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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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).


If You’re Not Outside Your Comfort Zone, You Won’t Learn Anything

Harvard Business Review

JULY 29, 2016
You need to speak in public, but your knees buckle even before you reach the podium. You want to expand your network, but you’d rather swallow nails than make small talk with strangers. Speaking up in meetings would further your reputation at work, but you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. Situations like these — ones that are important professionally, but personally terrifying — are, unfortunately, ubiquitous. An easy response to these situations is avoidance. Who wants to feel anxious when you don’t have to?

But the problem, of course, is that these tasks aren’t just unpleasant; they’re also necessary. As we grow and learn in our jobs and in our careers, we’re constantly faced with situations where we need to adapt our behavior. It’s simply a reality of the world we work in today. And without the skill and courage to take the leap, we can miss out on important opportunities for advancement. How can we as professionals stop building our lives around avoiding these unpleasant, but professionally beneficial, tasks?

First, be honest with yourself. When you turned down that opportunity to speak at a big industry conference, was it really because you didn’t have the time, or were you scared to step on a stage and present? And when you didn’t confront that coworker who had been undermining you, was it really because you felt he would eventually stop, or was it because you were terrified of conflict? Take an inventory of the excuses you tend to make about avoiding situations outside your comfort zone and ask yourself if they are truly legitimate. If someone else offered you those same excuses about their behavior, would you see these as excuses or legitimate reasons to decline? The answer isn’t always clear, but you’ll never be able to overcome inaction without being honest about your motives in the first place.

Then, make the behavior your own. Very few people struggle in every single version of a formidable work situation. You might have a hard time making small talk generally, but find it easier if the topic is something you know a lot about. Or you may have a hard time networking, except when it’s in a really small setting.

Recognize these opportunities and take advantage — don’t chalk this variability up to randomness. For many years, I’ve worked with people struggling to step outside their comfort zones at work and in everyday life, and what I’ve found is that we often have much more leeway than we believe to make these tasks feel less loathsome. We can often find a way to tweak what we have to do to make it palatable enough to perform by sculpting situations in a way that minimizes discomfort. For example, if you’re like me and get queasy talking with big groups during large, noisy settings, find a quiet corner of that setting to talk, or step outside into the hallway or just outside the building. If you hate public speaking and networking events, but feel slightly more comfortable in small groups, look for opportunities to speak with smaller groups or set up intimate coffee meetings with those you want to network with.

Finally, take the plunge. In order to step outside your comfort zone, you have to do it, even if it’s uncomfortable. Put mechanisms in place that will force you to dive in, and you might discover that what you initially feared isn’t as bad as you thought.

For example, I have a history of being uncomfortable with public speaking. In graduate school I took a public speaking class and the professor had us deliver speeches — using notes — every class. Then, after the third or fourth class, we were told to hand over our notes and to speak extemporaneously. I was terrified, as was everyone else in the course, but you know what? It actually worked. I did just fine, and so did everyone else. In fact, speaking without notes ended up being much more effective, making my speaking more natural and authentic. But without this mechanism of forcing me into action, I might never have taken the plunge.

Start with small steps. Instead of jumping right into speaking at an industry event, sign up for a public speaking class. Instead of speaking up in the boardroom, in front of your most senior colleagues, start by speaking up in smaller meetings with peers to see how it feels. And while you’re at it, see if you can recruit a close friend or colleague to offer advice and encouragement in advance of a challenging situation.

You may stumble, but that’s OK. In fact, it’s the only way you’ll learn, especially if you can appreciate that missteps are an inevitable — and in fact essential — part of the learning process. In the end, even though we might feel powerless in situations outside our comfort zone, we have more power than we think. So, give it a go. Be honest with yourself, make the behavior your own, and take the plunge. My guess is you’ll be pleased at having given yourself the opportunity to grow, learn, and expand your professional repertoire.


Andy Molinsky is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. His forthcoming book, Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence is to be published by Penguin Random House in January 2017. For more information visit andymolinsky.com and follow Andy on Twitter @andymolinsky.

Slow Deciders Make Better Strategists

Harvard Business Review

JULY 08, 2016

There are many ways to split people into two groups. Young and old. Rich and poor. Us and them. The 98% who can do arithmetic and the 3% who cannot. Those who split people into two groups and those who don’t.

Then there’s the people who make good competitive-strategy decisions, and those who don’t.

It’s not easy to split people into the good/bad strategy decision-makers. Track records are useful but they’re not unambiguous, and those getting started have no track records at all. General intelligence and business degrees seem to be good signs, but smart people with business degrees don’t agree on what works in strategy. Veterans with specific industry expertise look promising, but so do outsiders with new ideas.

What about mindset? We know people put credence in confidence. However, it seems to me there’s a difference between someone who’s confident after laboring over a thoughtful decision and someone who’s confident with a snap judgment. It seems to me there’s a difference between someone who’s unsure after serious contemplation and someone who’s unsure about a quick pick.

Imagine that we can record decision-makers’ solutions to a competitive-strategy problem. We also ask how confident they feel that they’ve found a good answer and how long it took them to find it. We can categorize them, then, like this:

W160623_CHUSSIL_FOURSTYLES

I’ve got such a database of people, those who have entered the Top Pricer Tournament. The database includes business executives, consultants, professors, and students. I gave all of them the same unfamiliar but straightforward pricing-strategy problem.

Dozens of Tournament entrants said they were very confident in their strategies after making a fast decision, dozens said they were very confident after a slow decision, and so on. The phrases in the boxes are how I interpret the mindsets of the people in those boxes. In the analysis below I’ll leave out the respondents in the “I guessed” box because they seem unrepresentative of what happens in real life, where strategists work at strategy decisions until they’re confident in their answers or they’ve worked long enough to conclude they’re not going to make further progress.

In general, the I-already-knows, confident in their snap judgments, and the Now-I-knows, confident after pondering, tend to be older males. Male business students are also represented in the I-already-knows. The I-don’t-knows, unsure of their thoughtful decisions, tend to be somewhat younger. And females make up well over half of the I-don’t-knows, a much higher percentage than in the other mindsets.

Make your prediction: which of the three styles selected the best-performing Tournament strategies?

The best-performing group: the I-don’t-knows.

Perhaps it’s about age: we gain confidence over time, but maybe not skill. Perhaps it’s about gender: rather than the conventional wisdom that females don’t have enough confidence, maybe males have too much. I don’t have enough data yet to assess those hypotheses. And perhaps the results will change as the sample sizes grow.

Still, the I-don’t-knows’ success fits my business war-gaming experience.

In one case, the new vice president of a troubled business brought together about thirty managers, each with decades in the business. The managers considered the war game an amusing waste of time. They all knew the answer already, they said, and no other options were possible. Then, role-playing their business and its competitors, they discovered that their already-known answer simply would not work. The manag­ers suddenly found new options. We war-gamed one, and it worked, and they rolled it out in real life, and it worked. The new VP got promoted.

It’s not that the managers didn’t care or were incompetent; it’s that they were overconfident. When you think you know the answer, you sincerely believe it’s a waste of time to keep looking for it. It feels like continuing to search for your keys after you’ve found them.

I think the essential lesson for competitive-strategy decision-makers is not so fast, in both senses of the phrase: take your time and don’t be so sure. That’s the mindset used by the new VP and the I-don’t-knows.

The willingness to apply that mindset is what separates the good decision-makers from the bad.

Author note: I’d like to expand the Tournament database. I offer use of the Tournament in confidence and at no charge to faculty in business schools and executive-education programs, and to facilitators at corporate universi­ties and management-development programs. Please contact me at TopPricer@DecisionTournaments.com.

Mark Chussil is the Founder and CEO of Advanced Competitive Strategies, Inc. He has conducted business war games, taught strategic thinking, and written strategy simulators for Fortune 500 companies around the world.