How to Train Your Brain to Focus

The science-backed reasons you can’t focus, and how to change that
February 7, 2017

 

“You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” —Dr. Seuss

 

People often say that if you follow your passion, you’re never really “working” at work. But that’s not always true. To understand why you can still feel mentally overwhelmed, let’s look at how the human brain is configured.

The prefrontal cortex is the most advanced segment of the most advanced section of the brain. It contains the most expansive evolutionary structures, and is responsible for the cognitive functions we think of as uniquely human, such as the ability to set complex goals, plan our futures, restrain our instinctive impulses, make informed decisions and organize our activities. Collectively, these sophisticated abilities are often referred to as the executive functions of the brain.

Given that the prefrontal cortex in humans is far more capable than that of any other species on the planet, why do we still feel mentally overtaxed so much of the time?

Related: 9 Easy Ways to Stay Mentally Sharp

Consider the dramatic economic shifts that have occurred in the last century or so. The number of people doing physical labor has significantly decreased while the number of “knowledge workers”—as author Peter Drucker named them—have significantly increased.

One aspect of this transformation is that the vast majority of our modern workforce needs more emotional intelligence (people skills) as well as more facility with abstraction (conceptual skills) than it ever needed before. Both of these abilities are anchored in the prefrontal cortex.

To be clear, we’re not arguing that we work harder today than our great-great-grandparents did. But during the last few centuries, the demand for executive brain function seems to have increased and become more widespread. And because it takes anywhere from 100,000 to 1 million years for relatively minor changes to occur in existing biological structures, we could be waiting a long time for our prefrontal cortex to enlarge its capacity in response to the demands we place on it.

Multitasking is not the answer.

In various kinds of companies across all types of industries, we meet people who are worn out, lack focus and who tend to be more reactive than strategic. They believe multitasking is the only way they can stay ahead of the myriad demands put before them.

The problem is that our brains can provide us with only a finite amount of focus at any given time. Scientists such as Daniel Kahneman, author of Attention and Effort, have conducted research that bears this out. According to some estimates, it can easily take up to 40 percent longer to complete projects when you’re interrupted than it does when you can maintain specific focus.

It’s fine to perform two or more tasks at once if quality or accuracy is not a high priority. But the widespread belief that multitasking makes us more efficient is far more myth than science. At every level, we see rampant exhaustion and intellectual depreciation as a result of this misunderstood social norm.

Related: How to Stop Multitasking and Start Speed Dating Your Tasks Instead

Create an island in the stream.

When faced with the unceasing flow of communication that vies for our limited attention, think of a way to put yourself in a separate zone—a kind of “island in the stream.” Zones can be physical or a temporal.

You might believe it’s impossible to take even short timeouts from your particular brand of madness. We’ve heard some of our clients say, “My boss requires that I always answer quickly!” and “Everything needs my attention immediately because my co-workers count on me.” But there are workarounds to address almost any challenge.

Communication to others about the appropriate thresholds for interruption in our zones is critical to their success. There are many creative ways to establish your boundaries. In one hospital we studied, nurses wear brightly colored sashes while they dispense medicine to ensure there will be no intrusions, which could cause potentially fatal mistakes. One office we toured has a noisy bullpen; co-workers there designated a specific conference room as a silent workspace. Find ways to meet your needs for concentration.

When you set and agree to flexible limits for your zones, you not only commit to them yourself, but also encourage others to respect and support your parameters.

Change the culture.

It’s not unusual to walk a fine line between collaboration and continuous interference. In high-tech, future forward companies, we often hear about the eradication of private offices. In some instances, we’ve seen the replacement of desks assigned to a specific person in favor of impersonal cubbyholes claimed only one day at a time.

An open and flexible office setup has many advantages, but the resulting breaches of privacy can dissipate mental resources. Still, we don’t have to accept continuous interruptions as a fait accompli.

Try these tips to establish your zones and boost your productivity and focus:

1. Put zones on your calendar.

Block out a portion of time during which you will work “in the zone.” Use this time to perform tasks that require accuracy, quality and creativity.

2. Establish a quiet physical space where you can go to concentrate and be “in the zone.”

This might require a door that you can close.

3. Communicate your boundaries to co-workers, friends and family so they know how to interrupt you—and under what conditions.

Explain why and how you are using zones to get more done. Be sensitive to their needs as well—don’t overdo your zones.

4. Use an app or a plugin to cancel or silence alerts for emails, texts and phone calls.

Most of these tools will still allow you to be reached in case of an emergency.

5. Calm and clear your mind as you transition into your zone.

Related: 4 Steps to Mastering the Art of Focus

 

Excerpted from Micro-Resilience by Bonnie St. John and Allen P. Haines. Used with permission from Center Street, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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