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Strategic Thinking


Who’s in the Driving Seat of Your Attention and Communication?

Posted by Annie Armit on 11/02/17 14:31
Annie Armit

In the workplace you used to measure how free you were to focus on the situation at hand in the obvious sense of time in the diary. You then demanded delivery from yourself every time and equally applied judgement to yourself as to how efficient you were being. The diary was the hard task master and hopefully you generally found you measured up well.

How then has this proficiency slipped away? You blame lack of time, but time is, as it ever was, simply a measurement of how long things take. An hour is still sixty minutes!

So what has happened for you as a leader, consistently finding yourself behind the curve, wondering how to get back on top?

Today the simplicity of a space in the diary, or even an appointment allocated to something or someone no longer affords the luxury of certain accomplishment. This is due to the evolution of ways of communicating that now place incredible demands on your brain. The multi media approach is considered to be progress, and is, without doubt, evidence of success in terms of technology’s advance.

However, there is an absolutely vital component that has been left unconsidered in the development of all of these technologies — the cost to you as a human being. Just because hardware or software can achieve something, it doesn’t necessarily mean your brain’s natural architectural function is also optimised by it.

How often in the overwhelming pace of today’s business week do you find yourself noticing that focus is simply not there? That thoughts lack clarity and inspiration seems to have taken a holiday? This is often compounded by a consequent internally felt sense of pressure arising as you notice this, which in extreme cases leads to the tightening of a noose of disappointment as you search fruitlessly for a way to pull the rabbit out of the hat.

There is a sound neuroscience-based reason for this difficulty. Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT exposed the illusion of this, saying:

“Don’t try to multitask. It ruins productivity, causes mistakes, and impedes creative thought. Many of you are probably thinking, “but I’m good at it!”. Sadly, that’s an illusion. As humans we have a very limited capacity for simultaneous thought — we can only hold a little bit of information in the mind at any single moment.”

(Source: Earl Miller, Fortune Magazine, Tools of the Trade, December 2016)

He goes on to explain:

“Our brains, however, delude us into thinking we can do more. To understand how this happens, it helps think about how we physically see the world. Barring visual impairments, we perceive our surrounds via video camera- like, wide-angle lens. Or at least that’s how it seems. In reality, our eyes are constantly darting around, 3–4 times per second, taking in our surroundings in snippets. The end looks like one image, but that’s just because our brains paper these individual pieces together to create a complete picture.”

Source: Earl Miller, Fortune Magazine, Tools of the Trade, December 2016

He confirms that the same is true for multitasking which can often feel seamless, but nevertheless requires endless shifts, using valuable mental energy in the process.

The decrease in creativity is a further hidden cost and this is, of course, an essential ingredient in the innovative approach to business and challenge, needed by any successful leader of an organisation.

Success in business requires linking efforts with a coherent strategy. This includes a very personal strategy around your use of your attention and engagement with communication.

Incredibly important then, is to realise the insidious aspect to this problem:

“ Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can over stimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking.

Multitasking creates a dopamine-addition feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new — the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens…

[T]he very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted.”

(Source: Daniel J Levitin: Why the Modern World is Bad for your Brain, 2015.)

So it is vital to be both self-aware and well-informed about the reality of how you work as a person and I invite you to take a long, hard look at how you currently pay attention, to how you work with telephone calls, texts, emails and social media posts.

In all human experience it is important to remember that reality is the field as perceived, and that you need to drive each of the vehicles, real and metaphorical, that you use in your life, including attention and interaction with communication. If you let these drive you, you will find them relentless task masters that have no care for whether there is fuel in your tank, whether your tyres are burning hot or your temperature gauge red lining.

Here are a few simple ways to begin to take charge, taking into account the above:

  1. Take a realistic view of the time needed for that which you wish to achieve and put that time in the diary. If it is allocated time then it already occupies that space before you get to it and you are consequently more relaxed in the run up to the task. Less stress, more certainty, enhances a confident starting point and a sense of manageability.
  2. Recognise the magpie lure of new information and turn off ALL media that are not essential to the task at hand whilst you complete it.Remember that all forms of communication are there to serve you and not the other way round. You may consciously know this, but your brain doesn’t.
  3. Take regular breaks and move around. Movement is essential to the body and long periods sat down, shut you down. Movement will quickly increase blood flow to the brain.

This is an opportunity to see and understand why you have been struggling, to take overwhelm off the agenda of self-blame, to breathe again and have more respect for the amazing brain that you have. It simply requires you to respect it’s function in order to optimise it.

This also empowers you for a new more energised approach to the demands of your day.

I personally find some classical music (or whatever your [non-frenetic] personal preference may be) playing quietly in the background can enhance my creativity and calms distracted thinking.

This works with the brain and plays (no pun intended) to the strength and reality of the unconscious attention system that shifts focus towards that which is picked up by the senses. It provides input that doesn’t distract, supporting my conscious focus on the task at hand.

In this environment it is ironically the sound of telephones, emails and social media posts arriving that seem to intrude. They literally jar both ear and focus, a reminder perhaps that they are demanding my attention, careless of my intent, and that I need to choose wisely that which I allow, and when, into the precious, creative space of my working day.

If the prospect of working in harmony with yourself to create personal leadership resonates, do please feel free to get in touch.

Topics: Self-awareness, Mental Health, Productivity, Time Management, Emotional Intelligence, Founder-led

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