Focus Versus Mental Juggling: The Stress of Multi-Tasking
By Rick Forbus, PhD
Like most of you, multi-tasking and concentration are obvious adversaries. The need for most of us to have sufficient brainpower to perform in our jobs raises this battle of the mind to a heighten position of importance. Some recent coaching conversations and the practicality of experiencing this in my own work gave rise to the research and commentary found in this two-part article.
Do not let what you can’t do interfere with what you can do. John Wooden
Part 1 of this article will focus on focus. Part 2 will focus on multi-tasking, the good and the bad of the practice. The economic challenges for the leader today plus typical distractions are unprecedented. When you factor in the I-pads, I-phones, texting while driving to work, reading Kindles at lunch and using the I-pod while we workout, there is no wonder we cannot focus as a society. Many brag about their ability to do two or three things at once.
Great leaders learn how to focus. My experience coaching executive leaders reveals that concentration on a preferred future and a compelling vision requires skills in focusing. Scott Scheper has some good thoughts in an excerpt from his book on the website howtogetfocused.com.
The Roots of Focused Thought
Defined, focused thought is the act of contemplating a specific problem, and in turn, falling into a state of flow. Time slows as you contemplate a specific problem. The roots of Focused Thought arose from a group of hermits in the Egyptian desert around 400 AD. These hermits were actually Christian monks who practiced repetitive and focused contemplation of the scriptures. Their practices centered around contemplating verses, ideas, and phrases and prayer on a daily basis. It is suspected that the East influenced these methods. By engaging in the habitual act of contemplating ideas, they exercised their minds–specifically their prefrontal cortex. Researches have found that such acts increase activity in the left prefrontal cortex–the part of your brain that drives concentration, meta-cognition and decision-making. Essentially, these desert monks were increasing their brainpower every single day through Focused Thought. The same researchers found that such acts may even decrease anxiety and depression. The simple act of focused thought not only increases the mind’s ability to concentrate it reduces the likelihood of depression. Focused Thought enhances attention span and makes the mind more flexible. This increases awareness of your environment, as well as the ability to be objective in emotionally charged situations. This sense of awareness doesn’t just apply to your environment. It also applies to the creative component within your mind. Essentially, you’ll find it easier to fall into the state of flow when you practice Focused Thought on a habitual basis.
In summary, the concept of Focused Thought isn’t a qualitative act (i.e. practiced in order to seek spiritual enlightenment). Focused Thought is a quantitative, and calculated way to exercise your prefrontal cortex; thus, improving your creativity, decision-making and general sense of happiness.
howtogetfocused.com by Scott Scheper
Scheper’s observations are correct. The prefrontal cortex has been determined to be involved in planning complex cognitive behaviors, personality expression, decision-making and moderating correct social behavior. The basic activity of this brain region is considered to be the coordination of thoughts and actions in accordance with inner goals.
An important project was begun, a bishop quoted an ancient sage as saying, ‘If our thoughts and hopes are elsewhere, it is impossible for us to set our faces steadily toward the work required of us.’ Anonymous
The most typical psychological term for functions carried out by the prefrontal cortex area is executive function, interesting nomenclature in light of this article. Executive function relates to abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social “control” (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes).
All of these activities, directed by the prefrontal cortex, are executive skills essential to success in organizational and corporate life. Of interest especially is the brain activity that guides and guards our self-control. My opinion is that when it comes to an individual’s leadership development, which will be a determining factor in the team’s development, focus will be an essential skill.
You may be asking, “can I increase my executive focus or is my brain power set with no hope for improvement?” There is a wealth of research around brain development. A synopsis would be to state that your brain is a thinking organ that learns and grows by interacting with the world through perception and action. Mental stimulation improves brain function and actually protects against cognitive decline, as does physical exercise.
The human brain is able to continually adapt and rewire itself. Even in old age, it can grow new neurons. Severe mental decline is usually caused by disease, whereas most age-related losses in memory or motor skills simply result from inactivity and a lack of mental exercise and stimulation. In other words, use it or lose it.
If you chase two rabbits, both will escape. Anonymous
Leaders who do not want to plateau in their cognitive skills and continue to improve their abilities to focus have many techniques available that are easy and fun. There is science abounding that proves that aging people who travel, take up new activities, read and learn a new language improve their brainpower. One simple focus exercise is to close your eyes in the morning while getting ready for work. Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand while keeping your eyes closed. Try to brush your hair, eyes closed, with that non-dominant hand, as well. This experience will demonstrate how the brain will adjust to previously learned muscle responses. After some repetition you can use that weaker hand to do everyday tasks. Amazingly, we can learn to dance, perform a new sport and take up watercolor painting as senior adults. Just as we learned to tie our shoes as kids, we struggled, we practiced and our brains developed, the same process happens with new activities. Want to stay sharp? Keep focusing on new things.
Before birth each of our bodies created neurons, the brain cells that communicate with each other, at the rate of fifteen million per hour. When we were born into the world, our hundred billion neurons were ready to organize themselves in response to our new environment, no matter the culture, climate, language, or lifestyle. During infancy, billions of these astonishing cells intertwined into the immense networks that integrated our nervous system. By the time we were four or five years old, our essential cerebral architecture was complete.
Available brain science research is expansive. Practically speaking, focus comes with exercising our thought processes through intentional activities like (1) reading outside of your knowledge area, (2) learning a new language, (3) beginning a new sport or dance activity, (4) mental quiet time planned within your day and (5) learning to play a musical instrument. As an athlete’s physical muscles will become sore when they go to different muscle groups through exertion, the prefrontal cortex needs expansion and strengthening through making it go to new areas. Longevity of leadership ability will depend on your abilities to focus, concentrate and expand your cognitive horizons. What is especially thrilling to me is that in our senior years we can continually develop and strengthen our mental capabilities.
Keep your mind on the things you want and off the things you don’t want. Hannah Whitall Smith
Of the nine core competencies of leadership necessary to perform well, setting direction is first. Clarity of thought, weighing alternatives, fighting distractions and then putting the vision and direction in crisp language is imperative for great leaders. Focus is the vehicle for this competency. Coaching certainly helps executives to find the right recipe to strengthen focus and to fight off the tendencies to over task. Multi-tasking and working through the inclination to over-schedule, over-think, over-prioritize and over-extend requires discipline and intentionality. Start now working on focus through some of the activities mentioned above. Part 2 of this article focuses on multi-tasking.
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