Sunday, December 1, 2013

Author of "Emotional Intelligence" offers tips for strengthening your attention span

Daniel Goleman is author of the widely read book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.  In this post from the Harvard Business Review Blog he shares some interesting research that finds top performers across a wide variety of fields make rest an important part of their training regiment along with intensity.  While white collar professionals like lawyers believe they can and need to push through the loss of focus and attention that is inevitably part of every busy work day expecting to find their "second wind," in fact our ability to focus continues to deteriorate resulting in costly mental errors unless we take a break.  There are also "mental calisthenics" we can do that will help strengthen our attention span as well.

To Strengthen Your Attention Span, Stop Overtaxing It

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Anders Ericcson, a psychologist at the University of Florida who studies top performers, has found that world-class competitors from weight lifters to pianists limit the arduous part of their practice routine to a maximum of about four hours each day. Rest is part of their training regimen, to restore their physical and mental energy. They push themselves to their max, but not past it.


This work-rest-work-rest cycle also applies to helping our brain maintain maximal focus at work. In the workplace, concentrated focus allows us to use our skills at their peak.  Researchers at the University of Chicago found, for instance, that at moments when people perform at the top of their game they are completely absorbed in the task at hand, whether brain surgery or making a three-pointer in basketball.


Top performance requires full focus, and sustaining focused attention consumes energy – more technically, your brain exhausts its fuel, glucose. Without rest, our brains grow more depleted. The signs of a brain running on empty include, for instance, distractedness, irritability, fatigue, and finding yourself checking Facebook when you should be doing your work.

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A reasonable response is one executives today rarely make: give yourself a break. All too often we try to “push through it.” But there is no magical energy reserve waiting for us – our performance will more likely slowly deteriorate as we push on through the day.


The decay in cognitive efficiency as we push past our reserves — well-documented in research labs – shows up in an executive’s day as a mounting level of mistakes, forgetting, and momentary blankouts. As one executive put it, “When I notice that my mind has been somewhere else during a meeting, I wonder what opportunities I’ve been missing right here.”

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Attention is a mental muscle, and can be strengthened with the right practice. The basic move to enhance concentration in the mental gym: put your focus on a chosen target, like your breath. When it wanders away (and it will), notice that your mind has wandered. This requires mindfulness, the ability to observe our thoughts without getting caught up in them.


Then bring your attention back to your breath. That’s the mental equivalent of a weightlifting rep. Researchers at Emory University report that this simple exercise actually strengthens connectivity in the circuits for focus.

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Continue reading here.


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