Focus, the novelty bias and you

The very region in our brains we need to rely on for keeping us focused is easily distracted. There is a small sense of irony to this. There is a novelty bias that happens in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This means that when something new comes along, a nice shiny object (or an email or a notification), the attention of this part of the brain gets taken away.

Our brains are constantly being distracted not just by technology but by modern life. When we think we’re helping ourselves by doing multi-tasking, we’re actually doing the complete opposite.

Our prefrontal cortex here’s the ping of a notification and it says goodie, gets excited and you check it out and away your mind and focus goes.

The only way to remain focused on what you want to be working on is to be much more mindful of how you’re spending your time and how you organise yourself at work.

This begins with stopping the multi-tasking. This is completely key. A Neuroscientist at Stanford callled Russ Poldrack found that new information went to the wrong part of the brain when it was learnt whilst multitasking. What’s the worst that could happen if you switched it all off for a few hours and actually shut yourself away from all the noise? Put an out of office on your emails saying if your query is urgent to phone you and just don’t check them. Put your ringer on your phone and put it in a different room so you can just still hear it but where you won’t be tempted to check on it every minute.

Then chunk your time and time block. Tasks that are similar, do them all at once. This may be content planning for the week or do all the research on potential clients you wanted to do but getting into the rhythm of doing one thing will ultimately keep you focused for longer. Time blocking allows you the space to do this. Dedicate (where possible) a large chunk of time, say 2 hours, and focus on that one thing.

To help you do this, use the pomodoro technique. The timer on this can be really effective and it trains your brain to focus on a task. Put a timer on for 25 minutes, start working and once this goes off, take a few minutes break and then repeat.

Have a focus mantra. When I run, I have a mantra that gets me up hills when I’m struggling. It involves having a cup of tea when I get home (you can see where my slightly sad priorities lie in life!) Why not try having a mantra around focus? This could be repeating over and over again a positive affirmation or a phrase that keeps you in the present such as ‘today, I am focused, I’m dedicated and I’m ready to take on the day ahead’. It has to work for you though.

My last and best thing that makes me focus is so simple. Make a to do list and then number the tasks in the list in order of importance. The first thing that needs to be done is number one, the second thing is number 2 and so on. So simple but it makes me really focus and I have no idea why. Work through the numbers and just get it done.

Please do share any tips that help you through the day remain switched on. Everyone is unique so what works for you?

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