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The neuroscience of freeing your focus

Author  |  Ethan Glessich
16 mins
“The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus” — Bruce Lee

Focus matters

Imagine for a moment you’re driving your car on a beautiful Sunday morning. The sun is shining and you’re lost in an enthralling conversation with your best friend. You're enjoying the conversation almost as much as the scenic views on the undulating Tuscan countryside. 
As you exit a long sweeping curve, the car in front of you draws your attention—the driver, it seems, is enjoying the views even more than you and is advancing at half the speed limit.
Without so much as a pause to the conversation, you instinctively flick the car into sports mode and put on your indicator to overtake. But just as you pull out, a truck emerges from behind the crest ahead. It is rapidly advancing towards you.

Now, let me ask you, at this moment, what happens to that enthralling conversation you were having with your friend?

It stops, right? Instantaneously, instinctively, you immediately stop speaking. You give ALL of your attention to driving the car, while your passenger gives all of their attention to—holding on to their lunch.

You see, deep down we all know that the quality of our focus impacts the quality of our output, and when our life is on the line we automatically prioritise focus. But what happens when there is no imminent threat to your wellbeing?

A gateway for science, business and life

Focus goes by many names—attention, concentration, flow. Scientists refer to it as a core cognitive function as it underpins so much of our brain function and daily activities. From your ability to enjoy a meal to observing a beautiful sunset, mastering a skill, building a relationship, retaining information or completing your work, focus affects it all. It impacts our mental health and wellbeing, our happiness, our productivity, our relationships, and more.

Not surprisingly, focus is also deeply intertwined with business performance and productivity as well. Yet ironically, the tools, processes and cultures of most modern workplaces make it almost impossible for staff to focus effectively.

And the costs add up.

Dr Gloria Mark, a professor from the Department of Informatics at University of California, has spent most of her life studying human attention with scientific precision. Her team has discovered that the average office worker's attention breaks every 40 seconds (yes, you read right). And the effects spread far and wide, from the birth of an epidemic of stress through to declining morale and diminishing profit margins.

In 2019, the Information Overload Research Group found that “knowledge workers” lose about 25 percent of their time “dealing with the incessant stream of data,” not to mention the impact it has on their work quality and morale. And, Udemy’s research found that 36% of millennials and Gen Z employees say they spend two hours or more checking their smartphones for personal activities during the workday—likely more if they’re working from home. That’s over 10 hours of productivity per employee simply tossed away each week.

But there is a shining light in all this doom and gloom—as the focus pandemic is affecting all businesses, if you're able to transform your relationship with focus, you gain a cognitive edge and competitive advantage. While your competitors are distracted, disorganised and delayed, you’re laser focused, efficient and productive, pouring quality focus into pulling ahead of the pack.

So, how do you start?

Our research and experience in helping thousands of organisations and individuals has identified there are four key dimensions of focus which need to be addressed if you are going to transform focus and productivity. We’ve coined these the Four Dimensions of Focus.

Let’s take a deeper look at the first dimension.

DIMENSION 1 - OUTER

Does your environment help or hinder focus? 

The saber-tooth

Three hundred thousand years ago, Norris and Borris, two friendly Neanderthals, were sitting under a majestic Eurasian tree. Brute Borris, as he was affectionately known, was completely immersed in savouring each mouthful of his hard earned meal. Nervous Norris, on the other hand, wasn't quite as lost in his food.
Nervous Norris had earned his nickname because he was always reacting to any little change in the environment. A gentle breeze, a bird landing, even a Eurasian tree seed falling would see him flinching and jumping to attention. Unfortunately, in a tribe of single-minded brutes, this had turned Nervous Norris into the laughing stock of the family.
But on this still, sunny afternoon, something was about to change. Summer had arrived late this year, and a highland saber-toothed tiger had ventured down to the flats in search of food. As it stealthily stalked the Neanderthal mates, it accidentally stepped on a twig—and SNAP! —a crack echoed through the stillness.
Brute Borris didn’t flinch—his eyes, mouth and mind remained fixated on savouring every centimetre of his delicious antelope sandwich. Nervous Norris, on the other hand, had dropped his sanga and leapt to attention. As he peered through the thick bushes, he caught a glimpse of the saber-tooth leaping towards them. He jumped out of its path—just in time—but Borris, who was still single-mindedly absorbed in his meal, was not so lucky.

While this may be a fictional story, it summarises why scientists believe our focus is wired to be easily distracted by our environments; it provides an evolutionary advantage and hence propagates the gene pool.

The 60 bits

Scientists have since gone on to show that the conscious processing capabilities of the brain is incredibly limited, with current experiments suggesting we are able to process approximately is 60 bits of information per second (bps). That’s about 4–5 words per second (which incidentally, is the average adult reading speed).

With such a limited processor upstairs, it was simply not possible for brutes like Borris to scan the environment and enjoy a meal at the same time. So what was different about Norris’s brain? His subconscious!

Like Norris, every second you’re awake, your subconscious is scanning the environment for threats. In fact, at any given moment of time your subconscious is estimated to be processing 11Mbps through your senses (that’s the same throughput as the old Cat5 ethernet cable). In other words, your subconscious is able to process over 180,000 times more information per second than your conscious.

Did your 60 bits catch that? Scary, isn’t it?

And to make things worse, a “threat” to your subconscious is a very broad term. Evolution has taught it that it is better to be safe than sorry. So a rustle in the bushes, some juicy gossip of someone talking on the phone, or a noise outside the window all warrant your subconscious overriding whatever your 60 bits of conscious processing power was previously engaged in.

While this may have been an evolutionary advantage on the plains of Eurasia 300,000 years ago, nothing could be more detrimental to our productivity in our cognitively demanding workplaces.

The perfect storm with lightening highlighting the importance of focus.

The perfect storm

As if these cognitive idiosyncrasies weren’t enough, our environments seem to be in a perpetual spiral of making it more difficult for our 60 bits to stay focused. Every day there are new technologies, new companies, and new strategies which advertisers and marketers use to vie for our attention. Our always on, always connected, always available devices and their apps deliver a barrage of notifications which continuously fracture our focus. And when combined with the physical distractions of open-plan offices, desk drop-ins, remote working, home schooling and more, our environments have never been more hostile and damaging to our attention.

But as business leaders, we can change it. We can recognise the processing limitations of our brain. We can craft our cultures, tools and processes to favour focus and fuel productivity. We can reclaim focus.

At Kognitive, we use a plethora of tools and approaches to help businesses reclaim their focus and tap into unprecedented productivity. Here are five such initiatives to help kick-start your journey to optimising the outer dimension of focus.

F
requency
Corresponding words: 
blue.

As you undoubtedly noticed, the word blue appeared three times. Repetition is one of the oldest known ways of encoding information to memory. It is the foundational memory tool used in traditional education (times tables flashbacks anyone?). Repetition has been studied extensively by scientists, and while the frequency and duration can impact recall, as a rule of thumb, the more frequently something is repeated, the more likely we are to remember it.

Practical takeaway: Communicating the new strategy to staff at the town hall once is not enough. It must be communicated repeatedly over an extended period of time (much more than we intuitively think) in order for it to be encoded into the memory of staff.

E
motion
Corresponding words: 
sex, holiday, covid, any other words which align with your passions or fears, wants or worries.

Emotion supercharges the encoding of memory. Any event that you are easily able to recall will most likely have been emotionally charged. Think... first kiss, wedding day, birth of a child, first time you jumped out of a plane. But the emotion does not have to be positive. For example, can you recall where you were when you heard that someone famous or someone you cared about passed away or where you were when you learned of a tragic event such as September 11? Negative emotion is more precarious, however, and recent studies have shown that too much of some negative emotions, such as stress, can also impair memory function.

Practical takeaway: Strategies and strategy decks are often very dry, emotionless documents. The more emotion you can inject into your strategy and the communication which surrounds it, the better chance it has of being remembered. One of the most influential ways of doing this which has emerged in recent years is creating a ‘meaningful’ organisational purpose.

A
ssociation
Corresponding words: 
mountain & goat, chicken & egg, sex & hot, kognitive.

Association has been connected to the roots of memory function for over 130 years. Association is one of the main techniques often used in memory hacks, such as memorising names, among other things. While much of our brain’s association memory function is unintentional, intentional associations can be utilised to significantly improve the retention of information.

Practical takeaway: Use intentional associations within the communication of your strategy where possible. Acronyms such as FEARS can also be an effective way of creating a pseudo-association and encoding strategic information such as values, key initiatives, goals, etc.

R
ecency
Corresponding words: 
smile, shoe.

Psychologists have identified a cognitive tendency for the items, ideas or arguments that come last in a sequence to be remembered more clearly than those that came before them. This effect is closely related to primacy, the tendency to have better recall for the items at the beginning of a list or experience.

Practical takeaway: The way your strategy is structured, organised and presented makes a difference to how it will be remembered. Pay special attention to the start and end of your strategic documents and presentations.

S
tories
Corresponding words: 
NA

While it may not have been directly highlighted by the word memory activity, the S in our FEARS model is certainly related to words—in fact it’s made of them: stories. Stories are deeply ingrained in human history and are fundamentally intertwined with human memory. “Researchers have found that information presented in story form is considerably more likely to be recalled than comparable material presented using expository methods”.

Practical takeaway: Converting your strategy into an emotive story can dramatically increase its retention.

Emotional alignment

If intellectual alignment is about the brain, then emotional alignment is about the heart: it’s about buy-in. It’s about employees taking action not because they have to, but because they are inspired to.

When staff have bought into the organisation’s vision, when they are emotionally invested in the organisation’s success, not only are they more likely to remember the strategy, but they are much more likely to act upon it. And motivation, discretionary effort, and engagement increase.

But how do we go about building more emotional and intellectual alignment in our organisations? While this is a complex task that Kognitive’s accelerators and consulting address, here are five strategies to help get you started.

Practical tools and tips

6 5 4 3 2 7 1 CULTURE PROCESSES TOOLS
  • 1.
    Direction
  • 2.
    Alignment
  • 3.
    Accountability
  • 4.
    Speed & Agility
  • 5.
    Focus
  • 6.
    Collaboration
  • 7.
    Leadership

1. Build an awareness of the importance of focus

Before you attempt to make any changes, it can pay big dividends to invest in helping staff build an awareness of the importance of focus and the need to change. If you don’t, despite your initiatives coming from a place of wanting to help your staff (and of course your bottom line), they run the risk of being rebutted, rejected or boycotted.

When working with clients, we use a combination of staff surveys, interviews, keynote presentations and training to help build this awareness. We utilise brain games and scientific discoveries to help build intrigue and motivation. We help staff uncover the uncanny limitations of their brain’s ability to focus, and the impact the current environment is having on their performance, psyche and bottom line.

By investing in this first step, all subsequent initiatives have a much higher chance of success.

2. Preconfigure all devices

The default setting for almost every device or app we install (productivity apps included) is to send us notifications whenever the app desires. Nothing could be more damaging to our productivity. Slack, Facebook, LinkedIn and their siblings don’t care that you are 22 minutes into creating the most revolutionary, powerful and complex Excel spreadsheet known to mankind, or that you’re moments away from solving world hunger. They will buzz and ping your phone, computer, and even wrist when Susie’s dog has had triplets, the office just ran out of coffee, and of course, heaven forbid we miss Michael’s 27th photo of his lunch this month (no offence, Michael).

Despite every device and app manufacturer wanting to remain at the centre of your attention, is it really in your best interests to have these notifications default to ‘on’? Of course not. Take control and preconfigure all of these apps and devices to have notifications automatically turned off. That includes email (I know, OMG, how will we survive? More on that later). And if you’re thinking—how will I know when there is something important that needs my attention? Read on.

3. Establish priority channels of communication

What would you do if you sent me an urgent email and I didn’t respond within 30 minutes? You’d likely call or text, right? If you’re going to move your organisation’s attention out of their inbox and onto their priorities, it can be incredibly useful to establish different priority channels of communication.

It could be as simple as agreeing with your team which channels they should respond to immediately, within the day, or whenever it is convenient, and adjusting your notification settings accordingly. For example, at the company level you could deploy different notification settings for different Slack channels, such as:

  • #Emergency  – notify all immediately by interrupting with a pop-up notification.
  • #Today – deliver a passive notification which does not interrupt the recipient, such as a badge app icon.
  • #When Can – same notification setting as #Today, but without the expectation to respond by the end of the day.

You can also establish similar priority channels for 1-on-1 communication, such as SMS or call if you require an immediate reply, Slack if you require a reply within the day (or agreed time period), and email if you require a reply whenever it is convenient.

Although the specifics of the priority channels and levels will vary between companies, the underlying concept remains the same—establish a system that only fractures staff’s focus for critical things which require immediate action, for everything else, notify staff in a less invasive, and less expensive, manner.

Swimming pool lanes aerial view

4. Refine your organisation’s relationship with email

Do you remember the 1990’s film, “You’ve Got Mail” starring Tom Hanks & Meg Ryan? That soft, seductive ping of email ushered a subtle flow of serotonin as two arch enemies anonymously fell madly in love with each other over—yes, that’s right—email. My, how times have changed. Since then, email has evolved into the antipode of that romantic comedy: a necessary evil which is eating away at our productivity, psyche and profits.

Here are some statistics to put it into perspective:

Given the inbox’s gravity, optimising email can have an enormous impact on staff productivity and morale. Here are some initiatives to consider to improve your organisation’s relationship with email:

  • Use email exclusively for external communication.
  • If you are going to use email for internal communications, experiment with email policies such as email-free Tuesdays, or emails at 11am (but not before), after hours inbox offline.
  • Turn off email pop-up notifications by default (but leave the badge app icon on).
  • Encourage staff to not live in their inbox. The inbox is a reflection of everybody else’s priorities—not theirs. Ensure staff disconnect from email for many hours at a time.

Train staff on how to productively and proactively manage email. It can be daunting for staff to disconnect from email when they don’t have the tools and skills to efficiently manage the constant stream of information or are using it as a priority list. Given that staff spend a third of their day on email, it is critical they are able to manage it efficiently. Book a discovery call to learn more about Kognitive’s email training programs.

5. Focus signal

Not every interruption is equal. The cost of being interrupted when you’re skimming your email or retrieving your documents for example, can be almost insignificant, but being interrupted when you’re 20 minutes into a cognitive demanding task can have a deleterious effect on your productivity and psyche. But how do your colleagues know whether now is a good or bad time to fracture your focus? Enter the focus signal.

Focus signal is a little signal which is used internally to broadcast to other people in the organisation if you are in deep work and would prefer to not be interrupted, or if you’re completing more superficial cognitive tasks and don’t mind the interruption. It can be as simple as a red symbol 🔴 on your inhouse chat program, a physical card on your partition or door, or even a calendar event. Focus signals let others evaluate the impact of interrupting you before they fracture your focus. 

Just keep in mind, the focus signal requires a behaviour change, and hence it should be rolled out within a change management program.

Want to transform your relationship with focus

Book a discovery call and evaluate for yourself what might be possible for you personally or your organisation.

THE REMAINING DIMENSIONS

Mastering focus

Lucy was super excited. Over the last four months, her organisation had transformed its relationship with focus. Previously her day had been a barrage of desk drop-ins, email pings, Slack pops and more. It was impossible for her to find even a few minutes of quality focus. It was exhausting, overwhelming and stressful. Now, while her days could still be chaotic, she was almost always able to carve out time to focus deeply on critical projects and people. She felt less stressed, more calm, and more productive—but despite these advancements—deep down, she knew she still wasn’t fulfilling her potential.
The uncertainty associated with constant changes caused by COVID lockdowns, the challenges of sporadically having to homeschool her kids, and the worry about how long the pandemic would last were taking its toll. She noticed that even though she was no longer continuously interrupted by the people and technology around her, she was distracting herself more than ever. She could see it was preventing her from performing at her best and was hurting her wellbeing, but she wasn’t quite sure what to do about it.

Lucy’s not alone.

Scientists have identified that even if we create the “perfect environment” for focus, we will still distract ourselves more than anybody or anything from the outer dimension would. And in the presence of pressing worries—such as those created by COVID—the internal challenges only increase. 

Alarmingly, scientists have also recently identified that many of our “normal” daily habits are hurting our focus and hindering our productivity.

If we’re going to truly master focus, we need to journey into the remaining three dimensions—we need to master the inner, inter and time dimensions of focus. Let’s take a quick look at the essence of each dimension to help get you started.

Three-dimensional rubik's cube floating above a hand

Dimension 2 – Inner

Do you control your focus, or does it control you?

Does your mind frequently wander? A landmark study in 2010 (of almost 5000 people from 83 countries) found that our minds decouple from what we are doing between 30% – 70% of the day, with the highest mind wandering occurring when we are at—you guessed it—work.

In the second dimension, we journey inwards, analysing the internal operating system of focus and your relationship with your own mind. We work on conquering internal distractions, becoming more mindful, increasing our attention span, leveraging concentration cycles, mastering multitasking and unlocking flow. When deployed at the company level, inner focus lays the foundation for workforce resilience, mental wellbeing and increased productivity.

Dimension 3 - Inter

Have you built a foundation for focus to flourish?

In order to sustain high mental performance, we need to look after our brain—but what exactly do our brains require to perform at their best? Neuroscientists have been exploring this question for decades, and alarmingly, recent studies have revealed that many of our daily habits are hurting our brain, hindering our focus and limiting our mental performance. To optimise the inter dimension, we need to understand how food, movement, sleep and breath impact the brain.

In the third dimension, we explore:

  • the relationship between food and liquids and your neurons and how you can leverage food to supercharge focus, 
  • the body–brain connection and how to optimise your brain chemistry, resilience and cognitive performance with specific types of movement,
  • the neuroscience of sleep, what happens to your brain when you don’t get enough and how you can optimise your shuteye for maximum cognitive performance, and
  • how the breath impacts concentration and simple breathing techniques which lower stress and optimise brain function.

While much of the inter-dimension relies on individual choices, there are many ways that organisations can proactively help their employees fortify the foundation of focus with nudges, policies and strategic initiatives.

Dimension 4 - Time

Are you focused on what matters most?

Just like in physics, the fourth dimension of focus is time. While the first three dimensions improve an individual’s ability to focus at any given moment in time, the fourth dimension is about staying focused on what matters most—over time.

In theory, this is simply prioritisation. In practice, however, it is much more complex. In the fourth dimension, we discover the cognitive origins as to why we can build the perfect plan for the day, only to finish the day with the same list undone, or how we can create the perfect project plan, but still have the project run overtime and over budget.

Delving into the cognitive strengths, biases and pitfalls of planning, prioritisation and procrastination, in the fourth dimension we unlock how individuals and teams can stay focused on what matters most over time, setting them up for sustained success in all walks of life.

Curious to learn more about the Four Dimensions of Focus?

At Kognitive, we have a range of ways we help businesses and individuals tap into the full potential of their focus, such as health checks, accelerators, and training. Book a discovery call to evaluate what might make most sense for your business.

All good things.

Success, in every business boils down to two key things: having a great strategy and having first rate execution. 

Whether you’re analysing your execution with the Performance Pyramid—aligning staff to your vision with insights from Jack and Jills infamous demise—or learning from Borris and Norris, our friendly Neanderthals, on how to tap into the full potential of focus at your organisation—investing in improving your execution will pay big dividends.

It’s been a pleasure sharing some of Kognitive’s insights with you to assist you on your journey to building a better future. May they serve you well in getting the most out of your 876 months.

Now... time to make it count.

Ethan Glessich

Founder and Managing Director of Kognitive

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