Written by Ani Wilson
The phone rings, and we shift our focus sideways to stare at it with malicious intent. If genies were real, instead of wishing for a million dollar home right now, we’d be just as happy for a moments respite from the constant interruptions throughout our working day.
Just one moment.
Isn’t this the sad reality of living and working in 2017? How many times have I looked into the eyes of an over-worked, highly stressed manager or executive and seen a desperate but silent plea for help.
With positional authority comes responsibility.
And there’s no greater responsibility in business than to lead a team to success and inspire momentous achievement, but with that responsibility comes what is now almost a requirement for success; high and chronic levels of stress.
Recent studies estimate that we allow no fewer than 12 unplanned interruptions every hour to enter our focus; more, depending on work function.
Do the math and you’ll quickly realise that this means we lose intended focus every 6 minutes or so, whether through direct queries from staff or colleagues, urgent email requests or phone interruptions. On paper this statistic could justify our level of stress, but it’s just the first piece of this overwhelming puzzle.
The brain, in all its magical glory can only focus on one task efficiently at any given time. Numerous studies have shown that although high performers are proficient at multitasking, the act of multitasking is an oxymoron. When we multitask, various areas of the brain activate, as shown using electromagnetic resonance technology. This activity is scattered and weak in areas, meaning that although we reach our goal, we don’t do so efficiently even when we think we do.
When we focus our attention on one task however, the left pre-frontal cortex dominantly illuminates, allowing our brains to resolve even the most difficult problems with expedited results.
Therefore isn’t it in our favour to break our high performing habitual nature to multi task and focus on one thing at a time?
Thus this brings us straight back to that fervent and consistent phone beeping, ringing, and vibrating in the peripheral of our gaze. Stare at it all you like, try to ignore it even, but no matter how much you try, that simple little interruption has already cost you dearly.
Every time we move our focus from one task to another, it takes a minimum of 2 minutes to recover back to the same level of concentration that we had prior to that interruption.
So now do the math again…
12 interruptions per hour, each taking about 2 minutes on average to resolve (if we’re quick), with a further 2 minutes wasted trying to activate the correct neural commands to gain the clarity needed to continue our task, and where does this leave us?
…with a proficiency score of 30% that’s where.
For every hour worked, it’s estimated we proficiently utilise only 20 minutes. We short change ourselves daily.
So, what about our ‘wellness prompts’ that remind us to get up out of our chairs and walk around every 50 minutes or so? Be honest, even if, like me, you work as you walk and talk, allowing yourself only one morning coffee break and a short visit to the café to snatch that 10 minute sandwich/salad, again surely this also is impacting the available time in the day dedicated to mental performance?
No wonder we’re stressed!
No wonder, in our hyper-kinetic world where we’re constantly being prompted to check our iPhones or Facebook, we’re more inclined to take our work home, where we can focus again once the kids are safely and soundly asleep, on catching up on those deadlines.
The very driver to make things easier for us, to become more flexible with how we work, where we work, and how we find our information, is causing our brains to combust pushing us over the edge to burnout.
So I ask you; with a focused 80 minutes a day (yes I said a DAY), after the above calculations, estimations and assumptions are made, how effective are you really at being the best person, parent, colleague and leader that you can be?
If you know how your brain works and what it needs in order to survive, then deciphering fact from fiction is simple. When you understand why your brain does what it does, working out the best strategy is as easy as 1 2 3.
- With deadlines looming, it pays to send all neural intent to your pre-frontal cortex. Move your laptop in to a closed office space, block out your calendar, put headphones on, turn your phone off.
Do whatever it takes to command 80 minutes of single task focus.
Don’t sweat the small stuff.
At times like these, it’s imperative that the frontal lobe is kept active in order to reduce the noise and impact of our stress response promoted by the Amygdala. Focusing on future events, future outcomes, or planning forward is the fastest way to strengthen the connection and communication to this area of the brain.
- As our levels of stress rise, skip breathing or shallow breathing increase in regularity. Our brains use over 20% of the oxygen we inhale, but remember that O2 is only pushed in to the bloodstream on our exhale. The slower and longer the exhale, the more oxygen that is actively pushed across the blood barrier. When we skip breathe or shallow breathe we literally starve our brain of the essential oxygen it needs for optimal mental performance.
So in your moment of stress remember to slow your breath, breathing deeply and steadily, thereby feeding your brain and supporting your efforts to be the best you can be.
In our attempts to be everything to everyone, whilst silently suffering for our achievements under broken walls of stress, we forget the basics.
Sometimes all we need is to ask “what does my brain need right now?” The answers are simple yet so effective when we take care of the power house that controls us – our beautiful brain.
Ani Wilson is a speaker for the TelTalk: Avoiding Leadership Burnout in Adelaide on 20th June 2017.