In today’s world of noise and distraction, focus is one of the more coveted traits among leaders.
Indeed we chug coffee, drown out office banter with our headphones, and glue our eyes to screens for hours to concentrate on the task at hand. Yet as praised as it is, there is a downside to our obsession with focus.
New research shows that focus – in excess – exhausts the focus circuit in our brain, draining both our energy and sense of self-control.
New research shows that focus – in excess – exhausts the focus circuit in our brain, draining both our energy and sense of self-control. As the focus circuit exhausts, we become more impulsive and thus more prone to hasty – and faulty – decision making. According to HBR, “Both focus and unfocus are vital, [and] the brain operates optimally when it toggles” between the two states.
When we unfocus, we engage a brain circuit called the “Default Mode Network,” or the DMN. Historically, researchers called this the “Do Mostly Nothing” circuit because it only lit up on a brain scan when one stopped focusing with effort. Today, however, we know that the DMN is doing anything but resting. (In fact, the DMN circuit uses 20% of the body’s energy, while focusing with effort uses only 5%.)
The DMN is responsible for activating the following processes in the unconscious brain:
- Engaging old memories
- Recombining aspects from our past, present and future to create new ideas and frameworks
- Moving us to empathize and tune into others’ thinking
In short, activating the DMN through periodic moments of unfocus allows us to access data that develops our own self-awareness and creativity, as well as our ability to collaborate and understand others. These abilities, beyond our ability to focus, are what work together to create today’s most respected leaders.
These abilities, beyond our ability to focus, are what work together to create today’s most respected leaders.
How do I activate my DMN circuit?
Try these simple, effective and research-based methods to tune into the DMN circuit throughout the workday.
- Positive Constructive Daydreaming (PCD): PCD is different from mindlessly daydreaming or guiltily rehashing mistakes. It’s simple: to start, choose a low-focus activity – such as walking or casual reading – and settle into your mind without controlling your thoughts. Then, simply imagine something light and wishful, perhaps a walk through the woods or a swim in the ocean. According to researcher Jerome Singer, who studied PCD for decades, this practice will help you:
- Enhance your sense of self
- Connect ideas across your brain to enhance innovation
- Reach into the nooks and crannies of your brain to uncover old memories that are crucial to your identity today
- Take a Rest: When you feel depleted, your clarity and creativity are compromised. While we can’t all escape to our nap pods (think: Google), you may be able to close your eyes for 10 minutes at your desk during a break or lunch hour. Studies show that 10-minutes of intentional rest ignites the DMN circuit, boosting our clarity upon returning to the task at hand. For some, a 10 minute walk might feel even better.
- The Stereotype Effect: This one sounds outlandish – even to us – but research shows it works! In a recent study, researchers told half of the participants to act like an “eccentric poet” and the other half to act like a “rigid librarian” while completing a creative task. Those who embodied the behavior of the creative poet scored highest on the creativity test. This practice allows you to get out of your own head for a while – and turns on the DMN circuit.