Mindfulness: When Focus Means Single-Tasking

Alexander Graham Bell, noting how the sun’s rays ignite paper only when focused in one place, advised, “Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand.” Yet ordinarily our attention wanders, a sitting duck for whatever distraction comes our way – especially when our email inbox alone offers constant distractions that seem urgent, but are just not that important.

Then there’s multitasking, which really means switching from one narrow focus to another – the mind cannot hold more than one at a time in what’s called “working memory.” So interrupting one task with another can mean taking many minutes to get your original focus back to speed.»

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Empathy 101

“I like to understand how people see the world,” A CEO tells me. “It’s always different for each person. I’m fascinated by the ways people think about things, what’s important to them, how they put their world together.”

That natural curiosity about other people’s reality, technically speaking, signifies “cognitive empathy,” the ability to see the world through others’ eyes. Cognitive empathy is mind-to-mind, giving us a mental sense of how another person’s thinking works. It’s one of three kinds of empathy, each with a premium in the workplace and in relationships anywhere in our lives.

This way of tuning in to another person does more than give us an understanding of their view – it tells us how best to communicate with that person: what matters most to them, their models of the world, and what even what words to use – or avoid – in talking with them.»

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Three Quick Fixes for the Wandering Mind

It happens to all of us: you’re working away on something you’ve got to get done, and suddenly you realize that for quite some time you’ve been lost in a reverie about something else entirely. You don’t know when your mind went off track, nor how long you’ve been meandering down this one.

Our minds wander, on average 50 percent of the time. The exact rate varies enormously. When Harvard researchers had 2,250 people report what they were doing and what they were thinking about at random points throughout their day, the doing-thinking gaps ranged widely.

But the biggest gap was during work: mind-wandering is epidemic on the job

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The Moment I Knew: We Have a Focus Problem

Late for a meeting and snarled in bad traffic, I found myself texting while driving. “I’m on my way,” was the urgent message.

For a second or two, while typing that text, I was oblivious to the cars around me.

And then I thought, “Oh, no.”

Days before I had read one of the first studies showing that texting increases the risk of an accident as much as driving drunk. Just a few months later my state outlawed texting while driving.

That’s when I knew in my gut that our attention is under siege.

As I started to monitor attention itself, I noticed the signs of this mental incursion everywhere: the couple at a romantic restaurant staring at their phones instead into each other’s eyes, the meetings where people clandestinely check for texts or roam the web, the tweens at the bus stop checking updates on Facebook instead of talking with each other.»

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Why The 10,000 Hour Rule Is A Myth

The “10,000-hour rule” — that this level of practice holds the secret to great success in any field — has become sacrosanct gospel, echoed on websites and recited as litany in high-performance workshops. The problem: it’s only half-true.

If you are a duffer at golf, say, and make the same mistakes every time you try a certain swing or putt, 10,000 hours of practicing that error will not improve your game. You’ll still be a duffer, albeit an older one.

No less an expert than Anders Ericsson, the Florida State University psychologist whose research on expertise spawned the ten-thousand-hour rule-of-thumb, told me, “You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal.”

“You have to tweak the system by pushing,” he adds, “allowing for more errors at first as you increase your limits.”  Ericsson argues the secret of winning is “deliberate practice,” where an expert coach takes you through well-designed training over months or years, and you give it your full concentration.»

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