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Is your attention span decreasing?

Sustained attention is the capacity to focus on a task despite fatigue or boredom – to be able to maintain attention and not be easily distracted or side tracked. You are strong in this executive skill if you are able to screen out distractions and complete a task without your mind drifting to other thoughts. But if you’re easily distracted, have trouble completing tasks, frequently interrupt yourself to deal with e-mail, text messages etc., then you have weak sustained attention skills.

There was an experiment conducted about 12 years ago that involved subjects watching a video of a basketball game. The psychologists showed the same video to everyone. A person dressed in a gorilla suit walked across the playing court during the game. Half the viewers never noticed. They coined the phrase “illusion of attention” to describe the fact that we are unaware of how much we are really missing in our visual world.

When you are focusing on a task, whether it is watching TV or working on an article or thesis, the mind tends to filter out distractions so that “intentional blindness” is a side effect of your power of concentration. If you’re not looking for it, chances are you may not see it. As a case in point, 75% of the cases where DNA evidence frees someone previously convicted of a crime, they had originally been convicted by the testimony of eye witnesses.

You can use this fact to work more efficiently by focusing on a task even in a noisy environment or one in which people are forever walking past your field of vision. If you are interested and focused on what you are doing, you will be less susceptible to self-interruptions.
Unfortunately, focusing for any length of time is difficult, and in this digital age of speed, where we are continually being bombarded and interrupted by electronic media, attention spans are becoming even shorter.

Most people seem to be able to pay attention to things that they do well, whether it is texting, drawing or working on jig saw puzzles. But they may have problems with common tasks that bring no sense of pleasure or sustained interest. These could include writing weekly reports, attending lengthy meetings or organizing their home or office. So it’s not that they are unable to pay attention for any length of time, but they may find it more boring than other people to stick to tasks that have no interest to them.

Focusing on something that is of little interest or more difficult for them consumes more of their energy. It has even been shown that making decisions consumes energy – to the extent that decisions made later in the day are not as sound as those made earlier in the day.
Also, the brain is goal-oriented, and if the expectation of achieving a goal is strong, and the rewards are great, attention is strong for longer periods of time. Therefore it would help if the tasks were reasonably easy, took shorter periods of time, were connected to a definite plan of action or schedule, and offered benefits that were clearly evident.

That’s one reason why I recommend using the 90-minute rule of scheduling. This refers to the practice of breaking projects and larger tasks into 90-minute work sessions separated by breaks, either physical or mental.

Ninety minutes is a reasonable length of time to be unavailable to other people. It also minimizes self-interruptions & fatigue, allows you to capitalize on your “prime time” each day, avoids the inefficiency of marathon work sessions, and makes it easier to build a consistent habit of working productively each day.

Those who think they are good at multitasking are usually the worst at it. Although researchers have identified a few “supertaskers,” who can focus fully on two or more things at the same time, chances are we’re not one of them. Stick to one task for 90 minutes – less if you find you can’t focus that long. If you are able to get two of these work sessions into each day, you will be head and shoulders above most people when it comes to personal productivity.

And you will be strengthening your attention skill in the process.

 

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 People who can’t control their anger really make me mad.

Emotional control, the next executive skill that we’ll discuss, is the ability to manage emotions in order to achieve goals. If you are strong in this skill you are relatively unemotional and cool under pressure. You’re not easily sidetracked, resist temptation, don’t get overly emotional if criticized, and are not easily discouraged – in short, you have emotional control.

But if you react when criticized, have difficulty controlling your anger, and are easily frustrated, you have a low emotional control.

This is a difficult one to control since so many people seem to anger easily and take comments personally. And a negative attitude and emotional state can cause stress and lower the body’s immune system. One Harvard study showed that those with the most negative attitudes at 25 suffered the most illnesses in their forties, fifties and sixties.

And another study involved 69 women with breast cancer who were asked three months after their surgery how they viewed their disease and how it affected their lives. 5 years later, 75% of those who had reacted positively and with a fighting spirit were still alive compared with less than half the others. There is little doubt that attitude can have either a negative or positive impact on your health.

If you let it, your brain will take any thought about financial problems or job insecurity or a disagreement with your spouse and create worse case scenarios to worry about. According to an article in the December 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind, research showed that “the more we dwell on negative thoughts, the more the threats feel real, and the more they will repeat in our skulls, sometimes uncontrollable.

If you use the same suggestions as under impulsiveness and you don’t answer contentious e-mail until next day or at least count to ten before answering, you might avoid the emotional impact. And if you view your mind as separate from your brain and use the “thought-stopping technique whenever you find yourself slipping into anger mode or negativity or worry, you can gain control of your brain. You have to learn to press the “delete” button when non-productive thoughts start surfacing, and you might do this by actually saying, “Stop that!” and start thinking happy thoughts instead.

Researchers find that worriers show an increased activity in the area of the brain associated with executive functions such as planning, reasoning and impulse control. Most of the suggestions in strengthening the other executive skills will help with the emotional skill as well.

A happier, healthier lifestyle is more important than ever, and along with it, an attitude that tends to stress-proof your life. It’s important to get sufficient sleep, daily exercise and social support. But it’s equally important to be aware of the good things that happen to you – those positives amid negative events. Be more conscious of the things that go right in your life, and remember that when things look bleak, humor helps. And volunteer on a regular basis. By helping others you are also helping yourself.

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How Memory Effects Our Ability to be Effective

Working memory is the ability to hold information in memory while performing complex tasks such as language comprehension, learning and reasoning. In the middle of a hectic day when you’re going from one crisis to another and you still remember that you were supposed to phone someone at a specific time, you have a strong working memory. Or you’re interrupted by a phone call and you don’t forget where you left off.

Computers with greater RAM yield better performance and so it is with working memory in humans. Dr. Zach Hambrick, a Michigan State researcher found that those with greater working memory capacity outperformed others. Studies of pilot errors in fatal airline crashes indicate that problems are rarely due to the pilot not knowing what to do or when do it, but more often due to failures in resuming a task after being interrupted.

The most important aid for coping with this weakness is to write down things and make lists. If you have to leave a project, write the next step before you leave. Before you answer the phone, or greet a drop-in visitor, jot down the first few words of your planned next sentence.

Recall is better at the beginning and end of events. For example, if you are trying to remember a nine digit number, you would easily recall the first few numbers and the last few numbers but you would find that it is more difficult to recall the ones in between. This is referred to as the “primacy effect” and “recency effect.” You tend to remember more of the information at the start and at the finish than in the middle. Working on a project or reading or studying for shorter periods of time provides more beginnings and endings. This is one of the reasons I recommend working on a project in shorter sprints rather than longer marathons.

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Some researchers feel that working memory is critical, that there is a link between working memory and ability and general cognitive performance. An article in the May 5, 2011 Toronto Globe and Mail titled “The brain can juggle only so much” by Mark Fenske, co-author of The winner’s brain, claims that practice can improve working memory. He illustrated this by using a computer-based task that requires information to be held in mind while updating it. Simply memorizing things will help. And you can become quite good at it. I used to facilitate memory training workshops, and on occasion I still do for seniors at our local church. People are amazed at what they are capable of remembering once they apply themselves.

It’s evident that if we don’t use our executive skills they will weaken. It’s similar to the impact of a sedentary lifestyle on our muscles. But not only are we outsourcing our memories to computers, and doing it willingly, some people seem to be advocating it. The personal technology columnist for the New York Times in the August, 2013 issue of Scientific American, asks “why should we mourn the loss of memorization skills any more than we pine for hot type technology, Morse code abilities or a knack for operating elevators?” Yet by letting computers do all our memorizing and dozens of other mental activities, we are weakening our brains.

I’m not against progress. Computers in the classroom? By all means. Let them take over the routine work? Absolutely. Programming them to do those time wasting jobs, including calculations? Of course. But not to the extent that they eliminate the need, ability or desire to memorize, calculate, problem solve, create, think and otherwise exercise our brains. Heaven forbid if some quirk of nature should short-circuit the world’s computers. We would all be as helpless as newborn babies.

The best thing for strengthening your memory, both working memory and long-term memory, is to exercise both your body and your brain. Do crossword puzzles, read articles and books, take educational courses, practice creativity exercises, and continually challenge yourself. If you retire physically, don’t retire mentally. Studies suggest that maintaining intellectual activity throughout life can preserve memory in later years. The Victoria Longitudinal Study in Western Canada revealed that middle-aged or older individuals who participate in intellectually challenging activities and projects, including reading, are less likely to suffer declines in cognitive functioning.

Physical exercise is even more important. You need to keep the blood flowing to the brain with the oxygen and glucose that it needs to operate at its peak. Physical exercise and other important factors such as sleep, stress reduction and brain-boosting foods will be discussed in later blogs once I have covered actions you can take to strengthen all the executive skills that we mentioned previously.

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Think before you act

It would be great if we were all strong in the executive skills listed in last week’s blog; but unfortunately few of us are. I have never met anyone who didn’t struggle at times with self-control, patience, focus, time management or other issues relevant to the executive skills described previously. Those of us who struggle excessively would probably be diagnosed as having ADHD. According to Jesse Payne, in his 2014 book Change your brain change your life before 25, in the US alone, 5.2 million children do struggle with ADHD. Then there are the adults.

The skill I will discuss here, which has a major impact on our ability to manage time, is response inhibition – the ability to think before you act. If you weigh the pros and cons before you act, work on tasks in accordance with their priority, and take a methodical approach to things, you’re probably strong in response inhibition. Weakness in this skill would give rise to impulsiveness. So if you tend to say the first thing that pops into your mind, do things without thinking about the long-term impact of such actions, and are easily distracted by urgent, unimportant or trivial matters, you are relatively weak in this skill.

According to researcher Angelina Sutin, who tracked 200 people for more than 50 years, people who score in the top 10% on impulsiveness weigh 22 pounds more than those in the bottom 10% on average. Perhaps they intend to go to the gym and something else pops up and they follow that impulse instead or they see that tempting Big Mac hamburger and go for it.

To strengthen this and any other executive skill, you must buy into the fact that you are not your brain. You can control these impulses and actually rewire your brain with sufficient effort. Besides the actions I will describe, you must also create an environment that does not support the weakness that you want to eliminate.

For example, don’t go shopping on an empty stomach, don’t have email open when you’re working on a project, and don’t have your cell phone turned on when you’re in a meeting. Studying the tapes of the marshmallow experiments, described in a previous blog, researchers detected that some kids were able to resist eating the single marshmallow by putting it out of sight or turning away from it so they couldn’t see it. That’s why you shouldn’t keep your “fat clothes” once you lose weight or keep cigarettes in the house if you’re giving up smoking.

In the same way, you shouldn’t face an uncovered window when you’re working on an important project or have personal photos and memorabilia on your desk that could encourage distractions. If your workstation is not conducive to concentration, try changing the location by having work sessions at a local coffee shop or spare boardroom.

Other things you can do are: work for shorter periods of time, structure your day by scheduling appointments with yourself to get specific things done, have specific times to check e-mail and text messages, and work with your natural body rhythms of high and low energy.

You can practice willpower. For example, break your favorite chocolate bar into 7 pieces and have only one piece a day. Grab water when you have an urge for a coke. Give up dessert for a week. Decline invitations you don’t enjoy. Don’t respond to an emotional email until the following morning. Use the stairs instead of the elevator, and so on. The more you practice self-discipline, the more your inner strength grows, just like exercising at a gym increases your physical strength. Your brain will be rewired through the repetition of good habits so keep at it until it becomes a habit.

It’s important that you have goals and objectives and plans to achieve them. Then you have a reason to resist the temptation to go wherever your impulses take you. The more you resist temptation, the easier it becomes. Self-discipline is the rejection of instant gratification in favor of something better – a higher and more rewarding goal.

There are many things, such as exercise, that you can do to strengthen all your cognitive skills, including the executive skills, but these will be covered after briefly discussing each executive skill in turn. But I should mention here that it’s believed that exercise may inspire healthier choices by altering structure in the brain that deal with self-regulation and impulse control.

In the next blog will discuss working memory and what you can do to improve it.