5 BRAIN-BASED STRATEGIES TO INCREASE YOUR FOCUS – AND YOUR BUSINESS
We have all done it. Sat watching television whilst simultaneously communicating to someone via our Smartphone (and also trying to answer our partner’s question from the other room). Attended a meeting feeling frustrated at our colleague’s inability to stop constant interruptions from other staff. Set time aside to create an innovative product and meanwhile jumped to respond to every incoming social media alert, getting further distracted because that really useful newsletter that involves a labyrinth of clicks and links across the internet has just popped into our Inbox and we simply must take a peek – now!
Life and business in the twentieth-first century just cannot wait: in the digital age there is an endless array of information, people and things competing for our attention. The challenge is that the piece of kit that we have been born with to navigate these daily distractions is not up to the job. It has not evolved (that much) since the Stone Age and it is rather fussy when directing our attention. As routinely discovered, this causes havoc with our ability to complete tasks swiftly and reduce overwhelm.
Here are five things essential to know about your brain that will help override its natural inclination to distract you:
Your brain is wired for survival
That moving object in your peripheral vision could be the equivalent of a predator, hence why your brain will ensure that you move your head immediately to track it. Your eyes communicate the information inwards so that your grey matter can interpret whether to start running or if it is a false alarm. If there is a lot of noise in the background, similarly your brain will pick up if anything sounds unusual.
Your brain is wired for your survival above all else and regularly scans for threats. Unfortunately, a threat could mean an email where you suddenly fire off a response without thinking about it (and regret it later) or when someone suddenly cuts in front of you at the supermarket to take the last box of chocolate éclairs.
Brighter Thinking strategy: support your brain to be in a more preferable toward (reward) state by managing your emotions, being engaged in your work and giving yourself (and others) regular positive feedback. Humour helps too!
Your brain is a prediction machine
If you enjoy solving puzzles such as Sudoku or playing video games, you will recognise that when the winning solution is achieved, that you feel good, really good. This is your brain on dopamine. Just thinking about the completed result will activate the reward circuits in your brain (the seeking behaviour) which lead you to stop at nothing (!) to experience the pleasurable feeling expected at the end.
In addition, your brain loves to get it right so it fills in predicted details accordingly. Predicting saves vital energy and therefore is more efficient. It explains how we can be easily fooled by optical illusions, plus forecast that at 6 pm tomorrow we will feel like going to the gym. Unfortunately, the brain frequently gets its predictions wrong.
Brighter Thinking strategy: leverage this predisposition to your advantage for activities causing habitual procrastination and stress, especially those anticipated that will take ages to accomplish. Create an open loop in the brain by starting the task. For example, draft the email ‘please find attached the proposal / article…’ Now your brain will want to fill in the gaps and do the writing to get its reward for closing the loop!
Attention in the brain is rather limited
Following a restorative and adequate night’s sleep, your brain will have a full tank of attention in the morning. As you use this focus by having meetings, making telephone calls, creating a new product, checking emails etc, this precious resource depletes as the day goes on. Caffeine and regular refuelling of food (your brain uses 20% of your daily calorific intake) will attempt to top up the dwindling capacity until early evening arrives, when you suddenly wish that you had started that new customer proposal earlier.
Brighter Thinking strategy: schedule meetings and complex cognitive tasks such as decision-making, sales calls, proposals etc for the morning when your attention is at its highest. You may find that some creative activities can also be done swiftly at other times, depending when you are most relaxed. Leave admin and checking emails to later on in the day.
Your brain loves to make connections
Easily bored, your brain can start to make connections when there are none. Hence, unrelated events inside our head can be associated and cause a downward spiral in mood and catastrophic thinking. Your brain requires stimulation and loves to make new neural connections: wiring. Memories are formed by a vast array of different connections linking together across different parts of the brain. The internet reflects this endless capacity (and seeking behaviour) which is why extraneous topics can be so fascinating, and time-wasting.
Brighter Thinking strategy: refresh your brain so that it creates new wiring by doing everyday activities differently. Perhaps, brush your teeth with the other hand? Enjoy another route to work. Attempt to solve a business challenge in an alternative way. Learn a new skill. Take time out away from your usual work place to think. This will exercise your brain and enable you to enjoy fresh creativity and insight too!
Your brain cannot multi-task
Contrary to popular belief, women are not better multi-taskers than men. In fact, we are all really rubbish at it. Your brain is a serial cognitive task processor. In order to focus on a second activity, attention must be switched from the primary task to the subsequent one. This task switching behaviour is costly in terms of using up valuable energy, attention and time. You will take longer to complete the original assignment if you succumb to distraction. Become a disciplined single-task focus extraordinaire and enjoy more frequent satisfaction of completing projects and greater business success.
Brighter Thinking strategy: due to the potential for distraction, a single-task focus is not easy and requires self-control. Like attention, your ability to not do something is at highest in the morning and lowers with each inhibition. Therefore, start the challenging items first thing and work to completion whilst having short breaks for drinks, food etc. Refrain from starting another activity until the first is finished.
For all the strategies highlighted above, it will take practice to hardwire new habits in your brain. Being an efficiency machine, your brain would prefer to use the existing wiring than the extra energy required to navigate the novel and therefore weaker neural circuits. Typical! Remember, persistence pays off.
© Rachel Bamber, Brighter Thinking Limited, 2016