Focus Time – The Healthy Mind Platter (8/8)

Daily Life, Neuroscience, Theoretics

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Focus Time – Attention management for performance

Today’s business context is characterized by a number of tendencies that combined have radically increased the fragmentation of time. Developments in communication and information technology have multiplied and made more immediate and intricate the nature of our connectivity. Globalization has intensified competition and with it customers increasingly expect 24/7 access, just-in-time deliveries, and minimum waiting times. in turn, firms expect their managers to be flexible, mobile, and available to meet customer expectations.

With a steady increase of women in the labor force, dual earner families have become the norm, and juggling work and family responsibilities are now a concern for both men and women. in this context time is being fragmented and focus scattered. There is less time available for more tasks and responsibilities. Since time is a scarce resource, those skilled in (re-)focusing quickly and staying focused within fragments of time will thrive and be more successful. This requires the capacity to manage one’s attention: to focus entirely on the person or task at hand while also exerting self-control to block out interferences.

The central component of the Healthy Mind Platter for those concerned not just with brain health but also performance is undoubtedly focus time: the time we are able to focus, stay focused and refocus efficiently and effectively. Focusing attention involves several functions, including alerting, orienting, and executive control. The executive capacity to focus is dependent on a well-developed prefrontal cortex (PFC), also referred to as the executive part of the brain, responsible for most of the higher cognitive functions organizing actions, both physical and mental. The PFC’s functions are wide and varied; they include capacities such as: (1) working memory, involved in organizing and structuring information, remembering self and creating images of the possible future, for consequence evaluation, and long-term planning; and (2) processes for monitoring behavior and inhibiting pre potent responses, including emotion regulation and self-observation. Our executive functions allow us to reconsider the environment moment to moment and make choices that may be different to our automatic responses.

When we focus we activate working memory long enough to allow other recombinant processes to happen within this “chalkboard of the mind.” This consists of encoding the information through the activity of the hippocampus and parts of the cortex to create linkages among aspects of experience that encode both context and the explicit elements of factual and autobiographical memory. ultimately, these forms of explicit memory can be flexibly retrieved enabling us to have a context for the present, an understanding of the past, and to more effectively plan for the future as we harness the power of the prefrontal cortex.
To focus is to pay close attention. Attention is a complex process involving multiple parts of the brain related to perception, arousal, emotion, and memory. The attention process, akin to putting “a spotlight” on something, consists of three stages which involve different parts of the brain, and different systems (norepinephrine and dopamine): (1) Alerting (Reticular Activating system, brainstem, thalamus), activated by fear or novelty; (2) Orienting (thalamus, superior colliculus, parietal cortex), to orient or direct the focus of processing on input from the sensory organs or internally generated neural activity from the cortex; and (3) executive functions (PFC, ACC, striatum) that can hold information in mind and make choices about processes as they occur.

“A lack of stimulation (boredom) and overstimulation (stress)
leads to impairment of executive functions,
distraction, and lack of focus.”

These higher cognitive functions mediated by the PFC have been found to require adequate levels of catecholamines, which in turn are altered by levels of arousal or stress. A lack of stimulation (boredom) and overstimulation (stress) leads to impairment of executive functions, distraction, and lack of focus. in these conditions, the brain can be altered to enter a state of hypo- or hyper-vigilance that can impair performance. Attention can therefore be considered to be dependent on a state of optimal arousal that activates our body and mind to process the incoming information and respond adequately. In order for a person to function at optimal levels of arousal, predictability and a sense of control are necessary. Deep breathing, mindfulness (openness and acceptance to what arises in the field of attention), and framing the stressor as controllable or transient can also help to maintain or bring a person back to optimal levels of arousal and attentional focus. in short, there is a direct relationship between stress, focus, and health. One could even propose that the capacity to focus attention is an ongoing indicator of mental fitness. Many mental difficulties such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease are characterized by attention problems.

Another aspect of focus time is sustaining attention, or staying focused, which is a function of self-control. This important function of motoric, cognitive, and emotional control is mediated by activity in the (ventrolateral) prefrontal cortex (areas 44, 45, and 47). Lesions or dysfunction in this area are associated with obsessive- compulsive behavior and addictions. The exertion of self- control appears to depend on a limited resource. Just as a muscle gets tired from exertion, acts of self-control cause short-term impairments (mental depletion) in subsequent self-control, even on unrelated tasks. Research has supported this strength framework for understanding the possible challenges in the domains of eating, drinking, spending, sexuality, intelligent thought, making choices and interpersonal behavior. These authors note that motivational or framing factors can temporarily block the deleterious effects of being in a state of mental depletion, and that blood glucose is a component of the energy required for effective executive control.

Last but not least there is the capacity to re-focus following distraction or during multi-tasking. Given the limited capacity of our working memory, rather than processing multiple sources of information simultaneously, we continuously switch our spotlight of attention back and forth between different stimuli. As a consequence we divide attention, and allocate less time to each task, or distribute a given focus in divided ways over a longer time span. The logical consequence is that multi-tasking impairs performance, also referred to as “dual task interference.” According to Meyer, multitasking requires multiple cognitive micro-processes, involving multiple regions of the brain, including the dorsolateral PFC for goal- shifting and refocusing attention, the posterior parietal lobe for activating the task’s procedural rules, the ACG for error monitoring, and the pre-motor cortex for anticipatory movement preparation. The time required for executing all these micro-processes depends on a series of criteria, but in general increases with the number of interruptions, switching from one task to the other.

In the Healthy Mind Platter, focus time involves the application of a singular attentional focus on a task that permits a sense of mastery and completion. Focus time enables an individual to avoid the sense of being overwhelmed and incomplete that so often accompanies multitasking. Focus time is both a cognitive process necessary for effective performance, and an intentional effort that requires self-control, both of which require energy and the management of stress. This has important implications for self-management – keeping down the “switching-time costs” of multitasking which diminishes cognitive performance. in these ways, focus time is helpful for the process of a sense of efficacy in the outcome of efforts and the effective sense of contributing to work output.

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Source: NeuroLeadership Institute.

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