This is your brain on long meetings…

Posted on June 26, 2014. Filed under: Attention Matters, Linda Ray | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Linda Ray, the co-founder and co-director of neuresource group, coined the term “attentional intelligence” in 2012. In this post, she looks at the reasons long meetings get in the way of productivity and what can be done about it.

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On a good day, you wake up rested and raring to go. You make a mental list of things to do during your commute and, by the time you walk through the door of the office, you are clear about what needs to get accomplished and in what order.  There’s only one problem: the early morning meeting that usually runs overtime. Your mood deflates and your momentum screeches to a halt. Not only that, you may not regain momentum for some time after the meeting has ended – if you regain it all all.

Your brain on long meetings

The brain is easily exhausted. Our brains frequently shift its focus between external events and internal memories and interests. It’s designed this way in order to consolidate learning and long-term memory. However, every time you focus your attention you use a measurable amount of glucose and other metablic resources. This makes attention a limited resource.  Long meetings have the effect of exhausting cognitive reserves. Focus decreases as the meeting drags on. Unfortunately, the brain requires regular replenishment to retain attention and to remain engaged.

Crammed agendas are overwhelming. When faced with a daunting agenda, the default is for people to look at their watches. Attention is on the time rather than on the discussion at hand. Eyes glaze over. People stop listening, begin to doodle, think of the weekend. All of this hampers productivity.

The brain wants assignments that are achievable. Too often, meetings are used as a way of generating ideas rather than actions. But the brain wants certainty and is always looking for the reward of breaking down tasks into manageable chunks – a to-do list that can be completed to a schedule and in good order.

Emotions are contagious. The recent discovery of mirror neurones explains the phenomenon we’ve all experienced: when one person begins to yawn, people nearby begin yawning too. All it takes is one sleepy or fidgety person in a meeting to affect everyone around the table.

Efficiency can hinder productivity. When brains come together, they can accomplish great things – but trying to silo a group’s efforts into agenda chunks isn’t the best way to realise that greatness.  People need time to coalesce around an idea, to work it like clay, and to test different ways of making it happen.

Focusing on numbers saps creativity. If everyone believes that the real reason for the meeting is to figure out how to ‘make the numbers’, creativity is sapped before the meeting even begins. Structuring meetings around financial performance metrics is not a good way to motivate people. Ideas are motivating. Developing and nurturing ideas will ultimately lead to making the numbers. Sadly, conventional meetings almost always have this backwards.

Meeting to prepare for the next meeting is not rewarding. Since our brains are reward-driven organs, knowing that the follow-on reward for spending all this time in a meeting is simply to have another meeting is not at all motivating.

7 things you can do about it

half-time-meetingsImplement a block on early meetings. Take the first hour of the day and throw it out the window – for meetings, at least. By refusing early meetings, you can spend time prioritising your to-do lists, including prioritising which meetings are actually necessary. You might be amazed at how much you can accomplish when you free your mornings for planning.

Take breaks. Focusing for an hour to an hour and a half can be exhausting for our brains.  Our brains gets depleted, start making errors, and we may grow irritable – not the best formula for planning and making decisions. Short breaks, even if they’re only a couple minutes, offer some much needed rejuvenation.

There’s a catch to making those breaks effective, however. Don’t use break time to email your boss or sign off on a report or discuss team goals with a colleague. To help your brain recover from absorbing an hour of PowerPoint slides, try to forget about work during your break.

Look for novelty. If you find yourself bored in a meeting, try – really try – to find something interesting going on in the room. You can train your brain to look for novelty in what’s happening around you, something that both lengthens your  attention span and gives you better control over it. Look at the people around the table and try to imagine something interesting and positive about them.

Remember the purpose of the meeting. As you fixate on details, wade through different viewpoints and perhaps lament over that to-do list, it may be easy to forget the point of the meeting. Think back to the meaning of the meeting, and ask, ‘Why are we doing this?’. Whenever you find your attention is wavering, remember why you’re there. Write it down in your notepad. By examining the cause of the meeting, you may find yourself “considering it a privilege rather than a duty.”

Go back to the basics. Engage in the meeting, whether it’s asking questions, proposing ideas, or at the very least, taking notes. It’s also a good idea to leave phones at desks in in handbags in order to avoid distraction. Bouncing back from a single distraction can take several minutes.  It’s also useful to practice active listening skills.

Snack and hydrate. Bring water to meetings and snack wisely beforehand. Say no to high-carbohydrate, high-energy density foods that will tempt you to rest your eyes (just for a second!) a few minutes into the meeting. Opt instead for healthy fruits, vegetables, and trail mix.

Make them shorter and more frequent. Incorporate daily or twice weekly 10-minute standing meetings into your workplace. Ideally, the 10-minute standing meeting has an agenda of no more than four items. This works nicely with our brains preference for chunking information. Also, the fact that people are standing rather than sitting helps. Your blood circulation increases. Standing is also mentally revitalising, making you sharper and more aware. What seems like an insurmountable pile of paperwork when you’re sitting down appears suddenly manageable while standing. Standing can even improve motivation, morale, and mood.

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Linda is the Managing Director of NeuroCapability and the co-founder/director of neuresource groupThese organisations are playing key roles in developing a new generation of thinking leaders through delivery of the Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership and other innovative programs informed by neuroscience.  Linda is gaining recognition both in Australia and internationally as a thought leader in the neuroleadership field.  She is actively contributing to the body of knowledge that supports the building of individual and organisational ‘neurocapability’

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Attention and the brain’s anti-distraction mechanism

Posted on May 15, 2014. Filed under: Attention Matters, Linda Ray | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Linda Ray, the co-founder and co-director of neuresource group, coined the term “attentional intelligence” in 2012. In this post, she looks at a recent study that shows the brain has a built-in anti-distraction mechanism, which assists us in maintaining focus.

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Where's Waldo?

Where’s Waldo?

 

 

New research

Something as simple as picking out a face in the crowd is actually quite a complicated task: Your brain has to retrieve the memory of the face you’re seeking, then hold it in place while scanning the crowd, paying special attention to finding a match.

This type of attention is known as object-based attention, something scientists know much less about than spatial attention, which involves focusing on what’s happening in a particular location. However, new findings suggest that these two types of attention have similar mechanisms involving related brain regions, says Robert Desimone, the director of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and senior author of the paper.

“The interactions are surprisingly similar to those seen in spatial attention,” Desimone says. “It seems like it’s a parallel process involving different areas.”

In both cases, the prefrontal cortex — the control center for most cognitive functions — appears to take charge of the brain’s attention and control relevant parts of the visual cortex, which receives sensory input. For spatial attention, that involves regions of the visual cortex that map to a particular area within the visual field.

Another study, undertaken by John Gaspar and John McDonald from the Department of Psychology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, learned that to find objects of interest in a cluttered and continually changing visual environment, humans must often ignore salient stimuli that are not currently relevant to the task at hand.

“This is an important discovery for neuroscientists and psychologists because most contemporary ideas of attention highlight brain processes that are involved in picking out relevant objects from the visual field. It’s like finding Waldo in a Where’s Waldo illustration.” said Gaspar.

Gaspar continued: “Our results show clearly that this is only one part of the equation and that active suppression of the irrelevant objects is another important part.”

The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, involved 47 students carrying out a visual search task while their brain signals were monitored.

 

Why this is relevant

Because of the increase in distracting consumer devices in our technology-driven, fast-paced society, the psychologists say their discovery could help scientists and clinicians better treat patients with distraction-related attention deficits.

“Distraction is a leading cause of injury and death in driving and other high-stakes environments,” notes senior author McDonald. “There are individual differences in the ability to deal with distraction. New electronic products are designed to grab attention. Suppressing such signals takes effort, and sometimes people can’t seem to do it.”

The researchers are now studying how we deal with distraction. They’re looking at when and why we can’t suppress potentially distracting objects, and why some of us are better at this than others.

Ultimately, the goal is to find ways of sustaining attention longer. By accepting that distractions are a part of everyday working life and trusting in the brain’s built-in system to focus selectively by ignoring irrelevant details, we can become skilled in brushing away interruptions when they intrude. By developing attentional intelligence – paying attention on purpose – we can generate brain wave patterns that strengthen the sustained concentration involved in focused attention.

As Jeffrey Schwartz, one of the world’s leading experts in neuroplasticity and co-founder of the neuroleadership field, says in The Mind and the Brain:

Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons. This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses. If forced to choose, we would all rather our children be poor with self-control than rich without it.

 

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Linda is the Managing Director of NeuroCapability and the co-founder/director of neuresource groupThese organisations are playing key roles in developing a new generation of thinking leaders through delivery of the Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership and other innovative programs informed by neuroscience.  Linda is gaining recognition both in Australia and internationally as a thought leader in the neuroleadership field.  She is actively contributing to the body of knowledge that supports the building of individual and organisational ‘neurocapability’.

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Review: Brain Smart — How to regain focus, manage distractions & achieve more

Posted on April 24, 2014. Filed under: Attention Matters, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

 

Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, reviews Dr Jenny Brockis’s new book, Brain Smart.

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brain smart cover copy

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Dr Jenny Brockis, a Fellow of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners,  has long been fascinated by the brain and human behaviour. A passionate advocate for applying neuroscience in our daily lives — both personal and professional — and a regular speaker on the subject, Brockis defines her mission as the desire to become the Jamie Oliver of brain fitness and to make brain fitness as widely appreciated as nutrition.  To this end, she has published a series of short, highly readable books about the human brain and its ability to constantly learn and update itself.

The latest in the series, Brain Smart follows Brain Fit!, Brains at Work, and Brain Change. In it, Brockis outlines how to ‘pay attention to attention’, develop a sharper focus, and manage distractions in an increasingly busy and chaotic world.

According to Brockis, the book:

…introduces ideas that can help you to develop your own smartness, as well as an understanding of why our brain sometimes lets us down — why we sometimes forget things that matter to us; why we go blank when standing up to present in front of others; and why we may find ourselves at the wrong destination, wondering, “How did I get here?” and “Why do I allow myself to get side-tracked when I know I ought to be doing something else?”

Without getting too technical or overly scientific, Brockis addresses a number of issues that affect us today and shows how using knowledge from the latest neuroscience research can indeed be applied in simple ways to improve our effectiveness, our focus, and our productivity. She gives tips on how we can consciously take control of our environment and work to our strengths. Since each of us is different, this is not a matter of one size fitting all. We each need to figure out the ways our own brain works best and then design our environment and daily schedule accordingly rather than the other way around.

In the past twenty years, neuroscience research has revealed a lot about the brain that we didn’t previously know. Unfortunately, only a few have adopted these insights and incorporated them into how their organisations are run. In fact, most of today’s workplaces and work practices are still based on an outdated understanding of how people actually function.

Brockis emphasises that most workplaces are not very  ‘brain-safe’ or ‘brain-friendly’. One sign of this is seen in chronic presenteeism, when employees make it into work and even work long hours but fail to become engaged. Another issue is the ubiquity of technology and a ant stream of information that competes for attention. We need to develop ways of turning off, tuning out, unplugging. But this side of technology has not kept pace with all the new applications that draw us in. Since the brain loves novelty and can only focus intensely for short bursts, things are against us from the start.

Brain Smart is a timely volume, one that clever managers will refer to again and again. Knowing when, how, and why the human brain functions at its best is the first step towards having a fit brain. And, as Brockis says, moving from a fit brain that is optimised to be healthy to a smart brain that has greater capacity means we can be more ‘change ready-and-willing’, more innovative and collaborative, happier and more productive at work.

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.Adair Jones is a writing and communications expert with 20 years experience in a wide variety of content production. She has worked as a technical writer for industry, produced government tenders, and created promotional materials for clients across all sectors.  As a journalist, Adair contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online journals.  In addition, she has experience in academic and creative writing and editing, with a fascination for the human brain in all its manifold aspects. . . .

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Don’t let your brain boss you around

Posted on November 28, 2013. Filed under: Attention Matters, Linda Ray, neuresource group TV | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

 neuresource TV presents Linda Ray on Attentional Intelligence

Linda Ray Attentional Intelligence

Idea #1: The brain can change

One of the revolutionary insights to come out of neuroscience research over the last decade is that of neuroplasticity.

Up until recently, the brain was regarded as a physiologically static organ and that our brain structure was mostly immutable after the huge developments of early childhood. However, we now know that the brain has the ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections, something that continues throughout life.

Not only does neuroplasticity allow the neurons in the brain to compensate for injury and disease, but it can adjust in response to new situations, different stimuli, and changes in the environment.

While this seems like a small discovery, it’s hugely powerful, because it means that we are not captive to either nature or nurture in the way we once thought we were.  While both nature and nurture play important roles in shaping out brains and in forming our memories, behaviours, responses, and habits, they are not “destiny”. We have much more control than we used to believe. In effect, we can re-wire our brains.

Idea #2: Where your attention goes, energy flows

I’ve thought a lot about what neuroplasticity means – not just to the stroke or accident victim – but to all of us in our everyday lives and for us as leaders.

Simply becoming more aware of our responses and paying attention to the ways we want to alter them can give us the results we’re after. After all, where your attention goes, energy flows. And what flows through your attention sculpts your brain.

Attn chartI came up with the term “attentional intelligence” to describe the practice of using the power of attention to change the brain in subtle ways. Attentional intelligence is defined as “an intelligence that when highly developed allows you to effortlessly but ‘mindfully’ notice where your attention is at any moment and to intentionally choose where you want it to be.” It is important to be curious about our attention if we intend to improve our “attentional intelligence” and the best news is it is not hard to do. What is hard is to make it a habit. Begin more intentionally noticing what is happening for you at what we refer to as the meta sensing level. Ask yourself what is happening in your body in the moment. Are you feeling calm or are you feeling a level or panic?

Next ask where is your attention focused that may be making you feel this way. Is it focused on a thought or narrative that keeps replaying in your head like a broken record or alternatively is it exactly where it is of most benefit and where you want it to be. The key is in noticing where your attention is focused and being more intentional in where you want it to be focused.

Next look at stepping out of your thinking in an impartial spectator way and notice what is in your narrative, what are you thinking and do you need to shift your thinking to support you to focus your attention in a different direction.

Idea #3:  It takes 23 minutes to regain focus

We live in a period of unprecedented complexity and distraction. It’s very easy to lose focus, to succumb to what I call “bright shiny object” syndrome. This is actually a normal response because we now know that the brain is designed to seek novelty and stimulation. It’s just that too much stimulation and novelty seeking can wreak havoc on focus and ruin productivity.

Every time you get distracted by an email or the ping of a text message, it can take up to 23 minutes to regain focus (particularly if you were on the verge of an insight or in a really heavy thinking task). Imagine what effect this has on productivity. Not only are we bombarded by these kinds of environmental interruptions, but our internal states also vie for our attention at any given moment.

Therefore, it’s important for each of us to be aware of our own attentional profile. Are you easily distracted? Do your moods take over? Do you find yourself on automatic pilot? Harvard professor Ellen J. Langer refers to this as when “the lights are on but no one is home”.

Developing attentional intelligence can help you tame both types of distractions. The practice of noticing where your attention is and bringing it back to where you want it to be will over time re-wire your brain. You’ll be able to notice distractions for what they are – your brain looking for novelty and reward. When you understand this it can assist you to resist the constant temptation of the smorgasbord of distractions vying for our attention. You’ll be better able to focus on the task at hand and at the end of the day you might have some left over energy to do some of the fun stuff.

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Youtube iconWe’d love to know what you think!  Please subscribe to neuresource TV and let us know. 

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Linda is the Managing Director of NeuroCapability and the co-founder/director of neuresource groupThese organisations are playing key roles in developing a new generation of thinking leaders through delivery of the Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership and other innovative programs informed by neuroscience.  Linda is gaining recognition both in Australia and internationally as a thought leader in the neuroleadership field.  She is actively contributing to the body of knowledge that supports the building of individual and organisational ‘neurocapability’.

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Managing your day in a brain-friendly way

Posted on August 31, 2012. Filed under: Our Leaders Say, Practical Strategies | Tags: , , , , , , , |

The Brainwaves team is delighted to welcome Anne Parkes as a guest blogger.  Anne draws on her vast experience as a manager in the human services sector to offer this brain-friendly “Tip Sheet for Managing Your Day“.

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Let’s admit it.  Work life today overwhelms all of us at times.  But it doesn’t have to.  There are a few simple practices that we can easily weave into our day to make all the difference.

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The idea for the ‘Tip Sheet for Managing Your Day’ came from my experience of supervising Case Managers who are working in an assertive outreach capacity with complex and vulnerable families.

This work can be overwhelming and stressful though also extremely rewarding. Since I have been undertaking the Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership, I have been sharing my knowledge with the Team I manage and working at integrating my learning into my management practice. Managing in a brain friendly way is really about working smarter, not harder, and setting the scene to promote creative thinking.

A typical day for me is rising at 5.00am and leaving for work before 6.30am in order to ‘beat the rush’. Unfortunately, I’m forced to commute via a major freeway that becomes a ‘car park’ as soon as there is even a minor mishap. So from the first moments of the day, stress is built-in.

Once at work I was a master at multi-tasking. Jumping from one email to the next, one issue to the next, or many issues at the same time, not stopping all day—not even for sustenance.  In between all that, there were meetings and calls.  At the end of it all, I had to endure the commute home again, often arriving tired, ‘brain dead’ and grumpy and, worst of all, not feeling particularly satisfied with the day.

I would keep my Blackberry with me at all times, constantly checking for new messages. I felt like I was always treading water to stay afloat and could slip under at any time. I was under the illusion that the busier I was, the more effective I was being. Many work places have become so caught up in ‘red tape’ that people are constantly living with fear and threat, something that blocks innovation and creativity. As stated by Daniel Pink, ‘There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does’.

The Tip Sheet below is designed to assist worker self care and promote innovation. It helps to keep me on track, and is a useful tool in supervising staff. All the Tips are important, but I think the most crucial for me are prioritising, avoiding multi-tasking.  Also, grouping similar tasks—something known as ‘chunking’—along with focus and a regular supply of brain food are critical.  I now schedule times to check my emails, aim to focus on one task at a time, and take regular breaks. It’s amazing how much can be achieved in a block of focused time.  I also have a range of brain-friendly food in my desk drawer and ensure that I regularly refuel.

I now arrive home feeling relaxed – even after a particularly challenging drive! For the most part, I am now staying blissfully afloat and have a whole new outlook on work and life!

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