You may be asking, “can I increase my executive focus or is my brain power set with no hope for improvement?” There is a wealth of research around brain development. A synopsis would be to state that your brain is a thinking organ that learns and grows by interacting with the world through perception and action. Mental stimulation improves brain function and actually protects against cognitive decline, as does physical exercise.
The human brain is able to continually adapt and rewire itself. Even in old age, it can grow new neurons. Severe mental decline is usually caused by disease, whereas most age-related losses in memory or motor skills simply result from inactivity and a lack of mental exercise and stimulation. In other words, use it or lose it.
If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.
Leaders who do not want to plateau in their cognitive skills and continue to improve their abilities to focus have many techniques available that are easy and fun. There is science abounding that proves that aging people who travel, take up new activities, read and learn a new language improve their brainpower. One simple focus exercise is to close your eyes in the morning while getting ready for work. Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand while keeping your eyes closed. Try to brush your hair, eyes closed, with that non-dominant hand, as well. This experience will demonstrate how the brain will adjust to previously learned muscle responses. After some repetition you can use that weaker hand to do everyday tasks. Amazingly, we can learn to dance, perform a new sport and take up watercolor painting as senior adults. Just as we learned to tie our shoes as kids, we struggled, we practiced and our brains developed, the same process happens with new activities. Want to stay sharp? Keep focusing on new things.
Before birth each of our bodies created neurons, the brain cells that communicate with each other, at the rate of fifteen million per hour. When we were born into the world, our hundred billion neurons were ready to organize themselves in response to our new environment, no matter the culture, climate, language, or lifestyle. During infancy, billions of these astonishing cells intertwined into the immense networks that integrated our nervous system. By the time we were four or five years old, our essential cerebral architecture was complete.
Available brain science research is expansive. Practically speaking, focus comes with exercising our thought processes through intentional activities like (1) reading outside of your knowledge area, (2) learning a new language, (3) beginning a new sport or dance activity, (4) mental quiet time planned within your day and (5) learning to play a musical instrument. As an athlete’s physical muscles will become sore when they go to different muscle groups through exertion, the prefrontal cortex needs expansion and strengthening through making it go to new areas. Longevity of leadership ability will depend on your abilities to focus, concentrate and expand your cognitive horizons. What is especially thrilling to me is that in our senior years we can continually develop and strengthen our mental capabilities.
Keep your mind on the things you want and off the things you don’t want.
-Hannah Whitall Smith
Of the nine core competencies of leadership necessary to perform well, setting direction is first. Clarity of thought, weighing alternatives, fighting distractions and then putting the vision and direction in crisp language is imperative for great leaders. Focus is the vehicle for this competency. Coaching certainly helps executives to find the right recipe to strengthen focus and to fight off the tendencies to over task. Multi-tasking and working through the inclination to over-schedule, over-think, over-prioritize and over-extend requires discipline and intentionality. Start now working on focus through some of the activities mentioned above. Part 2 of this article focuses on multi-tasking.
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