Part 2 in a 4-part series on what the Human Capital Community of Practice can learn from neuroscience

Neuroscience is a field buzzing with new findings that are indisputably attention-grabbing. But what practical value do these findings offer for those in ASTD’s Human Capital Community of Practice? In part two of this four-part series on what neuroscience can offer to the Human Capital CoP, Dr. Erika Garms examines two related functions critical for our success in the workplace—focus and attention. Readers will learn what supports and challenges focus and attention so they can improve their own performance, and coach or train others in their organizations to improve their performance. We will also explore the facts and fiction surrounding multitasking, which may change the way you allocate your time and energy. 

Did you read the entire introductory paragraph to this blog before becoming distracted by something either externally or internally? People tend to switch activities once every three minutes in the workplace. Depending on how fast you read, you may or may not have made it through the paragraph above before noticing your attention began to wander. Would you believe that distractions in our workplaces can consume 2.1 hours per day on average? Shockingly, a study found that we generally average 11 minutes spent on a project before being stopped by a distraction, and once the interruption is gone and we return to the task, it takes us an average of 25 minutes to regain our focus the project. Attention is the ability to activate relevant stimuli and inhibit irrelevant ones. It is harder to inhibit irrelevant stimuli than to attend to what is relevant. And, it is draining to focus attention for long periods of time on the same thing; the brain creates its own downtimes if they are not built in to the environment

What are other impacts of these facts on us? We feel tired, frazzled, aggravated to not have completed more, and perhaps frustrated that others have wasted our time. These may be our emotional responses but there are also physical responses to be aware of. It is very energy intensive to use the parts of our brains involved in higher order thinking (primarily our prefrontal cortex)—including focusing and paying attention.  Our ability to maintain focus and attention—especially in the presence of multiple distractions—is seriously threatened, as are the abilities to do our best thinking, have our best ideas, and be our most creative and innovative. The holistic effects of trying to pay attention to too much are for women, like losing a night’s sleep. And for men . . . like three times the effects of smoking marijuana! And for the final alarming piece of supportive data, consider this: Constant distractions can reduce our IQs by an average of 10 points! The stress created by being in this distracted, scattered state is verifiably hard on our entire systems, not only our brains. Our hearts, blood pressure, resistance to major and minor diseases are all compromised significantly by continued stresses of this sort.

So is there a non-harmful way to respond to all of the things that require your attention? Is multitasking a good method for rapidly responding to these stimuli? If you were able to focus on the previous paragraphs, you’ll know the neuroscientific answer: No. In fact . . . surprise! There is no such thing as multitasking. What we are doing, upon close examination, is task-switching. Some of us become pretty good, pretty fast task-switchers, so we may be creating the illusion that we are masterful multitaskers. But, this is not the case. Your prefrontal cortex has limited energy and limited capacity, right? So trying to half-engage in many activities will decrease your ability to hold sufficient focus on any one of the activities. Accuracy drops. Mistakes, perhaps dangerous ones, become more likely. [Ever lose your train of thought? You may be trying to hold too many distinct thoughts in your prefrontal cortex (PFC) at once.] Perhaps less urgent or dramatic, but just as costly, is the decreased probability of understanding and remembering  or learning from the experience you are trying to half-have.

Advertisement

What else can neuroscience teach us about focus and attention? The prevailing understanding about the beginning and end states of our brains was—until 20 years ago—that we arrived into the world with what wiring we would have in our brains until the neural connections began to weaken and disappear through the aging process. And at death, we would have far fewer, and weaker, connections than in our virile years. Happily, in the 1990s, the concept of ‘neuroplasticity’ came into the scientific world. Scientists studying stroke patients discovered that the brain indeed can and does rewire itself in response to damage. As David Rock describes in Quiet Leadership, the brain, “diverted traffic along new highways it quickly laid down around the accident site, allowing largely normal functioning to occur.” By the end of the 1990s, it was accepted that brains can rewire themselves. Our brains may strengthen existing neural connections, form new connections, remove connections, or grow new cells, all in response to the stimuli they encounter daily.

This finding has implications for how we can leverage focus and attention in positive ways. Neuroscience gives us reasons to try an entirely different approach to problem solving. Whatever is focused on or attended to is given energy and becomes more strongly engrained, literally, in the connections between neurons. So then, the more we ponder a problem, the more that problem becomes magnified. Because we can’t disconnect existing neural connections, it doesn’t make sense to try to break these connections. What does work is to grow completely new connections that focus on solutions. In doing this, the brain receives energy to direct towards a desired goal.

Here are 13 additional practices to try out for improved focus, attention, and productivity:

  1. Close your office door if you have one, at least for parts of the day.
  2. Work from home when possible if that presents fewer distractions for you.
  3. Identify three goals for each day or week, and then reserve four hours in each day to work toward those goals.
  4. Dedicate certain chunks of time for doing different kinds of work activities. For example, do correspondence (including email) for two hours each morning, save three hours each afternoon for meetings. You can block these time chunks off on your shared calendar also.
  5. Speaking of email, try training yourself to: check email, voicemail, etc. only at certain times of day/night.
  6. Turn off the email/voicemail notification sound on your phone after “normal” working hours.
  7. When you feel yourself trying to juggle racing thoughts, sit down, breathe, and write down what is in your head.  Jotting down thoughts in a list form can free up PFC space and energy. This also empowers you to return to the list as you choose to.
  8. Prioritize your competing thoughts and give them the stage, one at a time.
  9. Advanced tip: Begin to move conscious procedures or processes to habit, or longer-term memory.  This frees up space where you need it. To learn more about this one, research “basal ganglia” or “brain” and “patterns.”
  10. Have frequent brain-friendly snacks.
  11. Try mindfulness. Did you read the Nov. 20th blog on mindfulness called “Better Leaders Through Brain Hygiene”? View it at: http://www.astd.org/Publications/Blogs/Human-Capital-Blog/2012/11/Better-Leaders -Through-Brain-Hygiene .
  12. Finally, really try to get sufficient sleep and . . .
  13. Exercise.