitasking, and wear it like a badge of honor.
Multitasking may help us check off more things on our to-do lists. But it also makes us more prone to making mistakes, more likely to miss important information and cues, and less likely to retain information in working memory, which impairs problem solving and creativity.

brains!
Image by cloois via Flickr
… Studies of adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) using the latest neuroimaging and cognitive testing [PDF] are showing us how the brain focuses, what impairs focus — and how easily the brain is distracted. … The good news is that the brain can learn to ignore distractions, making you more focused, creative, and productive.

Here are three ways you can start to improve your focus.


Tame your frenzy.
English: Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions
Image via Wikipedia
Frenzy is an emotional state, a feeling of being a little (or a lot) out of control. … Emotions are processed by the amygdala, … It responds powerfully to negative emotions, which are regarded as signals of threat. Functional brain imaging has shown that activation of the amygdala by negative emotions interferes with the brain's ability to solve problems or do other cognitive work. Positive emotions and thoughts do the opposite — they improve the brain's executive function, and so help open the door to creative and strategic thinking.


English: Managing emotions - Identifying feelings
Image via Wikipedia
What can you do? Try to improve your balance of positive and negative emotions over the course of a day. Barbara Fredrickson, a noted psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, recommends a 3:1 balance of positive and negative emotions, based upon mathematical modeling of ideal team dynamics by her collaborator Marcial Losada, and confirmed by research on individual flourishing and successful marriages. (Calculate your "positivity ratio" at www.positivityratio.com). You can tame negative emotional frenzy by exercising, meditating, and sleeping well. It also helps to notice your negative emotional patterns. …


What can your team do? Start meetings on positive topics and some humor. The positive emotions this generates can improve everyone's brain function, leading to better teamwork and problem solving.


Apply the brakes.
Your brain continuously scans your internal and external environment, even when you are focused on a particular task. Distractions are always lurking: wayward thoughts, emotions, sounds, or interruptions. Fortunately, the brain is designed to instantly stop a random thought, an unnecessary action, and even an instinctive emotion from derailing you and getting you off track.


What can you do? To prevent distractions from hijacking your focus, use the ABC method as your brain's brake pedal. Become Aware of your options: you can stop what you are doing and address the distraction, or you can let it go. Breathe deeply and consider your options. Then Choose thoughtfully: Stop? or Go?
What can your team do? Try setting up one-hour distraction-free meetings. Everyone is expected to
contribute and offer thoughtful and creative input, and no distractions (like laptops, tablets, cell phones, and other gadgets) are allowed.


Shift Sets.
… Set-shifting refers to shifting all of your focus to a new task, and not leaving any behind on the last one. Sometimes it's helpful to do this in order to give the brain a break and allow it to take on a new task.


What can you do? Before you turn your attention to a new task, shift your focus from your mind to your body. Go for a walk, climb stairs, do some deep breathing or stretches. Even if you aren't aware of it, when you are doing this your brain continues working on your past tasks. Sometimes new ideas emerge during such physical breaks.


What can your team do? Schedule a five-minute break for every hour of meeting time, and encourage everyone to do something physical rather than run out to check email. By restoring the brain's executive function, such breaks can lead to more and better ideas when you reconvene.

Organizing your mind, and your team members' minds, will yield a solid payoff in the year ahead. … Try holding a no-multitasking meeting and see what happens when everyone in the room gives their undivided attention. …

Paul Hammerness, MD, and Margaret Moore

Paul Hammerness, MD, and Margaret Moore
Paul Hammerness, MD, and Margaret Moore are the authors of Organize Your Life, Organize Your Mind (Harlequin). Hammerness is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Moore is the founder and CEO of Wellcoaches Corporation and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital.
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