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Last Updated on June 3, 2019

How to Improve Focus: 7 Ways to Train Your Brain

How to Improve Focus: 7 Ways to Train Your Brain

In this fast-paced world we’ve created, we’re only going to feel more overwhelmed by the ever-increasing directions and distractions we feel pulled toward. With exponentially increasing demands on us in our work and personal lives, sustaining and improving focus on things which matter is getting tougher and tougher.

You’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that keeping focused is no longer about trying to discover secret weapons of willpower or self-discipline. With these initial self-reflective exercises and different brain-training exercises, you’ll no longer be having arguments with yourself to get on with the job!

Here’re 7 ways on how to improve focus that you can start applying:

1. Have a Plan You Feel Clear About

One of the most common reasons we struggle to maintain focus is because we lack clarity about what we need to do next. The next best action step does not feel clear to us.

If you are trying to lose weight but aren’t clear on exactly what activities you need to do, with what intensity, the food you need to eat and the timing of when all this needs to happen, you increase your chances of staggered progress.

If there are not enough parts early in the process to that feel clear for you to make the next step, these emotional obstacles will derail you.

You must also recognize the amount of detail in the steps you need to feel ready and confident to move forward — this will differ between you and the next person. You and another person can be given exactly the same instructions to learn a task. He/she might feel completely ready and confident to get to work. On the other hand, you hesitate.

Work on developing enough detail clarity until you feel you have enough resources and know enough to take the steps. When you do, stepping forward will be easy and momentum will flow.

2. Set Your Mood and Environment to Maximize Your Capacity to Focus

It’s been argued that in slightly-above-ambient temperatures, you can be more creative. You feel more relaxed and your productivity increases. Conversely, lower temperatures have also been found to more positively influence decision-making ability and alertness.

Cornell University conducted a study of office administration workers whereby their productivity positively correlated with increased office temperatures.[1] At 25℃, the workers were typing with 90% accuracy. However, with a drop of 5℃, the typing rate nose-dived along with an increased error rate of 25%. The study also identified other factors which could greatly affect productivity and focus such as air quality and pollution.

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It’s not just temperature you need to pay attention to. Good lighting is essential. The wavelength of blue light emitted from neon lights and most electronic devices generally ignites our serotonin levels and keeps us awake. Consider though that natural light is best where possible. When your body is truly getting tired, you can honor its natural rhythms and listen to its cues for rest.

Switch off communication applications (e.g. Facebook messenger, Slack, Yamma). Make it hard for yourself to access such applications and devices by physically putting them in places that are inconvenient for you to access (try the 20-second rule and make it take more time to access). If you have to go outside to the garden shed to retrieve your phone (and it’s cold and raining outside), you’re less likely to do it!

Maximize your exposure to visual messages which direct you to stay on task. Rather than have your eyes cast across post-it-note messages such as: “Don’t get distracted”, have messages of what you want to direct yourself to do: “Keep going. Stay focused.” Surround where you plan to execute most of your day’s work with deliberate messages that directly tell you to stay on track.

3. Create a Distraction Procrastination To-Do List

When you know you have to prepare a complex report or assignment, the temptation to be carried away with the social flittings of your friends on Facebook or your colleagues chatting nearby will likely be stronger than ever. That story you spin yourself that you’re only spending a smidgin’ of time getting ‘up-to-date’ so it can’t really do any harm becomes the only story you want to believe.

Trying to resist the temptation completely can cost you valuable time and mental energy. The guilt you harbor for contemplating digressing from your important activity inflicts an emotional cat-o-nine tails upon you. That doesn’t serve you either. What do you do?

Submit half-way. Fully indulge at a designated time period to soak up that dopamine rush from scrolling through sporadic events and sponsored posts on your newsfeed or chat to whoever is online at the time. However, timing here is essential.

After pounding through a chunk of work, submit to that guilty pleasure. When you engage in it, do it fully. If you’ve been studying straight for three hours, it’s time to stand up, stretch and stroll to your favourite coffee shop and back. Go for a walk or swing on the swings in your closest public park.

If you work from home, bake a batch of scones, put on a face mask as you soak your feet in a foot spa. Or watch half of the football match you recorded but haven’t gotten ‘round to reviewing yet.

Cold-turkey abstinence is hardly ever effective. Not only are you wasting time and energy resisting the urge. You make the urge stronger by denying yourself! So, don’t deny yourself but manage it wisely.

4. Practice Meditation and Mindfulness

If you’re yet to be convinced of how meditation can help you improve focus, look no further than the declarations made by the American Psychological Society praising its benefits.[2] More and more studies are demonstrating how meditation can reduce rumination, stress, anxiety and improve relationships, emotional stability, focus and working memory capacity.

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If you’re not meditating, you are doing yourself a gross disservice. Meditating allows to practice regaining focus. As you practice, you learn and increase your skills to notice when your mind is wandering off track. You then practice bringing it back to what you should be directing your attention to.

Include in your morning preparations for the day a gentle but directed review of what you need to devote your time to today. Throughout the day, consider that your attention span swings like a pendulum. Exercise it one direction and let it swing into a free-thought space for moments of reprieve.

The world, our bodies and our minds work in rhythms. Learn to exercise your mind and focus as such. If you try to beat yourself cognitively into submission, you’re unlikely to win. You’ll be unnecessarily exhausting yourself in repeated attempts of trying.

Here’s a beginner guide for meditation: Meditation for Beginners: How to Meditate Deeply and Quickly

5. Schedule Planning, Review and Recognition Periods Throughout Your Day

Management consultant and best-selling author of 18 Minutes, Peter Bregman recommends a simple plan to help train your brain to remain focused and help you track your progress.

Before the computer goes on, the first 5 minutes of your day, you invest in planning and write out your ‘today’s activities’ list. Physically writing down your activity goals for the day (using paper and pen, not electronic word processing) engages more functions within your brain (e.g. the generation effect[3]) which train it to recognize these activities are highly important.

Bregman then recommends that for 1 minute at the end of each of the next 8 hours, you stop and recall what you have accomplished in that hour. You congratulate yourself for what you have achieved and regain focus, recalibrate expectations and take a pause. You slow down to speed up.

By reviewing what you have accomplished, you attach a positive emotional experience to your work and progress. This action in itself will improve your focus as you fuel your motivation to keep the wheels of your momentum, rolling.

The final 5 minutes at the end of the day are spent in reviewing and planning the next day. Doing so makes it easy for you to sustain laser focus from one day to the next, to the next.

These 18 minutes of planning serve as plain but powerful guard rails to keep you mentally on track.

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6. Create Goals and Activities That Satisfy Your Highest Priorities and Values

Whenever you’re resisting doing something, it’s highly likely because it’s not topping your desirability charts.

As a human being, you behave and act in ways which ultimately keep you feeling safe and comfortable. As long as we can see we will get to continue feeling safe and comfortable, it doesn’t matter what activity we’re asked to do.

However, the moment a notion arises of your needing to do something that feels unfamiliar (and hence, uncomfortable), you can guarantee you’ll feel a sting of resistance. It might be slight but it will be there. However, life doesn’t let us simply avoid whatever we please.

The key is to examine and reframe what you need to do in a way that does satisfy your highest values and priorities.

If you believe you know what your values and priorities are, take a look at the results you have against the goals you’ve set for yourself thus far.

For example, if you believe one of your highest priorities is to have a healthy bank balance yet your balance statement shows more outgoings than revenue, having a lot of money is actually not a high priority for you.

At this point, you need to explore the variety of activities that yield a healthy bank balance that you’re not currently exercising. Saving, reducing costs, modifying and monitoring spending habits, making wiser purchase choices and finding ways to increase your income are all activities you need to explore. These things might sound dull and like hard work.

That’s probably why you’re not doing them! The great news is that they don’t have to be.

Work out which of these activities are the easiest and fun (i.e. create feelings of comfort and safety) for you. Then either get someone or engage a mechanism to do the rest for you.

If you are good at generating income, engage a financial adviser to set up structures which will monitor and wisely manage your spending. You can have your cake and eat it too.

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Simply work out which parts of the cake you like eating the most and invite others along who like eating the other parts.

7. Transform Information to Make Things More Interesting

According to neurobiologists’ findings, we learn better when we actively do different things with the information. Not only are our experiences of learning more enjoyable, we activate more parts of our brain. This serves lessons and memories to be more effectively encoded into long-term memory.

You need to become clever at delighting and regularly stimulating your senses through variety.

If you’re studying, engage a variety of ways to exercise using the knowledge and skills you must develop. Discussion groups, creating informal quizzes, teaching someone the information you need to learn involves you exercising verbal communication skills where you must both give and receive information. You must adapt to your audience.

Drawing pictures and diagrams, creating voice memos about what you’re learning, using colors and symbols again different activates different parts of the brain. More connections are developed in your neural circuitry to aid your recall.

Furthermore, you become more adaptable and adept at applying what you learn to different situations.

Creating your own personalized manuals and notes becomes a passion project which pushes the personal gratification scale higher and higher.

Before you know it, staying focused no longer feels like a chore.

The Bottom Line

The need to stay focused drops when you set goals and make choices that steer you toward satisfying your highest priorities, values and principles.

Having arduous experiences on your journey are inevitable. Using these exercises and strategies, you can forecast when distractions and boredom are approaching and transform these into some of the most effective and productive chapters, ever.

More About Staying Focused

Featured photo credit: Trent Szmolnik via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Helen D'Silva

Performance Psychologist for Business and Entrepreneurship, Sport and Personal Development

How to Improve Focus: 7 Ways to Train Your Brain How to Calm Down When You’re Stressed and Anxious How to Manage Anxiety: Sound Advice from a Mental Health Expert How to Cultivate a Positive Mindset (A Step-By-Step Guide) How to Cope with Anxiety and Stress at Work: 5 Psychology Techniques

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Last Updated on October 21, 2019

How to Be a Good Leader and Lead Effectively

How to Be a Good Leader and Lead Effectively

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a contender for the 2020 Democratic nomination, is a reminder of why I am so drawn to leadership as a topic. Whenever I think it is impossible for me to be more impressed with her, she proves me wrong.

Earlier this week, a former marine suggested that he had been in a long-term sexual relationship with the Senator. She flipped the narrative and used the term “Cougar,” a term used to describe older women who date younger men, to reference her alma mater.

Rather than calling the young man a liar, or responding to the accusations in kind, she re-focused the conversation back to her message of college affordability and lifted up that “Cougar” was the mascot for her alma mater. She went on to note that tuition at her school was just $50 per semester when she was a student. Class act.

But by the end of the week, news broke that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, another contender for the presidency, had a heart attack. Warren not only wished Sanders a speedy recovery but her campaign sent a meal to his staff. She knew that the hopes of staff, donors and supporters were with the Senator from Vermont and showed genuine compassion and empathy.

To me, she has proven time and time again that she is more than a presidential candidate: she belongs in a leadership hall of fame.

What makes some people excel as leaders is fascinating. You can read about leadership, research it and talk about it, yet the interest in leadership alone will not make you a better leader.

You will have more information than the average person, but becoming a good leader is lifelong work. It requires experience – and lots of it. Most importantly, it requires observation and a commitment to action. Warren observed what was happening with Sen. Sanders, empathized with his team and then took action. Regardless of the outcome of this election, Sanders’ staff will likely never forget her gesture.

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You would have had to work on a political campaign in order to appreciate the stress and anxiety that comes with it. In this moment, staff may not remember everything that Warren said throughout the lengthy campaign, but they will remember what she did during an unforgettable time during the campaign.

If this model of leadership is appealing, and if you are searching for how to up your own leadership game, read on for six characteristics that good leaders share:

1. Good leaders are devoted to the success of the people around them.

Good leaders are not self-interested. Sure, they want to succeed, but they also want others to succeed.

Good leaders see investing in others just as important as they see investing in themselves. They understand that their success is closely tied to the people around them, and they work to ensure that their peers, employees, friends and family have paths for growth and development.

While the leaders may be the people in the spotlight, they are quick to point to the people around them who helped them (the leaders) enter that spotlight. Their willingness to lift others inspires their colleagues’ and friends’ devotion and loyalty.

2. Good leaders are not overly dependent on others’ approval.

It is important for managers to express their support for their teams; good leaders must be independent of the approval of others. I explained in an article for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, that:[1]

“While a desire to be loved is natural, managers who prioritize approval from subordinates will become ineffective supervisors who may do employees harm. For example, a manager driven by a need for approval may shy away from delivering constructive feedback that could help an employee improve. A manager fearful of upsetting someone may tolerate behavior that degrades the work environment and culture.”

In yet another example, a manager who is dependent on the approval of others may not make decisions that could be deemed unpopular in the short run but necessary in the long run.

Think of the coaches who integrated their sporting teams. Their decision to do so, may have seemed odd, and even wrong, in the moment, but time has proven that those leaders were on the right side of history.

3. Good leaders have the capacity to share the spotlight.

Attention is nice, but it is not the prime motivator for good leaders. Doing a good job is.

For this reason, good leaders are willing to share the spotlight. They aren’t threatened by a lack of attention, and they do not need credit for every accomplishment. They are too focused on their goal and too focused on the urgency of their work.

4. Good leaders are students.

In the same way that human beings are constantly evolving, so too are leaders. As long as you are living, you have the potential to learn. It doesn’t matter how much knowledge you think you have; you can always learn something new.

I have the experience of thinking I was doing everything right as a manager, only to receive conflicting feedback from my team. Perhaps my approach was not working for my team, and I had to be willing to hear their feedback to improve.

Good leaders understand that their secret sauce is their willingness to keep receiving information and keep learning. They aren’t intimidated by what they do not know: As long as they maintain a willingness to keep growing, they believe they can overcome any obstacle they face.

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As both masters and students, good leaders read, listen and study to grow. They consume content for information, not just entertainment purposes. They aren’t impressed with their knowledge; they are impressed with the learning journey.

5. Good leaders view vulnerability as a superpower.

It means “replacing ‘professional distance and cool,’ with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure,” said Emma Sappala in a Dec. 11, 2014, article, “What Bosses Gain by being Vulnerable” for Harvard Business Journal.[2] She went on to note the importance of human connection, which she asserts is often missing at work.

“As leaders and employees, we are often taught to keep a distance and project a certain image. An image of confidence, competence and authority. We may disclose our vulnerability to a spouse or close friend behind closed doors at night but we would never show it elsewhere during the day, let alone at work.”

This rings so true for me as a woman leader. I was raised believing that any show of emotion in the workplace could be used against me. I was raised believing that it was best for women leaders to be stoic and to “never let ‘em see you sweat.” This may have prevented me from connecting with employees and colleagues on a deeper, more personal level.

6. Good leaders understand themselves.

I am a huge fan of life coach and spiritual teacher Iyanla Vanzant. In addition to her hit show on the OWN network, Vanzant has authored dozens of books. In her books and teachings, she underscores the importance of knowing ourselves fully. She argues that we must know what makes us tick, what makes us happy and what makes us angry.

Self-awareness enables us to put ourselves in situations where we can thrive, and it also enables us to have compassion when we fall short of the goals and expectations we have for ourselves. Relatedly, understanding ourselves will allow us to know our strength. When we know our strengths, we will be able to put people around us who compliment our strengths and fill the gaps in our leadership.

Final Thoughts

Being a good leader, first and foremost, is an inside job. You must focus on growing as a person regardless of the leadership title that you hold. You cannot take others where you yourself have not been. So focusing on yourself, regardless of your time or where you are in your career will have long term benefits for you and the people around you.

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Further, if you want to become a good leader, you should start by setting the intention to do so. What you focus on grows. If you focus on becoming a better leader, you will research and invest in things that help you to fulfill this intention. You will also view the good and bad leadership experiences as steppingstones that hone your character and help you improve.

After you set the intention, get really clear on what a good leader looks like to you. Each of us has a different understanding of leadership. Is a good leader someone who takes risk? Is a good leader, in your estimation, someone who develops other leaders? Whatever it is, know what you’re shooting for. Once you define what it means to be a good leader, look for people who exemplify your vision. Watch and engage with them if you can.

Finally, understand that becoming a good leader doesn’t happen overnight. You must continually work at improving, investing in yourself and reflecting on what is going well and what you must improve. In this way, every experience is an opportunity to grow and a chance to ask: ‘What is this experience trying to teach me?’ or ‘what action is necessary based on this situation?’

If you are committed to questioning, evaluating and acting, you are that much closer to becoming a better leader.

More About Effective Leadership

Featured photo credit: Sam Power via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] The Chronicle of Philanthropy: Why Good Managers Overcome the Desire to Be Liked
[2] Harvard Business Journal: What Bosses Gain by being Vulnerable

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