I have ADD and write about managing attention and distraction at work.
Raise your hand if you’ve heard a thousand times that today’s world is unprecedented and that we’re on our way to a new normal. But how do those words help you navigate the towering levels of pandemic contagion, economic upheaval, and racial unrest that have all been served up at the same time?
As our brains struggle to process this turbulence — to zoom out for the big picture of our lives, our businesses, and our world — there may be too much smoke and dust in the air for us to see the contours of what lies ahead. There’s still much confusion, and it’s hard to know where to focus.
I study how the brain works as it relates to focus and attention, particularly at work. So, I am interested in how this moment is impacting the minds of leaders. The decisions and plans that are made as these events spiral forward will come from those minds.
I promise you no easy answers and I come with no social commentary in this piece. However, I am here to tell you what your brain is going through so that you can watch for the mental potholes that might derail the decision-making capabilities that are critically needed today.
How Your Brain Adjusts to Turbulence
First, let’s talk about wiring. Your brain comes with some existing programming, protocols, and pathways that affect your focus, how you manage, and how you adjust to fear. When you encounter turbulence, your brain doesn’t automatically adjust these systems as rapidly as you might expect. Under the camouflage of an adrenaline rush, it may seem that your brain is adapting quickly, but it is an illusion.
Consider the analogy of a person who sets sail on a ship for several days. At first, as the motion of the ocean causes the ship to pitch and roll, his body will do the same. He’s not drunk, but neither can he stand up and walk in a straight line. The more pronounced the ocean’s swells, the more he’ll careen into walls, spill his coffee, and grab for the nearest railing to keep from losing his footing.
It takes a day or two for most people to get their sea legs. And that’s not because of inner ear or vision issues, according to expert kinesiologist, Dr. Thomas Stoffregen. It’s because new movement patterns must be learned. The brain needs time to interpret the signals it receives and recalibrate “walking” based on the new learning it accumulates. Then, somewhere in the afternoon of the second day, our traveler is doing fine again.
Let’s suppose our fictional friend had intended to use his few days at sea to focus on an important project he planned to lead. But when these external, even adversarial, conditions hijacked his motor skills, his attention was urgently diverted elsewhere. He’ll still need to concentrate on his plan, but he has lost precious time.
In today’s environment, where leaders face complexity, uncertainty, and rapid readjustments, our brains are experiencing a similar disorientation — less obviously so, perhaps, but in similar ways. Not only has our attention been diverted and our focus disrupted, but our brains are also swamped with stress because we, too, have lost our figurative footing.
Back in January, if you had set a long-term business goal, chances are it was no longer part of your consciousness by May. That’s partly because of external circumstances; but also because your brain may be so attuned to the daily and weekly eruptions of renewed turbulence, and so responsive to stressors that come with a constant state of flux, that it is still trying to keep you from bumping into walls. While your mind is in this state, you’ll be making less than optimal decisions, probably without realizing it.
The truth is, the more our focus gets disrupted, the worse we are at making good decisions. But unlike those who pilot their own boats, as a leader, you are not the only one depending on your mental steadfastness.
So give your mind a hand by looking out for the mental traps that can keep you off balance. And just like someone struggling with equilibrium at sea, keep your eye locked on the distant horizon to help your brain see the goal ahead. In the end, it’s what you focus on, not what distracts you, that will determine the outcomes of those you lead, your company, your community, and your life.
Mind Trap #1 - Too Much to Process
Technology changed the boundaries of what can disturb our attention, and even before this global crisis, we went right along with that idea, granting the Digital Age unlimited, 24/7 access to our lives. In doing so, we were already overwhelmed by the channels through which we receive and process information. Now, add the pandemic, the economic storm, and widespread racial tension to the mix.
If you’re drinking from the firehose of constant media and information, you’re drowning in overload. Trying to keep the same data processing pace as your company’s server is a losing proposition. It is impossible to attempt to consume that much and lead well and make good decisions.
As an advocate for your mind, I’d like to remind you that you are human and not a machine. Indeed, trying to become a machine may be the first indication of impaired decision-making.
To make its best decisions, your brain needs the right information, not more information.
This is the mind trap for leaders:
- Consuming too much data without rigorously filtering the flow to a lean and pertinent stream.
- Once overwhelmed, becoming paralyzed in the face of the deluge.
- Failing to give your brain enough human time to recover, learn, and recalibrate. Every day, find calm away from the storm to stare at the horizon, take the long view, and avoid being distracted now by what will be seen as trivial then.
Mind Trap #2 - Perceived Loss of Control
Like a bizarre funhouse hall of mirrors, technology and media can distort the importance of events that are beyond our control. Surreal times and events can cause leaders to misinterpret what is real, and then overreact, underreact, or retreat into paralysis.
The parameters that have always shaped and guided our attention no longer exist, as global market forces have taken on a life of their own. Even your smartphone can take your brain on a carnival of headlines that leave you reeling — the topsy-turvy train of economics, spinning teacups of social media storms, pendulum rides of pandemic news, and roller coaster of racial tension, followed by a reminder that you’re “due to Zoom” in ten minutes from your spare bedroom.
In this whirlwind, we may be tempted to believe that we have no control over where things begin and end, that people we don’t know have unaccountable authority over us, and that our part in this Kafkaesque global tale may be meaningless.
It is in moments like these, I like to recall the saying, "To the world, you may be one person, but to one person, you may be the world." It is a healthy reminder that we do have agency, control, and significance, especially to those around us. We directly affect the quality of others' lives.
Protect your mind by filtering out the temptations of emotional and non-essential news and noise. Take into each day an open mind fed by information that is valid, crucial, objective, and timely. That will result in the best decisions at the moment you need to make them.
Give your brain time to sit in peace and reflect in a quiet place. Let the world be without you for a bit. Center on what is real.
And be mindful of the traps associated with lack of control:
- Overreacting or underreacting.
- Being swallowed up by the surreal and disturbing.
- Giving in to a sense of meaninglessness.
- Losing touch with how your impact can benefit others.
Mind Trap #3 - Fear of the Unknown
Many of us fear for the survival of our businesses and livelihoods. We stress about a virus with no cure. We have deepening angst about racial tensions and political divisions. It’s turmoil everywhere, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next week, next month, or next year.
Not knowing causes mental stress because our brains are hardwired to consider the unknown as a threat.
Fear of the unknown is a driver for our brains. In fact, according to the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, it may be the fundamental fear, and not just in humans. It’s perpetually on, hovering like a bodyguard, always ready to get us out of a bad situation.
And it has an impatient feature, too. If the unknown lasts too long, your brain will try to push you to accept a known negative consequence over an unknown future event.
That is why some innocent people will agree to plea bargains, some trustworthy spouses will stay with cheating partners, and some respected employees will work for abusive bosses.
That said, our brain is also wired to explore, figure out, and unveil. So, when you flip “the great unknown” on its head, you can trade fear for the opportunity to investigate, research, and innovate. That is the impulse that leaders must harness in themselves and their people — to embrace the discovery, not the fear.
Be mindful of these mind traps:
- Leaders may be more fearful of the unknown than logic warrants.
- Humans are driven to accept negative consequences now over unknown futures, and that can sabotage long-term plans.
- Leaders who succumb to fear can’t help their people find the opportunity in the unknown, such as invention and discovery.
Awareness of these mind traps is a first step. If you find yourself giving in to information overload, feelings of purposelessness, or fear, calmly steer your way back to the long-term view of the horizon. If you can, envision the situation from that successful future point, and map your route from there back to where you are now.