Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus

The ability to focus is an important driver of excellence. Focused techniques such as to-do lists, timetables, and calendar reminders all help people to stay on task. Few would argue with that, and even if they did, there is evidence to support the idea that resisting distraction and staying present have benefits: practicing mindfulness for 10 minutes a day, for example, can enhance leadership effectiveness by helping you become more able to regulate your emotions and make sense of past experiences. Yet as helpful as focus can be, there’s also a downside to focus as it is commonly viewed.

The problem is that excessive focus exhausts the focus circuits in your brain. It can drain your energy and make you lose self-control. This energy drain can also make you more impulsive and less helpful. As a result, decisions are poorly thought-out, and you become less collaborative.

So what do we do then? Focus or unfocus?

In keeping with recent research, both focus and unfocus are vital. The brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus, allowing you to develop resilience, enhance creativity, and make better decisions too.

When you unfocus, you engage a brain circuit called the “default mode network.” Abbreviated as the DMN, we used to think of this circuit as the Do Mostly Nothing circuit because it only came on when you stopped focusing effortfully. Yet, when “at rest”, this circuit uses 20% of the body’s energy (compared to the comparatively small 5% that any effort will require).

The DMN needs this energy because it is doing anything but resting. Under the brain’s conscious radar, it activates old memoriesgoes back and forth between the past, present, and future, and recombines different ideas. Using this new and previously inaccessible data, you develop enhanced self-awareness and a sense of personal relevance. And you can imagine creative solutions or predict the future, thereby leading to better decision-making too. The DMN also helps you tune into other people’s thinking, thereby improving team understanding and cohesion.

There are many simple and effective ways to activate this circuit in the course of a day.

Using positive constructive daydreaming (PCD): PCD is a type of mind-wandering different from slipping into a daydream or guiltily rehashing worries. When you build it into your day deliberately, it can boost your creativity, strengthen your leadership ability, and also-re-energize the brain. To start PCD, you choose a low-key activity such as knitting, gardening or casual reading, then wander into the recesses of your mind. But unlike slipping into a daydream or guilty-dysphoric daydreaming, you might first imagine something playful and wishful—like running through the woods, or lying on a yacht. Then you swivel your attention from the external world to the internal space of your mind with this image in mind while still doing the low-key activity.

Studied for decades by Jerome Singer, PCD activates the DMN and metaphorically changes the silverware that your brain uses to find information. While focused attention is like a fork—picking up obvious conscious thoughtsthat you have, PCD commissions a different set of silverware—a spoon for scooping up the delicious mélange of flavors of your identity (the scent of your grandmother, the feeling of satisfaction with the first bite of apple-pie on a crisp fall day), chopsticks for connecting ideas across your brain (to enhance innovation), and a marrow spoon for getting into the nooks and crannies of your brain to pick up long-lost memories that are a vital part of your identity. In this state, your sense of “self” is enhanced—which, according to Warren Bennis, is the essence of leadership. I call this the psychological center of gravity, a grounding mechanism (part of your mental “six-pack”) that helps you enhance your agility and manage change more effectively too.

Taking a nap: In addition to building in time for PCD, leaders can also consider authorized napping. 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 it’s a creative taskyou have in front of you, you will likely need a full 90 minutes for more complete brain refreshing. Your brain requires this longer time to make more associations, and dredge up ideas that are in the nooks and crannies of your memory network.

Pretending to be someone else: When you’re stuck in a creative process, unfocus may also come to the rescue when you embody and live out an entirely different personality. In 2016, educational psychologists, Denis Dumas and Kevin Dunbar found that people who try to solve creative problems are more successful if they behave like an eccentric poet than a rigid librarian. Given a test in which they have to come up with as many uses as possible for any object (e.g. a brick) those who behave like eccentric poets have superior creative performance. This finding holds even if the same person takes on a different identity.

When in a creative deadlock, try this exercise of embodying a different identity. It will likely get you out of your own head, and allow you to think from another person’s perspective. I call this psychological halloweenism.

For years, focus has been the venerated ability amongst all abilities. Since we spend 46.9% of our days with our minds wandering away from a task at hand, we crave the ability to keep it fixed and on task. Yet, if we built PCD, 10- and 90- minute naps, and psychological halloweenism into our days, we would likely preserve focus for when we need it, and use it much more efficiently too. More importantly, unfocus will allow us to update information in the brain, giving us access to deeper parts of ourselves and enhancing our agility, creativity and decision-making too.


Srini Pillay, M.D. is an executive coach and CEO of NeuroBusiness Group. He is also a technology innovator and entrepreneur in the health and leadership development sectors, and an award-winning author. His latest book is Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind. He is also a part-time Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School and teaches in the Executive Education Programs at Harvard Business School and Duke Corporate Education, and is on internationally recognized think tanks.

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Learning to Learn: You, Too, Can Rewire Your Brain

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Barbara Oakley, a professor at Oakland University in Michigan, in her basement studio where she and her husband created “Learning How to Learn,” the most popular course of all time on Coursera.CreditLaura McDermott for The New York Times

The studio for what is arguably the world’s most successful online course is tucked into a corner of Barb and Phil Oakley’s basement, a converted TV room that smells faintly of cat urine. (At the end of every video session, the Oakleys pin up the green fabric that serves as the backdrop so Fluffy doesn’t ruin it.)

This is where they put together “Learning How to Learn,” taken by more than 1.8 million students from 200 countries, the most ever on Coursera. The course provides practical advice on tackling daunting subjects and on beating procrastination, and the lessons engagingly blend neuroscience and common sense.

Dr. Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., created the class with Terrence Sejnowski, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and with the University of California, San Diego.

Prestigious universities have spent millions and employ hundreds of professionally trained videographers, editors and producers to create their massive open online courses, known as MOOCs. The Oakleys put together their studio with equipment that cost $5,000. They figured out what to buy by Googling “how to set up a green screen studio” and “how to set up studio lighting.” Mr. Oakley runs the camera and teleprompter. She does most of the editing. The course is free ($49 for a certificate of completion — Coursera won’t divulge how many finish).

“It’s actually not rocket science,” said Dr. Oakley — but she’s careful where she says that these days. When she spoke at Harvard in 2015, she said, “the hackles went up”; she crossed her arms sternly by way of grim illustration.

This is home-brew, not Harvard. And it has worked. Spectacularly. The Oakleys never could have predicted their success. Many of the early sessions had to be trashed. “I looked like a deer in the headlights,” Dr. Oakley said. She would flub her lines and moan, “I just can’t do this.” Her husband would say, “Come on. We’re going to have lunch, and we’re going to come right back to this.” But he confessed to having had doubts, too. “We were in the basement, worrying, ‘Is anybody even going to look at this?’”

Dr. Oakley is not the only person teaching students how to use tools drawn from neuroscience to enhance learning. But her popularity is a testament to her skill at presenting the material, and also to the course’s message of hope. Many of her online students are 25 to 44 years old, likely to be facing career changes in an unforgiving economy and seeking better ways to climb new learning curves.

Dr. Oakley’s lessons are rich in metaphor, which she knows helps get complex ideas across. The practice is rooted in the theory of neural reuse, which states that metaphors use the same neural circuits in the brain as the underlying concept does, so the metaphor brings difficult concepts “more rapidly on board,” as she puts it.

She illustrates her concepts with goofy animations: There are surfing zombies, metabolic vampires and an “octopus of attention.” Hammy editing tricks may have Dr. Oakley moving out of the frame to the right and popping up on the left, or cringing away from an animated, disembodied head that she has put on the screen to discuss a property of the brain.

Sitting in the Oakleys’ comfortable living room, with its solid Mission furniture and mementos of their world travels, Dr. Oakley said she believes that just about anyone can train himself to learn. “Students may look at math, for example, and say, ‘I can’t figure this out — it must mean I’m really stupid!’ They don’t know how their brain works.”

Her own feelings of inadequacy give her empathy for students who feel hopeless. “I know the hiccups and the troubles people have when they’re trying to learn something.” After all, she was her own lab rat. “I rewired my brain,” she said, “and it wasn’t easy.”

As a youngster, she was not a diligent student. “I flunked my way through elementary, middle school and high school math and science,” she said. She joined the Army out of high school to help pay for college and received extensive training in Russian at the Defense Language Institute. Once out, she realized she would have a better career path with a technical degree (specifically, electrical engineering), and set out to tackle math and science, training herself to grind through technical subjects with many of the techniques of practice and repetition that she had used to let Russian vocabulary and declension soak in.

Along the way, she met Philip Oakley — in, of all places, Antarctica. It was 1983, and she was working as a radio operator at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. (She has also worked as a translator on a Russian trawler. She’s been around.) Mr. Oakley managed the garage at the station, keeping machinery working under some of the planet’s most punishing conditions.

She had noticed him largely because, unlike so many men at the lonely pole, he hadn’t made any moves on her. “You can be ugly as a toad out there and you are the most popular girl,” she said. She found him “comfortably confident.” After he left a party without even saying hello, she told a friend she’d like to get to know him better. The next day, he was waiting for her at breakfast with a big smile on his face. Three weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, he walked her over to the true South Pole and proposed at the stroke of midnight. A few weeks after that, they were “off the ice” in New Zealand and got married.

Dr. Oakley recounts her journey in both of her best-selling books: “A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra)” and, out this past spring, “Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential.” The new book is about learning new skills, with a focus on career switchers. And yes, she has a MOOC for that, too.

Dr. Oakley is already planning her next book, another guide to learning how to learn but aimed at 10- to 13-year-olds. She wants to tell them, “Even if you are not a superstar learner, here’s how to see the great aspects of what you do have.” She would like to see learning clubs in school to help young people develop the skills they need. “We have chess clubs, we have art clubs,” she said. “We don’t have learning clubs. I just think that teaching kids how to learn is one of the greatest things we can possibly do.

Four Techniques to Help You Learn

FOCUS/DON’T The brain has two modes of thinking that Dr. Oakley simplifies as “focused,” in which learners concentrate on the material, and “diffuse,” a neural resting state in which consolidation occurs — that is, the new information can settle into the brain. (Cognitive scientists talk about task-positive networks and default-mode networks, respectively, in describing the two states.) In diffuse mode, connections between bits of information, and unexpected insights, can occur. That’s why it’s helpful to take a brief break after a burst of focused work.

TAKE A BREAK To accomplish those periods of focused and diffuse-mode thinking, Dr. Oakley recommends what is known as the Pomodoro Technique, developed by one Francesco Cirillo. Set a kitchen timer for a 25-minute stretch of focused work, followed by a brief reward, which includes a break for diffuse reflection. (“Pomodoro” is Italian for tomato — some timers look like tomatoes.) The reward — listening to a song, taking a walk, anything to enter a relaxed state — takes your mind off the task at hand. Precisely because you’re not thinking about the task, the brain can subconsciously consolidate the new knowledge. Dr. Oakley compares this process to “a librarian filing books away on shelves for later retrieval.”

As a bonus, the ritual of setting the timer can also help overcome procrastination. Dr. Oakley teaches that even thinking about doing things we dislike activates the pain centers of the brain. The Pomodoro Technique, she said, “helps the mind slip into focus and begin work without thinking about the work.”

“Virtually anyone can focus for 25 minutes, and the more you practice, the easier it gets.”

PRACTICE “Chunking” is the process of creating a neural pattern that can be reactivated when needed. It might be an equation or a phrase in French or a guitar chord. Research shows that having a mental library of well-practiced neural chunks is necessary for developing expertise.

Practice brings procedural fluency, says Dr. Oakley, who compares the process to backing up a car. “When you first are learning to back up, your working memory is overwhelmed with input.” In time, “you don’t even need to think more than ‘Hey, back up,’ ” and the mind is free to think about other things.

Chunks build on chunks, and, she says, the neural network built upon that knowledge grows bigger. “You remember longer bits of music, for example, or more complex phrases in French.” Mastering low-level math concepts allows tackling more complex mental acrobatics. “You can easily bring them to mind even while your active focus is grappling with newer, more difficult information.”

KNOW THYSELF Dr. Oakley urges her students to understand that people learn in different ways. Those who have “racecar brains” snap up information; those with “hiker brains” take longer to assimilate information but, like a hiker, perceive more details along the way. Recognizing the advantages and disadvantages, she says, is the first step in learning how to approach unfamiliar material.

Your Face Scares Me: Understanding the Hyperrational Adolescent Brain

Take off your snarky hat. Adolescents get a bad rap, says Dr. Daniel Siegel, and he should know. He’s a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center, Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, Executive Director of the American Psychiatric Association, and author of many books, videos, and articles on the mind. Despite his endless awards and titles, Siegel displays in lectures the warm avuncularity of James Taylor in an off-the-rack suit as he urges parents and educators to stop viewing adolescence as a grim and crazed space that kids need to cross through quickly. Why? Because teens will perceive these attitudes and act accordingly.

Siegel’s recent and sobering book, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, relies on recent neurobiology research to explain how the mind works during adolescence, the ages between 12 and 24. It’s not just adding five years onto a ten-year-old’s brain, he says. Teenagers get a whole new brain. More to the point, his book sensibly frames how adolescents’ brain developments and concomitant personality traits serve a grand purpose — preparation to leave the nest.

According to Siegel, there are several unique features of the adolescent mind that deserve the awareness of teachers who “alloparent” (perform parenting duties without technically being a guardian).

Wait 90 Seconds

Fact:

The brain’s emotional system is more active during adolescence than at any other stage of life. So what? Shown a photo of a neutral face, an adult’s reasoning prefrontal cortex is activated, whereas the same photo lights up the emotional amygdala of the teen brain. Consequently adolescents may feel complete conviction that a neutral face is hostile or that an innocent remark is aggressive. It’s the lower limbic system getting braced to face the outside world.

Application:

When a teen over-reacts and blows attitude your way, try not to take it personally. Matching a student’s fire with our own — “Jeremy! Take that attitude outside!” — can escalate the threat level, thereby triggering the adolescent’s “fight, flee, freeze, or faint” response. Instead, wait 90 seconds — the amount of time it takes for spiky emotions to subside. Then say, “I felt some heat back there. Can you name what you were feeling?” Brain studies show that naming emotions activates the prefrontal cortex and calms emotions. So name it to tame it.

I’m So Bored . . . That’s Fantastic!

Fact:

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps to control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Baseline levels of dopamine are lowest during adolescence, but its ecstasy-triggering release in response to “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” and novelty, giggling, texting, chocolate cake, rugby, and risk, is higher than at any other stage of human development. If adolescents didn’t experience such grinding boredom living in mom’s Tribeca brownstone, they’d never leave to major in ecogastronomy, be all they can be, climb Mt. Rainier, and ride a bus for two days to see Deadmau5.

Unfortunately, increased reward drive can lead to what is often incorrectly categorized as impulsivity. A better term would be “hyperrationality,” or examining the facts of a situation and placing more “weight on the calculated benefits of an action than on the potential risks of that action.”

This played out for me in the 1980s when my parents took a trip, leaving me home for the summer. My teen brain decided that eating nothing more than three cups of Rice Krispies with skim milk each day would be a good way to lose weight. I realized this was not a healthy choice, but the benefits and originality of my solution for quickly shedding pounds overrode the headaches, mouth lesions, and two contiguous bouts of strep throat that followed. When my parents returned home, they found me woozy with hunger, and ordered me to eat a PB&J sandwich. I protested for an hour because, duh, my plan was working — and then finally relented.

Application:

Saying “no” does not counter hyperrationality. Scare tactics, admonishments, and medical information didn’t curb teen smoking, says Siegel. “The strategy that worked was to inform them about how the adults who owned the cigarette companies were brainwashing them so they could get their money.” Instead of negatively directing adolescents to abandon their risky plans, Siegel says, respect their goals, and then suggest alternative boundary-pushing actions. Example: “Todd, wanting to modify your appearance is natural, but how about swimming for an hour every day this summer? Most of your friends would find it too challenging, but they’d be impressed by how you accomplished your goal and grew muscle.”

Siegel also recommends having adolescents put their hands on their chest and their stomach to become aware of the neural networks surrounding intestines (“gut feeling”) and the heart (“heartfelt feelings”), and counter hyperrationality with intuition. Ask, “What does your heart and gut tell you about that plan?”

The Holy Grail of Brain Development

Neural integration, linking areas of the brain so that more sophisticated functions emerge, writes Siegel, is the most important concept in brain development. But 98 percent of schools don’t use one of the most effective strategies for achieving this integration, as well as recalibrating adolescents’ emotional reactivity and countering hyperrationality. Through mental trainingfor 12 minutes a day, adolescents can stimulate the growth of myelin sheaths that make their neural networks more efficient. Mental training can also lead to feeling more engaged, receptive, resourceful, and adaptive — ideal traits for learning how to develop resilience and efficacy.

What unique features of teenage brain activity have you experienced at your school?

How Kids Learn Better By Taking Frequent Breaks Throughout The Day

Mind/Shift

Playground
iStock/PetrBonek

Excerpted from Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies For Joyful Classrooms (c) 2017 by Timothy D. Walker. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton. 

Schedule brain breaks

Like a zombie, Sami*—one of my fifth graders—lumbered over to me and hissed, “I think I’m going to explode! I’m not used to this schedule.” And I believed him. An angry red rash was starting to form on his forehead.

Yikes, I thought, what a way to begin my first year of teaching in Finland. It was only the third day of school, and I was already pushing a student to the breaking point. When I took him aside, I quickly discovered why he was so upset.

Throughout this first week of school, I had gotten creative with my fifth grade timetable. If you recall, students in Finland normally take a fifteen-minute break for every forty-five minutes of instruction. During a typical break, the children head outside to play and socialize with friends.

I didn’t see the point of these frequent pit stops. As a teacher in the United States, I’d usually spent consecutive hours with my students in the classroom. And I was trying to replicate this model in Finland. The Finnish way seemed soft, and I was convinced that kids learned better with longer stretches of instructional time. So I decided to hold my students back from their regularly scheduled break and teach two forty-five-minute lessons in a row, followed by a double break of thirty minutes. Now I knew why the red dots had appeared on Sami’s forehead.

Come to think of it, I wasn’t sure if the American approach had ever worked very well. My students in the States had always seemed to drag their feet after about forty-five minutes in the classroom. But they’d never thought of revolting like this shrimpy Finnish fifth grader, who was digging in his heels on the third day of school. At that moment, I decided to embrace the Finnish model of taking breaks.

Once I incorporated these short recesses into our timetable, I no longer saw feet-dragging, zombie-like kids in my classroom. Throughout the school year, my Finnish students would, without fail, enter the classroom with a bounce in their steps after a fifteen-minute break. And most important, they were more focused during lessons.

At first I was convinced that I had made a groundbreaking discovery: frequent breaks kept students fresh throughout the day. But then I remembered that Finns have known this for years—they’ve been providing breaks to their students since the 1960s.

Teach Like Finland

In my quest to understand the value of the Finnish practice, I stumbled upon the work of Anthony Pellegrini, author of the book Recess: Its Role in Education and Development and emeritus professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota—who has praised this approach for more than a decade. In East Asia, where many primary schools provide their students with a ten-minute break after about forty minutes of classroom instruction, Pellegrini observed the same phenomenon that I had witnessed at my Finnish school. After these shorter recesses, students appeared to be more focused in the classroom (Pellegrini, 2005).

Not satisfied with anecdotal evidence alone, Pellegrini and his colleagues ran a series of experiments at a U.S. public elementary school to explore the relationship between recess timing and attentiveness in the classroom. In every one of the experiments, students were more attentive after a break than before a break. They also found that the children were less focused when the timing of the break was delayed—or in other words, when the lesson dragged on (Pellegrini, 2005).

In Finland, primary school teachers seem to know this intuitively. They send kids outside—rain or shine—for their frequent recesses. And the children get to decide how they spend their break times.

Although I favor the Finnish model, I realize that unleashing fifth graders on the playground every hour would be a huge shift for most schools. According to Pellegrini, breaks don’t have to be held outdoors to be beneficial. In one of his experiments at a public elementary school, the children had their recess times inside the school, and the results matched those of other experiments where they took their breaks outside: after their breaks, the students were more focused in class (Pellegrini, 2005).

What I realized in Finland, with the help of a flustered fifth grader, is that once I started to see a break as a strategy to maximize learning, I stopped feeling guilty about shortening classroom instruction. Pellegrini’s findings confirm that frequent breaks boost attentiveness in class. With this in mind, we no longer need to fear that students won’t learn what they need to learn if we let them disconnect from their work several times throughout the school day.

The year before I arrived in Helsinki, the American researcher and kinesiologist Debbie Rhea visited Finnish schools, and she, too, was inspired by their frequent fifteen-minute breaks. When she returned to the States, she piloted a study to evaluate the learning benefits of a Finland-inspired schedule with multiple recesses throughout the school day (Turner, 2013).

Today, Rhea’s research project is up and running in a handful of American schools in several states, and so far the early results have been promising. Educators at Eagle Mountain Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas, report a significant change in their students, who receive four fifteen-minute breaks each day; for example, they are more focused, and they are not tattling as often. One first grade teacher even noticed that her students are no longer chewing on pencils (Connelly, 2016).

Rhea’s research is exciting, and it seems like the national interest in bringing more breaks to American schools is high. However, while the tide might be changing in American education, many U.S. teachers and students lack the freedom to imitate the Finnish model. Thankfully, any classroom, even non-Finnish ones, can tap into the benefits of taking multiple breaks throughout each day.

Author Timothy Walker
Author Timothy Walker (David Popa)

Initially, I thought that the true value of Finnish-style breaks is related to free play, but I no longer hold this view. I’ve concluded that the primary benefit of Finnish breaks is in the way it keeps kids focused by refreshing their brains. Daniel Levitin, professor of psychology, behavioral neuroscience, and music at McGill University, believes that giving the brain time to rest, through regular breaks, leads to greater productivity and creativity. “You need to give your brain time to consolidate all the information that’s come in,” he said in an interview for the education blog MindShift (Schwartz, 2014). But even without scheduled breaks at school, the mind rests naturally through daydreaming, which “allows you to refresh and release all those neural circuits that get all bound up when you’re focused,” said Levitin. “Children shouldn’t be overly scheduled. They should have blocks of time to promote spontaneity and creativity” (Schwartz, 2014).

There are different ways of offering little brain breaks, which I describe below, but one of the most important things to remember is that they need to happen regularly to benefit our students. In other words, it’s wise to schedule them throughout the day. A good start, perhaps, would be thinking about offering a whole-group brain break for every forty-five minutes of classroom instruction—just like many Finnish teachers. But even that timing could be too infrequent for your students. What’s important is that you watch your students carefully. If they seem to be dragging their feet before the forty-five-minute mark, it would seem beneficial to offer a brain break right away.

Timothy D. Walker is an American teacher and writer living in Finland. He has written extensively about his experiences for Education Week Teacher, Educational Leadership, and on his blog, Taught by Finland. While working at a Helsinki public school, he completed his teaching practicum and received his master’s degree in elementary education from the United States. He is a contributing writer on education issues for The Atlantic.

*The names used for students in this book are pseudonyms.

Why Kids Shouldn’t Sit Still in Class

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Third- and fourth-graders at Breakthrough Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., participating in a BrainErgizer movement break during the school day. CreditBrainErgizer

Sit still. It’s the mantra of every classroom.

But that is changing as evidence builds that taking brief activity breaks during the day helps children learn and be more attentive in class, and a growing number of programs designed to promote movement are being adopted in schools.

“We need to recognize that children are movement-based,” said Brian Gatens, the superintendent of schools in Emerson, N.J. “In schools, we sometimes are pushing against human nature in asking them to sit still and be quiet all the time.”

“We fall into this trap that if kids are at their desks with their heads down and are silent and writing, we think they are learning,” Mr. Gatens added. “But what we have found is that the active time used to energize your brain makes all those still moments better,” or more productive.

A 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine concluded that children who are more active “show greater attention, have faster cognitive processing speed and perform better on standardized academic tests than children who are less active.” And a study released in January by Lund University in Sweden shows that students, especially boys, who had daily physical education, did better in school.

“Daily physical activity is an opportunity for the average school to become a high-performing school,” said Jesper Fritz, a doctoral student at Lund University and physician at the Skane University Hospital in Malmo who was the study’s lead author.

“Activity helps the brain in so many ways,” said James F. Sallis, a professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California, San Diego, who has done research on the association between activity breaks and classroom behavior. “Activity stimulates more blood vessels in the brain to support more brain cells. And there is evidence that active kids do better on standardized tests and pay attention more in school.”

John Ratey, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” said: “Movement activates all the brain cells kids are using to learn, it wakes up the brain.”

“Plus,” he added, “it makes kids want to come to school more — it’s fun to do these activities.”

But not all districts are embracing the trend of movement breaks.

“The bottom line is that with only six and a half hours during the day, our priority is academics,” said Tom Hernandez, the director of community relations for the Plainfield School District in Illinois, about 40 miles southwest of Chicago. He said that under state law, the schools provide daily physical education classes and that teachers in the district find ways to give students time during the day to refresh and recharge.

“Kids aren’t meant to sit still all day and take in information,” said Steve Boyle, one of the co-founders of the National Association of Physical Literacy, which aims to bring movement into schools. “Adults aren’t wired that way either.”

Mr. Boyle’s association has introduced a series of three- to five-minute videos called “BrainErgizers” that are being used in schools and Boys and Girls Clubs in 15 states and in Canada, Mexico, Ireland and Australia, he said. A version of the program is available to schools at no charge.

The program is designed so that three to five times a day, teachers can set aside a few minutes for their students to watch a video and follow the cues given by the instructors. In one typical video, the instructors are college students of all shapes and sizes at the University of Connecticut who do a quick warm-up and then lead kids through a mini workout involving movements from several sports: baseball, basketball and a triathlon. That’s followed by a cool-down.

“At the end of the week, kids have gotten an hour or more worth of movement, and it’s all done in the classroom with no special equipment,” Mr. Boyle said. “We’re not looking to replace gym classes, we’re aiming to give kids more minutes of movement per week. And by introducing sports into the videos, giving kids a chance to try sports they may not have ever tried before.”

Julie Goldstein, principal of the Breakthrough Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., said her school has been using BrainErgizers since the spring of 2015.

It’s easy for the teachers to implement, and “easy for the students to follow,” Mrs. Goldstein said. She said the program has “helped them focus and bring up their energy level in the classroom.”

Scott McQuigg, chief executive and a co-founder of GoNoodle, a classroom movement program used in more than 60,000 elementary schools in the United States credits Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative with helping to bring movement and the health of children into the public consciousness.

“We call this the Movement movement,” Mr. McQuigg said. “If we invest three to five minutes for our kids to move in the classroom, we are actually going to optimize the next 45 minutes for learning. That small investment in time has such a big yield for teachers.”

GoNoodle, which offers free and paid videos, aims to entertain kids while they are moving, Mr. McQuigg said. GoNoodle and other “brain break” videos can be found on the website for “Let’s Move! Active Schools,” part of Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative.

“We have purposely not gone after this as an exercise program,” Mr. McQuigg said. “This is a digital generation that expects to be entertained, and we think we can do more good around getting them to move if they are entertained.”

For example, GoNoodle videos have kids running alongside their desks through a virtual obstacle course or following along with dance moves.

Joseph E. Donnelly, professor of medicine and director of the Center for Physical Activity and Weight Management at the University of Kansas Medical Center, said one of the good things about kids being more physically active in classrooms is that everyone is moving at the same time.

“In physical education classes, there is a lot of standing around, a lot of minutes of kids waiting to do an activity, and sometimes kids are only moving for about 15 minutes during a 50-minute class,” said Dr. Donnelly, who co-authored a statement on the effects of physical activity and academic achievement in children that was published last year by the American College of Sports Medicine. “If you do movement in class a few times a day, that can add up to at least an extra 60 minutes more of movement per week.”

Lindsay DiStefano, an associate professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut, said the country is due for a major shift toward appreciating the benefits of physical activity in the classroom.

“In 1961, President Kennedy said school kids needed physical activity to thrive, but in the past 20 years, the pendulum has totally shifted the opposite way because schools are feeling the pressure to have students do well on standardized tests,” Ms. DiStefano said. “We are not thinking about the child as an entire person, how physical activity helps them cope with the stresses of school and actually benefits them in the classroom.”

When Was the Last Time You Took On a New Challenge?

Each January brings a renewed desire to challenge ourselves and learn something new. But by February the energy starts to wane. Becoming proficient at something takes too much time, we lose motivation to practice, we struggle to pay attention in class after a long day at work — the list of reasons goes on.

I recently came across some motivation to stick with a new pursuit. A few weeks ago I read an article in the New York Times about “superagers,” people who function at extremely high levels (academically, professionally, and physically) well into their eighties. Their performance on tests of memory and concentration is comparable to people one-third their age.

All the superagers engaged in difficult physical and mental tasks, such as tennis or bridge, regularly. By pushing themselves into challenging efforts that were outside their comfort zones, rather than engaging in leisurely activities, as others their age did, the superagers seemed to enhance their attention and memory skills. When researchers scanned the brains of 17 superagers, they found unusually large amounts of activity in parts of the brain tied to emotional functioning, including communication, stress management, and sensory coordination. Additional studies are being done to determine which difficult tasks could be the most beneficial for cognitive abilities, but the scientists suggest that mastering a new skill could have the same positive effect on brain development.

I surveyed 260 CEOs and executives in for-profit and nonprofit sectors to find out whether they had recently undertaken a new pursuit. I wanted to learn if they saw any impact on their overall well-being, professionally or personally. 53% of the responses were from men and 47% were from women.

The majority (60%) of respondents reported that they had begun a new challenge in the past two years. The most common pursuit was a sport or a physical activity (38% of people). The other top responses were: starting a new work-related project (11%), studying something new (10%), and teaching or writing (10%). Other options, including playing music, creating art, and playing games such as bridge, were cited by 8% of people. And 34% reported devoting 10 hours or more a week to their new activity.

All respondents found their new endeavor “hard,” but half of them characterized it as “mentally” challenging, while the other half called it either physically challenging or a combined mental and physical effort. Two-thirds rated the difficulty as outside their comfort zone.

When asked how the new activity was impacting their lives, most people said it was positive. 88% of the survey group reported experiencing a beneficial impact. More than half the respondents considered the impact on their work life to be positive, and 83% said that the new activity had improved their well-being. Only 11% admitted to being slightly less productive at work due to their new activity, while 52% reported being more productive.

As to the effect of their pursuits on their relationships, 34% felt it benefited their relationships with colleagues. The majority reported that through their endeavor they had met people with whom they might work with professionally in the future.

I asked if this effort helped them develop a better understanding of their job. While 42% said there was no effect, 58% felt that they had gained a better understanding of or appreciation for their professional role. Some of the benefits related to their own well-being, to acquiring new technical skills, or to spending time with colleagues outside of work.

Other research has shown that learning something hard can help expand our creativity. And although it seems unlikely that swimming an open water race or learning to paint would help in one’s job of writing software or managing employees, the broader benefits of pushing ourselves may be positive for colleague relationships, productivity, and task comprehension. Plus, acquiring new skills is enjoyable.

So, if you are considering giving up on your latest effort at self-improvement because it’s just too hard or you don’t have enough time, these survey results might offer a new incentive to stick with it. Even the respondents who had not embarked on a new activity seemed to perceive a benefit – over 26% said they would likely begin one next year.


Karen Firestone is the President and CEO of Aureus Asset Management, an asset management firm which serves as the primary financial advisor to families, individuals, and nonprofit institutions. She cofounded Aureus after 22 years as a fund manager and research analyst at Fidelity Investments. She’s the author of Even the Odds: Sensible Risk-Taking in Business, Investing, and Life (Bibliomotion, April 2016).


Try Monotasking

Stop what you’re doing.

Well, keep reading. Just stop everything else that you’re doing.

Mute your music. Turn off your television. Put down your sandwich and ignore that text message. While you’re at it, put your phone away entirely. (Unless you’re reading this on your phone. In which case, don’t. But the other rules still apply.)

Just read.

You are now monotasking.

Maybe this doesn’t feel like a big deal. Doing one thing at a time isn’t a new idea.

Indeed, multitasking, that bulwark of anemic résumés everywhere, has come under fire in recent years. A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that interruptions as brief as two to three seconds — which is to say, less than the amount of time it would take you to toggle from this article to your email and back again — were enough to double the number of errors participants made in an assigned task.

Earlier research out of Stanford revealed that self-identified “high media multitaskers” are actually more easily distracted than those who limit their time toggling.

So, in layman’s terms, by doing more you’re getting less done.

But monotasking, also referred to as single-tasking or unitasking, isn’t just about getting things done.

Not the same as mindfulness, which focuses on emotional awareness, monotasking is a 21st-century term for what your high school English teacher probably just called “paying attention.”

“It’s a digital literacy skill,” said Manoush Zomorodi, the host and managing editor of WNYC Studios’ “Note to Self” podcast, which recently offered a weeklong interactive series called Infomagical, addressing the effects of information overload. “Our gadgets and all the things we look at on them are designed to not let us single-task. We weren’t talking about this before because we simply weren’t as distracted.”

Ms. Zomorodi prefers the term “single-tasking”: “ ‘Monotasking’ seemed boring to me. It sounds like ‘monotonous.’ ”

Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist, lecturer at Stanford and the author of “The Willpower Instinct,” believes that monotasking is “something that needs to be practiced.” She said: “It’s an important ability and a form of self-awareness as opposed to a cognitive limitation.”

This is great news for the self-identified monotaskers out there.

Jon Pack, a 42-year-old photographer in Brooklyn, was happy to hear that his single-minded manner might be undergoing a rebrand. “When I was looking for jobs and interviewing, they’d always want me to say, ‘I’m a great multitasker,’ ” he said. “And I wouldn’t. My inability to multitask was seen as a negative. Now I can just say, ‘I am a monotasker. I am someone who works best when I focus on one thing at a time.’ ”

And the way we work can have effects that kick in long after we clock out.

As much as people would like to believe otherwise, humans have finite neural resources that are depleted every time we switch between tasks, which, especially for those who work online, Ms. Zomorodi said, can happen upward of 400 times a day, according to a 2016 University of California, Irvine study. “That’s why you feel tired at the end of the day,” she said. “You’ve used them all up.”

The term “brain dead” suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.

A good sign you’ve task-switched yourself into a stupor: mindlessly scrolling Facebook at the end of the night or, as in Ms. Zomorodi’s case, looking at couches on Pinterest. “I just stuff my brain full of them because I can’t manage to do anything else,” she said. “The sad thing is that I don’t get any closer to deciding which one I like.”

But monotasking can also make work itself more enjoyable.

“I can multitask — and do, of course; it’s kind of essential — but I prefer to do one thing at a time,” Hayley Phelan, a 28-year-old writer, wrote in an email. “If I keep looking at my phone or my inbox or various websites, working feels a lot more tortuous. When I’m focused and making progress, work is actually pleasurable.”

Ms. Phelan isn’t imagining things. “Almost any experience is improved by paying full attention to it,” Ms. McGonigal said. “Attention is one way your brain decides, ‘Is this interesting? Is this worthwhile? Is this fun?’ ”

It’s the reason television shows we tweet through feel tiresome and books we pick up and put down and pick up again never seem to end. The more we allow ourselves to be distracted from a particular activity, the more we feel the need to be distracted. Paying attention pays dividends.

This is why, according to Ms. McGonigal, the ability to monotask might be most valuable in social situations. “Research shows that just having a phone on the table is sufficiently distracting to reduce empathy and rapport between two people who are in conversation,” she said.

Twenty-five thousand people participated in Ms. Zomorodi’s Infomagical project, which started the week with a single-tasking challenge. Upon completion, respondents agreed overwhelmingly that single-tasking was the No. 1 thing they wanted to carry into their post-Infomagical lives. “But they also said it was really, really hard,” Ms. Zomorodi said.

Parents of young children found it difficult for obvious reasons, as did people with jobs that permit them less control over their time. In those cases, try monotasking in areas where you can: conversations with your children, reading a book in bed before they go to sleep, dinner or drinks with friends. After all, monotasking is a good skill to incorporate into all aspects of your life, not just work.

Even those with more flexibility can find themselves going to great lengths for a little bit of focus. Nick Pandolfi, who works in partnerships at Google, once traveled to northern Sweden in what he described as an “extreme” effort to monotask.

“I had to write my business school application essays, and I was having no luck spending an hour here and there after work and on the weekends,” Mr. Pandolfi said. “I just wasn’t inspired. After spending a few days hiking in the Arctic by myself, I was able to get all of them done in just a few days.”

Transcontinental trips aside, Ms. Zomorodi stressed that it was important to find ways to practice. “Start by giving yourself just one morning a week to check in, and remind yourself what it feels like to do one thing at a time,” she said.

Mr. Pandolfi and Ms. Phelan use exercise to aid them, albeit in different ways. “If I need to get through a big project and don’t want to get distracted by my inbox and the minutiae of the web, I hop on the treadmill desk,” Mr. Pandolfi said. Ms. Phelan makes a point of running outside, weekly, “without listening to music or anything else.”

Monotasking can also be as simple as having a conversation.

“Practice how you listen to people,” Ms. McGonigal said. “Put down anything that’s in your hands and turn all of your attentional channels to the person who is talking. You should be looking at them, listening to them, and your body should be turned to them. If you want to see a benefit from monotasking, if you want to have any kind of social rapport or influence on someone, that’s the place to start. That’s where you’ll see the biggest payoff.”

So is monotasking a movement? “It’s not there yet,” Ms. Zomorodi said. “But I think it will be.”

If enough people pay attention to it, that is.