By Srini Pillay
Focus is an invaluable trait. It helps you stay on task and get work done at a rapid rate. Yet too much focus can be a problem: It drains your brain of energy, makes you care less about people, and prevents you from seeing what is happening around you. In fact, too much focus is a surprisingly common sign of adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — a failed and paralyzing attempt to control a roving mind.
When you slip into your daily focus routine, its adverse effects may not always be obvious. Below are some common symptoms of too much focus. If any sound familiar, you should examine the role of focus in your routine. It may well be the culprit that needs to be addressed.
Not Having as Much Energy as Usual
If you find that you get too tired too often, consider that you may be overusing your brain’s capacity to focus. And certain kinds of focus can be worse than others.
For example, many studies have shown that internal focus (for example, focusing on your arm motion in a golf swing) is more likely to cause fatigue than external focus (focusing on the flight of the golf ball). Although the exact reason is unclear, it may be that internal focus makes you more aware of your fatigue.
In the case of overall fatigue, you might try building a period of unfocus into your day. A short nap (five to 15 minutes) can give you one to three hours of greater clarity. Alternatively, if you are in the middle of a task that you cannot stop, you might consider shifting your mode of attention from internal to external. External focus promotes a more automatic mode of functioning and decreases the feeling of effort-related fatigue.
At work, this would mean that, if you are following a list of instructions for a task, you should try to memorize the list, rather than straining to remember what to do after reading it, so you can complete the task without testing your short-term memory. Those extra minutes to properly learn it will place less of a strain on your brain.
Not Operating at Your Peak
Focus alone is not sufficient for leaders to perform at their best. They have to manage their brain’s energy demands, timing their work so that their energy levels peak only when necessary. This management of energy often requires switching between focus and unfocus. In fact, high achievers would readily admit that time off, letting their brains unfocus for a while, is as important as “time on.”
One reason for this is that peak performance relies on both focus and self-actualization — in other words, you have to focus intensely on a task, but the different aspects of “you” must also be optimally represented in the brain. In the brain, representation of the various aspects of “you” requires activation of the unfocus circuits. So you need to build “off” time into your day for your brain to integrate experiences that contribute to self-actualization.
Take time to prime your brain to ensure that all necessary parts of you are present (your focused, ambitious, emotional, logical, and motivated self). When this balance is optimal, you will feel self-actualized. You can call on these parts of yourself by asking certain questions, such as: What part of your work makes you feel that you are responding to a calling? What fills you with a sense of purpose? Do you feel as fully expressed as you can be, rather than simply coping? Before you answer hastily, know that your brain needs time to collect data to answer these questions.
Spend time unfocusing to allow your brain to coalesce this sense of self. A simple way to do this is to break up your workday by going for a walk. One study showed that participants felt more “comfortable,” “natural,” “relaxed,” and “vigorous” after a walk in an urban park. Another way you can unfocus is to wonder about the following: Is there any way in which you are different or not “normal”? Studies show that people who think they are “normal” and confine themselves to this idea are not open to experience. This can hamper their creativity and prevent upward mobility in their jobs.
To challenge the status quo, do something exploratory to activate your openness to experience: Connect with someone on LinkedIn and set up a meeting you have been wanting to have, or call up a friend spontaneously. This kind of “openness” will enhance your sense of self.
Not Reaching Your Goals
Reaching your goals may seem to be an all-consuming focused activity, but much research indicates that the unfocus network is key to goal achievement.
Imagining your goals helps you reach them. And since imagining future events involves tinkering with information stored in various brain regions from past experiences (to create novel associations and scenarios), this requires the brain’s unfocus circuit to be activated. When you focus too much, you turn off your brain’s imagining circuits, which can impact your brain’s planning to reach your goal.
Unfocus circuits are also essential for mental simulation — and if reaching your goal requires simulation, focus alone will not get you there. For example, you may be strategizing on a project that requires scenario planning. To simulate the scenario and possible outcomes, you can’t be too rigid. You have to “try on” and reject different ideas until you are satisfied.
Imagining reaching your goals can help you actually reach them. Simulating how you might get to your goals adds to this, too. Take time every week to imagine how you could get to your goals and to simulate some ways of getting there. This kind of scenario planning will take your mind off constant focus but also prepare your brain to reach your goals.
For example, say you want to increase your income. Rather than waiting for the “correct” answer to occur to you, run several simulations through to their end. Can you ask for a bonus? How? When? Can you do a job on the side? What? When? Can you transition to another job? What would each of these options entail? As you imagine and detail what they might entail, jot it down. This kind of back-and-forth thinking may help you discover an unexpected solution.
Feeling Easily Overwhelmed
When you feel overwhelmed, it may be that you are distracted by having to do too many things at once. Yet it may also be due to hunkering down with focus, resulting in reducing the very mental flexibility that you need to complete multiple tasks at once. When you have many things to do in close proximity, your brain needs to switch between tasks. While multitasking may be bad for your brain, 2.5% of the population can do it really well. Called supertaskers, these people have mastered the art of switching between tasks. And research shows that you can train yourself to do this too.
When you have many things to do, you might consider relaxing into a “juggler’s mindset” rather than stiffening up. Practicing this kind of task switching can make it easier; even if you make mistakes at first, it will help you improve over time.
To prepare your brain for supertasking, you have to normalize the functioning of the unfocus circuit. This will relax your brain more and also increase its flexibility. Mindfulness or simple physical stretching exercises in the middle of the day can help you feel more relaxed. Also, you can loosen your grip on conscious control to increase your flexibility.
One way to do this is to doodle. Doodling activates the unfocus circuit, allowing your brain to become more like an absorbent sponge. This invites the unconscious to play a greater role in your thinking, allowing you to be more flexible when needed.
These exercises — switching to external attention, imagining, simulating, walking, napping, being mindful, stretching, and doodling — will help you conserve your energy, operate at your peak, increase your chances of reaching your goals, and manage feelings of being overwhelmed in the course of your day.
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This content was originally published by Harvard Business Review. Original publishers retain all rights. It appears here for a limited time before automated archiving. By Harvard Business Review