performance

7 Simple Ways to Improve Your Focus

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One of the most common problems that working people face worldwide is the chronic lack of focus.

In a world where we are bombarded with stimuli from social media, apps, and our computers, it’s no wonder we suck at being efficient.

Research indicates that employees on average waste as much as 60 hours every month on various distractions. That’s a significant amount of wasted time.

According to various studies, once your brain is distracted, it takes between 5 and 15 minutes for the brain to recalibrate and get back on track.

In the interest of being focused, let’s jump in and talk about some common focus-killers and effective strategies to tackle this elephant – one bite at a time.

Common Workplace Distractions

  • Phones - Since accessing your social media profiles is a couple of clicks away, it's easy to fall into the temptation to glance at your iPhone every couple of minutes.
  • E-mails - Another time waster is constantly checking emails.
  • Hunger - This one may sound like a no-brainer, but hunger is one of the primary culprits for lack of concentration in the workplace.
  • Multitasking - Often seen as valuable skill, multitasking is actually a nasty vice that's bound to drain your energy and leave you disoriented and disorganized.
  • Idle Chatter - Even though having regular conversations with your colleagues are vital to a healthy corporate culture, too many random interruptions are detrimental to productivity.

Who’s the culprit?

The part of your brain that is the most responsible for managing focus, is the prefrontal cortex.

It is closely connected to key functions such as decision so it’s calling the shots when it comes to managing your thoughts and actions. It also plays a major part in regulating our attention span. Essentially – the part of the brain that is responsible for concentrating on a task, is also the most susceptible to getting distracted.

The good news is that neuroscience research has revealed that our brains are plastic, and they can be trained to become more focused.

So, how do you train your brain? I’ve listed seven ways to do this.

Seven Ways to Improve Your Focus

1. Be Mindful – Mindfulness comes in two forms but I’ll focus on just one of them here – informal mindfulness. This involves paying close attention to the little things we do every day – something we often miss because of the busyness of our work days.

Cultivating it fair fairly simple, but it requires consistency. It also requires you to have an open mind because this stuff may seem a little bizarre. I work with engineers and technical leaders who think initially think this these techniques are silly – until they try it!  

A couple daily practices where you can apply this:

  • The next time you wash your hands, pay close attention to the temperature of the water, watch how your hands interact with the water and soap, Watch closely and be fully immersed in the experience.
  • When you drink your next cup of coffee or tea, observe the smell, taste and even the sound of you sipping that beverage. Again, be in the moment and avoid gulping it down with a phone in one hand and the computer in front of you.

2. Switch It Off – Way too many people check their phones every few minutes. Research indicates that employees tend to spend an average of 56 minutes on their cellphones every day (and that’s just while they’re at work).

We live in a world, where people feel deprived if they don’t have their phones on them. Resisting this device is perhaps one of the most challenging battles of the 21st century. Discipline will help you train your brain to focus on what matters.

Turn your phone off when you’re working on specific projects. And don’t stop there. Put it away -in a drawer or some place you can’t easily access. Seeing it infront of you is enough of a temptation.

Remind yourself that the only time you can take a look at it, is once you’ve completed the piece of work that you were focused on. Sometimes that means putting it away for 30 minutes, sometimes it means 5 hours.

3. Stop The Dinging - If you’re notorious for turning on notifications on your phone or computer, know this - you’re feeding your brain crack. Not literally but close. Research has proven that we get a high from being notified that someone liked our post or sent us a message. Turn those notifications off if it causes you to check your phone every time it findings.

4. Breathe - Engage in the practice of steady breathing by setting aside two minutes each day to notice your breath. Find a comfy spot with little distraction. Breathe in through your nose, breathe out through your mouth. When you breathe in, feel the air enter your lungs, expand into your chest, and then into your stomach. When you exhale, feel the tension being released.

5. Walk -  If you’re feeling unfocused and overwhelmed, stop. Get out of your office or workstation. If possible, get outside and into the fresh air. Walk for about 5 minutes and when you’re back at your desk, the next 55 minutes will be the most productive they’ve been.

6. Create Flow - In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the renown psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states that happiness and joy in life can be achieved through creating a personal raison d’être for ourselves.

Rather than resorting to  external quick-reward mechanisms, having a sort of ‘unifying theme’ in life helps us achieve serenity and joy regardless of the surrounding circumstances and distractions. If you’re interested in human nature and what makes humans move forward, you should definitely check out this book!

7. Meditation - Meditation can do wonders for concentration. Successful entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and even UFC’s tough guy Joe Rogan are known to practice meditation on a daily basis.

Meditating relaxes your tensed up body, clears brain fog, and helps you reset your thoughts in a relatively short period of time. Anyone can do it, and you don’t need a meditation room and a special calming setting to do this. 10 minutes in your office or car might end up being just fine, if that’s all you have.

If you’re unsure how to get started, there’s help, and it’s in the form of an app called Headspace. My clients swear by it.

Now that you know these 7 strategies, you should be less likely to be distracted by cat videos and the dinging of your phone.

Even Tibetan monks are bound to divert their attention from their tasks every now and again, but giving in to various distractions on a regular basis can hamper your productivity and waste tons of time for no good reason.

That being said, the art of focus isn’t rocket science. All you need is a little bit of effort and intention.

Science says that our brains are only as effective as we train them to be so reading this article is step 1. It’s time to put theory into practice.

P.S. If you’re a neuroscience geek like I am, here are some additional techniques to exercise your prefrontal cortex (focus center) and getting it moving like a well-oiled engine.

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Simone Brown is a performance coach who helps leaders and teams increase productivity. Her approach is grounded in  behavioural and brain-based strategies. She believes success isn’t just about talents and smarts, it’s about the development of emotional intelligence. Simone is also a speaker, and talks about topics such as emotional intelligence, millennials, and the importance of purpose.

Bias Bit Starbucks in the Butt & Why You Could Be Next!

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Following the event that recently took place in one of Starbucks stores in Philadelphia, Starbucks officials have found themselves in some potentially deep trouble. They've received quite a lot of heat from the press. So much heat, that they decided to close all their US-based stores for a day. That's some 8,000 stores, for the record. I’ll let you do the Math on lost revenue that resulted from this.

Whether or not racial bias was the sole cause of the incident, this event has set into motion a much-necessary avalanche of deep-thinking and questions, from executives and companies across the world. One of them being:

Is unconscious bias hindering our company’s success?

Science marks subconscious bias as a negative trait, and in the context of managing people and making effective business decisions, it has significant negative repercussions. If you're a business owner or leader, you may want to examine this sooner rather than later, or you might just fall victim to what Starbucks did. 

In my work with leaders, I help them identify and mitigate multiple forms of bias. There are almost 20 biases. And every one of them messes with your decision-making ability. Until your team does a deep dive into the topic, consider these common areas of business where bias reveals itself:

  • Hiring Bias - Occurs at the very beginning of the potential work relationship. Based on the applicant’s race, skin colour, their name color or even that tattoo you happen to spot on their way in, you’re prone to bias. The people in the interview may prejudge the candidate and decide against hiring them without giving this person a fair chance.
  • Performance Review Bias - If we decide to perceive a person in a certain way in advance, we may unconsciously look for flaws in their performance at work, and emphasize the bad stuff while undervaluing the excellent work they do. Similarly, if someone favours (or owes them a favour), they’re likely to say far too many good things.
  • Promotion Bias- A person pre-labeled as faulty or possessing an undesirable personality feature is highly likely to be omitted when it’s time to evaluate them for a promotion. Watch out because you might just be overlooking someone who could get out there and create a lot more success for another company, or heck – they might even become your competitor.

Three Examples of Workplace Bias

  • Halo Effect - Occurs when we 'decide' that we like a certain person. Whether it's thanks to a positive first impression or some particular personality trait we like about them, we may end up treating a person better than anyone else. It happens due to a blurred perception, where we concentrate on the good and ignore or downplay the bad in a person.
  • Horns Effect - The exact opposite of the aforementioned 'halo effect.’ If someone makes a wrong first impression on us or makes a blunder, we may end up judging all of their subsequent actions based on our pre-made evaluation of that person. Quite unfortunate, and this can change how we perceive their abilities, skills and talent. The result – good people get missed and don’t have a chance to contribute to the success of your company. 
  • Beauty Bias – Humans rely on visual input to create their realities. It is a fundamental survival technique, but our brains have evolved over time and we now need to be mindful of the impact that visual cues offer us. Some studies indicate that beautiful people are considered to have a higher likelihood of success. On the flip side, someone’s looks may cause people to avoid taking them seriously. Women in the workplace are often conscious about people not perceiving them as “smart and capable” because they are ”pretty.” That bias also plays into working relationships with co-workers. People who are perceived as better looking might end up being the target or jealous or insecure colleagues.

So, how do you battle bias?

If nothing else, focus on these two simple strategies

  • Staff Training - As a business leader, the first step toward battling bias in your workforce is to familiarize your staff with the concept and its detrimental effects on team performance, company culture, productivity and the overall results of your business. Create space for open dialogue about this. If people don’t understand how their brains operate, they can’t change their behaviours.

Addressing unconscious bias is not just a fad. Failing to address this has a huge cost for your company (or perhaps it already has!). You might be driving away good people and promoting bad people and bad behaviours. Once staff is trained, monitor every-day habits to ensure bias doesn’t creep into their decision making.

  • Create Diverse & Inclusive Teams - Diversity has often been misunderstood. Companies need to cultivate two forms of diversity - cognitive and identity diversity. When they do this, people are less likely to display bias in their decision-making. A diverse team brings in multiple perspectives and new ways of thinking.

Diversity also teaches people the value of those who look and think differently from them. When diverse teams interact with each other, they open their brains to alternative ways and thoughts. In general, diversity is a powerful thing. Multiple studies have linked diversity to improved performance. It’s a key element in smarter and highly productive teams. It’s also a powerful way to minimize unconscious bias.

Companies may never be able to fully eliminate subconscious bias, and that’s not the goal. What companies need to focus on, is minimizing the impact of bias.

If you have a brain, you are biased. Bias helps us pick our friends, decide what we want to buy, what we’d like to wear and the types of vacations we take. Bias can help us but it can also bite us in the butt, the way it did Starbucks.

As leaders and organizations work through bias, keep in mind that this is something that happens naturally. There’s no need to crucify an employee for displaying bias (especially if he had no clue) but it is important to make them aware and have them become more mindful of their actions.

Right from the hiring process, understand the role of unconscious bias. Create structures that assess and mitigate these biases. Leaders must emphasize cooperation and nurture a merit-based workplace culture. Encourage conversations between your staff and let everyone describe their experience working at your organization. Invite your clients and customers in the dialogue (or 'trialogue,' rather), and ask for their feedback.

Bringing our unconscious to the forefront is the first step in tackling bias. Engage in conversations, educate yourself and your employees, and then start taking bite-sized steps to consciously shifting your mindset, and your actions.