Avoiding the Downside of Too Much Focus

In a previous post, Train Your Brain, I shared ideas on focus and productivity. On this post, let’s pivot (a very popular word in today’s biz world) 180 degrees and address too much focus.

Sound like an oxymoron? Not at all says Srini Pillay, an executive coach, author, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and CEO of the NeuroBusiness Group. With those credentials, I decided his thesis deserved consideration – even though I’m a big believer in focus (see my last post!).

Writes Pillay in “Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus” in a special edition of Harvard Business Review, “. . .excessive focus exhausts the focus circuits in your brain. It can drain your energy and make you lose self-control. This can make you more impulsive and less helpful. As a result, decisions are poorly thought out, and you become less collaborative.”

Yikes.

Before you throw out all the deadlines and head to the beach, listen to the rest of Pillay’s message: “The brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus, allowing you to develop resilience, enhance creativity, and make better decisions.”

In other words, balance!

 Pillay’s thesis goes on to encourage this healthy brain balance with a few tips (I’ll spare you the technical details):

  1. Use positive constructive daydreaming or PCD. – Unlike the garden variety goofing off or simply tuning out, PCD is intentional and, when done consistently, trains your brain to pull out the bits and pieces you may have forgotten but that can contribute to your creativity and ability to solve problems. This sounds a lot like lucid dreaming, which also involves consciously using your mind while you’re in an unconscious state.
  • Take a nap – There are a lot of theories about napping, but here is what Mr. Pillay has to say: “Not all naps are the same. When your brain is in a slump, your clarity and creativity are compromised. After a 10-minute nap, studies show that you become much clearer and more alert. But if you have a creative task in front of you, you will need a full 90 minutes for more complete brain refreshing to make more associations and dredge up ideas that are in the nooks and crannies of your memory network.”
  • Pretend to be someone else – Ok, I have to admit this last tip seems a bit far out to me. But on reflection I realized it’s just a slightly updated version of the old advice to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” to get a new perspective. The author playfully calls this “psychological halloweenism” and advises imagining yourself as a “eccentric poet rather than a rigid librarian.” In other words, find a way to get out of your own head and into someone else’s. It just might unlock your thinking and help you to find new ideas and ways out of problems you had not imagined previously.

According to Pillay, most of us spend nearly half of our days “with our minds wandering away from a task at hand,” but he adds, “if we build PCD, naps and psychological halloweenism into our days, we can preserve focus for when we need it and use it much more efficiently. Most important, unfocus can allow us to update information in the brain, giving us access to the deeper parts of ourselves and enhancing our agility, creativity and decision making.”

Intertech Foundation STEM Scholarship Deadline Approaching

One of the Intertech Foundation’s focuses is the inspiration of young people towards the building of science, engineering and technology skills.

The 2019 STEM scholarship application deadline is March 15th and is for students interested in pursuing careers as professional software developers. This opportunity is aimed at current college students or college-bound high school seniors, who have excelled in the areas of Math and Science, to pursue college studies in the area of computer science.

Train Your Brain

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:

  1. Awareness of your options. You can stop what you’re doing and address the distraction, or you can let it go.
  2. Breathe deeply and consider your options.
  3. 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.”

Who knew?

Next time: Avoiding the Downside of Too Much Focus

Live your values and others may follow

If you pay attention to the political news, it’s easy to believe that disrespectful dialog has replaced baseball as the national pastime. While I’m a firm believer in the power of debate and discussion to generate better decisions, I do not believe what’s happening in D.C. is productive.

All people, and business leaders, must stand up for what’s right. Problem is, many business people – me included – do not like to take stands because we do not wish to risk offending others (including customers, potential customers and even employees).

But standing up for what’s right without being offensive is possible: we’ve seen it done countless times on television by the imitable Fred Rogers. We all remember Mister Rogers as the gentle, affable man who created “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on PBS.

Fred Rogers was as warm as his famous cardigan sweaters, but he didn’t shy away from controversy. He tackled complex social issues and was a strong advocate for anti-discrimination and equal rights. This was highlighted in the recent documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” which recounts the episode when he soaked his feet alongside an African-American police officer in a kiddie pool. This was controversial because segregation was still widespread in America at the time.

Fred Rogers did not give fiery speeches (but he did testify before Congress on behalf of funding public television for children), he just did the right thing and led by example. So, I have a modest proposal for my fellow citizens and business leaders: let your actions speak for you.

My company uses technology to help clients achieve important business objectives. But we also dedicate resources (time and dollars) supporting non-profit organizations focused on the common good. From volunteerism, employee matching gifts and student scholarships, to starting the Intertech Foundation, our philanthropic efforts allow us to speak up through action for positive community values: compassion, opportunity and education.

Most recently the Intertech Foundation became a philanthropic supporter of a local children’s hospice named Crescent Cove. I liked Crescent Cove because we’d be making an impact in the community where we lived and they’re the first nonprofit in the Twin Cities to offer hospice services for kids. In the past, we’ve also supported the local Ronald McDonald House.

So, let’s be kind and inclusive. Better yet, let’s use our personal and professional actions to create the world we want to see for future generations – one that provides a place for everyone to belong and contribute. Who knows, it might even be good for business!

Top 2018 Posts, Articles, and Resources

Below are my top five resources and posts for 2018:

The 100 Downloads:  A set of 30 templates, checklists, and other tools that support ideas in my book The 100.

Software Development: Being Agile:  Written as a part of a series on software development, this piece covers the benefits of Agile and Scrum.

Father’s Day:  On Father’s Day this year, I wrote a testament to my dad as a father and man.

Getting Curious Gets Results:  Inspired by a Harvard Business Review article, here are thoughts on how curiosity can improve our business and our lives.

How CEOs Manage Time:  Also inspired by a Harvard Business Review article, I share my $0.02 on how to effectively manage time/life.

Below are my top five articles in other publications for 2018:

Strategic philanthropy: Giving back means paying it forward in ways that matter, Minnesota Business Magazine

How to cultivate a work culture that works for everyone, The Business Journals

How to cultivate winning client-consultant relationships, Upsize Magazine

5 ways to increase workplace flow — and happiness, The Business Journals

How to focus your resources on achieving your goals, The Business Journals