If you’ve read my book, The 100: Building Blocks for Business Leadership, or just read my posts here from time to time, you know I highly value work-life balance. In fact, that’s the topic of the very first chapter in The 100. Achieving balance means working efficiently, having discipline and knowing how to prioritize and focus.
A recent special edition of Harvard Business Review (sort of an HBR “Best of”) includes an intriguing article, ‘Train Your Brain to Focus” by Paul Hammerness and Margaret Moore (co-authors of the book, Organize Your Life, Organize Your Mind: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less Time).
I read it with relish and indulged in a bit of guilty pleasure when some of my own long-held views were validated by research. Chiefly, multi-tasking is a myth. Sure, you can try to do multiple things at once, but there’s a price. As Hammerness and Moore report “. . . (multi-tasking) makes us more likely to make mistakes and miss important information and cues, and less likely to retain information in our working memory, which impairs problem solving and creativity.”
So when you tell your kids to turn off the video games while doing their homework, you’re not being a curmudgeon – you’re teaching them an important lesson in training their brains to focus. When it comes to your team, you can insist on distraction-free meetings—ban laptops, mobile phones, tablets and other gadgets. They might resist, but when creativity and thoughtful input increases you’ll know you’re on the right track.
Easy enough, right? Sure, when you control all the variables. But life often throws us—and our employees—curveballs: events that trigger emotions like anxiety, sadness, anger and more. Functional brain images reveal that these negative emotions make it extremely difficult to solve problems or do other cognitive work.
But the authors offer a useful exercise to help keep our brains on task when negativity threatens to derail our focus and it’s as easy as A-B-C. They advise:
- Awareness of your options. You can stop what you’re doing and address the distraction, or you can let it go.
- Breathe deeply and consider your options.
- Choose thoughtfully: stop or go?
Only a monster boss would expect any employee to keep cranking when a loved dies or similarly devastating news is received. But less drastic negative events can be managed, the authors argue, by taking the time to decide how to react, versus simply reacting.
I also appreciated their practical advice to start meetings with a bit of humor (not that I’d ever tell a joke myself of course!). Turns out “positive emotions improve everyone’s brain function, leading to better teamwork and problem solving.”
Next time: Avoiding the Downside of Too Much Focus