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  • Ellie Rentoul, Corporate Coach

Why Being Able to Focus is Essential in Life

Updated: Aug 12

A primary task of leadership is being able to direct attention of others into a particular set of actions and outcomes. To do so, leaders (be it managers at large organisations, small business owners or parents at home with children to guide), must learn to focus their own attention on specific actions - while being able to filter out any distractions. Latest neuroscience research from Harvard by Daniel Goleman and Antonio Damasio shows that there are three different types of focus:

1. focusing INWARD on YOURSELF

2. focusing constructively on OTHERS

3. focusing on the WIDER WORLD - and its economic, behavioural and consumer trends


It follows that, focusing inward and focusing constructively on others helps leaders cultivate the primary elements of emotional intelligence. Furthermore, a fuller understanding of how they focus on the wider world can improve leaders ability to devise strategy, innovate and manage organisations and families.


Focusing on Yourself - Self-Awareness


Emotional Intelligence begins with self-awareness - getting in touch with your inner voice. Leaders who heed their inner voices can draw on more resources to make better decisions and connect with their authentic selves.

According to Antonia Damasio, a neuroscientist from the University of Southern California, hearing your inner voice is a matter of paying attention to our internal psychological signals. These subtle cues are monitored by the insula, which is tucked behind the frontal lobes of the brain (your 'clever' part of the brain that tells you that just because you are hungry - you can't grab that chicken sandwich from the person at the next table!). Attention given to any part of the body amps up the insula's activity. Tune into your heartbeat, and the insula activates more neurons in that circuitry. How well people can sense their heartbeats has, in fact, become a standard way to measure their self-awareness.


Gut feelings are messages from the insula and the amygdala, which Dr. Damasio calls 'somatic markers". Those messages are sensations that something 'feels' right or wrong. Somatic markers simplify our decision making by guiding our attention toward a safer or better option. But they are hardly foolproof! How many times you find yourself coming back home to double check that you've left the oven on - only to find that your gut feeling was wrong?

Leaders who rely solely on their 'gut feel' and ignore other information and cues from the environment. Goleman suggests to also seek opportunities to receive frank and honest feedback from others. Sadly, life affords us few chances to learn how others truly see us and even fewer for executives as they rise through the ranks. That may be why one of the most popular and overenrolled courses at Harvard Business School is Bill George's Authentic Leadership Development - which Prof. George has created a 'safe place' for leaders to share deep personal issues that they do not feel they can raise elsewhere - often not even with their closest family members. What good does that do? "We don't know who we are until we hear ourselves speaking the story of our lives to those we trust." George says. It's a structured way to match our view of our true selves with the views of our most trusted colleagues have - an external check on our authenticity.


Self-Control (your plain, old-fashioned Willpower)

"Cognitive Control" (or plainly put: your "willpower") #willpower enables people to pursue a goal despite distractions and setbacks. The same neural circuitry that allows such as a single-minded pursuit of goals also manages unruly emotions. Good congnitive control can be seen in people who stay calm in crisis, tame their own agitation, and recover from a debacle or defeat.


Remember the famous "marshmallow test"? It was part of a longitudinal study by Walter Mischel #WalterMischel tracking the fates of all 1,037 children born in 1970 in New Zealand city of Dunedin. For several years during their childhood the children were given a battery of tests of willpower, including the this legendary "marshmallow test" #masrshmellowtest - a choice between eating one marshmallow right away or getting 2 marshmallows by waiting 15 minutes. In Mischel's experiment, roughly 30% of children grab the marshmallow on the spot, another 30% hold out for a while longer, and the remaining third manage to make it through the entire quarter hour to get the 2nd marshmallow.


Years later, when the children in the Dunedin study were in their 30s, the researchers found that those who'd had the willpower to resist the marshmallow longest were significantly healthier, more successful financially, and more low-abiding than the onese who could not hold out at all. In fact:

  • It has been scientifically proven that a child's level of self-control is a more powerful predictor of financial success that IQ, social class, or family circumstances.


HOW we focus holds the key to exercising willpower, Mischel says:

  • our ability to VOLUNTARILY DISENGAGE our focus from an object of desire;

  • our ability to resist distraction sot ath you don't gravitate back to that object; and

  • our ability to concentrate on the future goal and imagine how good you will feel when you achieve it #goals #GoalSetting

As adults, the children of Dunedin may have been held hostage to their younger selves, but they need not have been - because the power to FOCUS can be DEVELOPED!! #improveyourfocus #improveyourselfcontrol #achieveAnyGoal

E-mail or call me for some terrific, evidence-based strategies to improve your focus, self -control and willpower. ellie@ellierentoul.net


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