When I was a child, one of my mother’s favorite words was “focus!”
From the passenger seat, she would yell “focus” at my father when his eyes drifted to beautiful scenery and women instead of on the road.
After reading my brother’s report card which was never as good as it should be, she would say “focus” to my brother while holding his shoulders and looking him square in the eyes.
And when I would look up from my homework and begin to ramble on about my girlfriends, the latest boy I liked and what I would love to do next summer, she would put her hand on my cheek, say, “Don’t be such a girl” and sharply turn my head toward my book while whispering, “focus.”
So you can understand why it made my heart sing to read a research report that said that focusing shuts down parts of our brains, hindering self-awareness, creativity and effective communications. In fact, too much focusing may be at the root of some mental disorders
Neurobiologists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel used functional magnetic resonance imaging ( MRI) to pinpoint the brain activity associated with introspection and sensory function in the super frontal gyrus. This is the part of the brain that is activated when we attempt to figure out how we are feeling about something and how to use how we feel when deciding how to respond to a situation.
The researchers found that was when they pushed participants to respond quickly, this part of the brain shut down. When all mental efforts were focused on completing a difficult timed task, the brain assumes a robotic functionality, shutting down emotional awareness and the ability to explore more options than the one that seems right at the time.
We only become human again when we have the luxury of time.
The brain’s ability to switch off the “self” may have evolved as a protective mechanism. Ilan Goldberg who ran the Weismann study said, “If there is a sudden danger, such as the appearance of a snake, it is not helpful to stand around wondering how one feels about the situation.”
However, in today’s deadline-critical workplace, snakes and lions are around every corner. It is no wonder that we struggle with conflict and teamwork and fall victim to stress-related illnesses throughout the year. When we are forced to focus under pressure, our ability to see options, roadblocks and possibilities suffers, our empathy and compassion drains, and our sense of humor disappears.
In the end, too much focus makes us less innovative and certainly, less fun.
BRAIN TIPS: Quit making FOCUS to be so important and start putting TIME TO THINK on the daily to-do list.
- Choose the times when it is critical to put all your mental energies into a task. Then set time limits for when you want to come back down to earth.
- Break up your day with trips to get coffee or water, casual meetings with colleagues and friends, brainstorming sessions to get the creative juices flowing, and time just to sit back and think about how you are feeling about a project, an idea, or even your life.
- Set a boundary for stopping your brain from thinking about work at night. The brain needs a chance to process what it learned during the day. You need at least an hour of mindless enjoyment before you go to sleep.
It was too bad that my mother failed to see that even though I was always getting in trouble for talking and laughing in class, I still got A’s. Maybe the word “balance” doesn’t mean prioritizing tasks and responsibilities. Maybe it means that we need to balance our brains on a daily basis. I’m sure we will still get the important work done.