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Resiliency Habit #4: Brain Fitness: Mental Focus

Posted Nov 23rd, 2018

9 Habits of Resilience for Highly Effective Leaders:

  1. Building Commitment to Ourselves
  2. Physical Fitness
  3. Brain Fitness: Stilling the mind, developing patience
  4. Brain Fitness: Focusing the mind
  5. Knowing Our Purpose
  6. Integrative thinking
  7. Daily Reflection
  8. Personal Operating Principles
  9. Building and Maintaining Networks | Coming Soon!

Habit #4 Brain Fitness: Mental Focus

“Attention is like money; if we don’t watch how we spend it, we waste it.” - Edward Hallowell

  • When is your mind tired?
  • When is it at its most alert, incisive, creative?
  • How do you test for this?
  • What distracts you?
  • What prevents you?
  • What is the cost to you? your team? your organization?
  • What do you currently do to optimize the alert times and allow for the fuzzy times?

The objective of planning and prioritizing is to program ourselves and our brains to let the automatic functions located in the cerebellum to take over repetitive tasks and free up your frontal lobes to do the more creative and complex problem solving. More and more of the work we are called upon to do in today’s economy cannot be done by rote. It requires analysis, risk assessment, collaboration, foresight and creativity. It therefore requires a spark of energy, innovation and effort.

Do you hold yourself as responsible for creating this spark as you do for meeting a deliverable result? You should. In our global, complex, matrixed environments we need to understand and influence a lot of people we don’t know well, all of whom have competing priorities and limited resources. So success depends not only on tactical results and meeting of commitments; true success depends on mental agility, adaptability, resilience and creativity. How can we cultivate it?

Our current reality is that we are faced with a glut of stimuli, data and communications. Thus a very critical leadership skill is to sort out what really matters, to see the whole picture and think through its implications and possibilities. Now Neuroscience, through the use of the functional MRI, can teach us a great deal about how to create this kind of optimal brain functioning and shows what pulls us off course. In an earlier blog, I spoke of the ultradian rhythms which our bodies undergo in 90 – 120 minute cycles. fMRI studies show that in the midst of each cycle, the frontal lobes or problem solving centre of the brain, are functioning well if distractions are being controlled .And if do an alternate activity to rest this centre every 2 hours or so, our ability to think improves exponentially, as does our productivity. If instead we allow the ping of an incoming email to receive our attention, it takes 2.5 minutes to restore our concentration.

In this culture, we have a tendency to drive ourselves hard to solutions, decisions and outcomes driven by data, rather than taking the time to study the data, to think about what has been gathered, to let it suggest possibilities and patterns, and to let imagination and innovation roll new ideas into our consciousness. This kind of thinking yields extraordinary results. Biographies of people like Einstein and General William Slim teach us that they did not create brilliance by sitting at their desks pushing data. Instead, they varied their pace of hurrying and studying with lingering. General Slim led the Allied war effort in Burma during the Second World War, and kept the Japanese out of India. His methods were considered unique in that he listened to reports in the morning, rested and reflected in the afternoon, and executed strategy in the evening, both of military maneuvers and health care measures for his men, since the climate killed more soldiers than combat did. He was a thoughtful leader and was rewarded accordingly.

What separates the great innovator from the mere data gatherer is the ability to stop gathering the data and instead to reflect on the data already collected. They use their powers of imagination and creativity to roll new ideas into consciousness. In first year university, I was fortunate enough to have Bill Glassco as my English Literature professor. We were studying the classics. My first essay was on Beowolf and he gave me an F with the explanation that I was simply regurgitating the text and critics and had not presented a single unique thought. He challenged me with writing my next essay without a single reference. And wouldn’t you know, the topic was Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”.

I struggled through that assignment and he rewarded my less-than-stellar synthesis with an A, thus teaching me the value of individual thought. Self-made millionaires are found to be four times more likely than the rest of the population to be dyslexic (Charlotte Fill 2003 ) and they think only with the right brain. Because they are unable to analyze particulars, they compensate by becoming adept at recognizing patterns and this puts them ahead of market trends. We all need to leave our left brain analytic thinking preference at times and actively engage the holistic thinking of the right brain.

Daniel Pink in his book “A Whole New Mind” talks about success in this century depending on high concept and high touch. High concept involves the ability to create artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine unrelated ideas into a novel invention. He advises us to cultivate thinking practices such as synthesis; to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields; to detect broad patterns rather than deliver specific answers; and to invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to pair. These practices require curiosity, concentrated mental focus, no interruptions, and a commitment to the value of such thinking.

How does one set oneself up for success to create thinking practices?

  • get 8 hours sleep
  • take vitamin B and fatty acid supplements
  • balance protein, carbohydrates and fat so that your insulin does not yo-yo all day causing your blood glucose (the fuel your brain uses) to spike and crash, and with it your ability to focus your mind.
  • identify your personal favorite distracters and manage them
  • control your technology; don’t let it control you
  • train your people to honor thinking time
  • do the most important thinking when your mind is most sharp and least burdened by worry, fatigue or distraction ( for most people this is early morning)
  • as the limbic part of the brain produces negative emotions like worry or  overwhelm, this diverts precious neurons from the frontal lobes which are the problem solving centre in the brain. Before a time of reflection, do a simple warm up so as to increase concentration and redirect those neurons to the neo-cortex
  • practice bold thinking not busy thinking
  • engage in cardio-vascular exercise during the lull times in the ultrafine rhythm, even in quick bursts like running stairs for 5 minutes or swinging your arms
  • balance structure and novelty
  • balance analysis with synthesis; do not stay in any one mental mode too long
  • take some human moments to connect with people and supplement the high concept with high touch
  • go to the newsstand and select 10 magazines in fields you know nothing about such as Buddhism, antique cars or knitting. Read each magazine and clip whatever stimulates your thinking on a business issue. Make a habit of this.
I will be most interested to hear your thoughts and results. Please comment.

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