• Wednesday, April 17, 2024
businessday logo


How to train your brain to focus


 The next time you’re sitting in a meeting, take a look around. It’s likely you’ll see many of your colleagues browsing the Web, texting or emailing while someone else is talking or making a presentation. Many of us are proud of our ability to multitask, and doing so may help us check off more things on our to-do lists. But multitasking also makes us more prone to making mistakes, more likely to miss important information or cues, and less likely to retain information – all of which impairs our creativity and problem-solving skills.

Over the past decade, advances in neuroimaging have revealed more and more about how the brain works. Using the latest neuroimaging technology and cognitive testing, studies of adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have shown us how the brain focuses, what impairs focus – and how easily the brain can be distracted. This research comes at a time when attention deficits have spread far beyond those with ADHD to the rest of us working in an always-on world. The good news is that the brain can learn to ignore distractions, making us more focused, creative and productive.

Here are three ways you can start to improve your focus.


Frenzy is an emotional state, the feeling of being a little (or a lot) out of control. It’s often underpinned by anxiety, sadness or anger. Emotions like these are processed by the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped structure in the brain that responds powerfully to negative emotions, which it views as signals of threat. Functional brain imaging has shown that the amygdala’s response to negative emotions interferes with the brain’s ability to solve problems and do other cognitive work. Positive emotions and thoughts do the opposite – they improve the brain’s executive function, and help open the door to creative and strategic thinking.


Try to improve your balance of positive and negative emotions over the course of a day. Barbara Fredrickson, a noted psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, recommends a 3-1 ratio of positive to negative emotions, based upon mathematical modeling of ideal team dynamics by her collaborator Marcial Losada, and confirmed by research on individual flourishing and successful marriages. (You can calculate your “positivity ratio” at positivityratio.com.)

You can tame negative emotional frenzy by exercising, meditating and sleeping well. It also helps to take note of your negative emotional patterns. Perhaps a co-worker often annoys

you with some minor habit or quirk, which triggers a downward spiral. When this happens, appreciate that you may be overreacting, take a few breaths and let go of the irritation.


Begin meetings by focusing on positive and humorous topics. The positive emotions these interactions generate can improve everyone’s brain function, leading to better teamwork and problem solving.


Your brain continuously scans your internal and external environment, even when you’re focused on only one task. Distractions are always lurking – wayward thoughts, emotions or sounds. Fortunately, the brain is designed to instantly stop a random thought, an unnecessary action or even an instinctive emotion from getting you off track.


To prevent distractions from hijacking your focus, use the ABC method as your brain’s brake pedal. Become Aware of your options; Breathe deeply and consider them; then Choose thoughtfully.


Try setting up one-hour distraction-free meetings. Everyone is expected to contribute and offer thoughtful and creative input, and no distractions (like laptops, tablet computers, cellphones or other gadgets) are allowed.


Before shifting gears to take on a new task – or if you’re feeling drained while in the middle of a task_ it’s often helpful to give your brain a break. We call this shifting sets.


Before turning your attention to a new task, shift your focus from your mind to your body. Go for a walk, climb stairs, do some deep breathing or stretches. Even if you aren’t aware of it, when you’re exercising in this way your brain continues working on your last task. And sometimes new ideas can emerge.

WHAT CAN YOUR TEAM DO? Schedule a five-minute break for every hour of meeting time, and encourage everyone to do something physical rather than run out to check email. By restoring the brain’s executive function, such breaks can lead to more and better ideas when you reconvene.

Organizing your mind, and your team members’ minds, can yield solid payoffs in the year ahead. Try holding a no-multitasking meeting and see what happens when everyone in the room gives their undivided attention.

(Paul Hammerness, M.D., and Margaret Moore are the co-authors of “Organize Your Life, Organize Your Mind.’’ Hammerness is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Moore is the founder and CEO of Wellcoaches Corp. and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at


(c) 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate