Feeling Overwhelmed? What to Do About It …

Want to improve your leadership skills, make better business decisions, and increase the grey matter in your brain? It might just be a matter of attention. Read Jody Daniels article below to find out how.

“When you connect to the silence within you, that is when you can make sense of the disturbance going on around you.” – Stephen Richards

Feeling Overwhelmed? What to Do About It …

By Jody Daniels

How often have you found yourself feeling overwhelmed by the demands of your work and your home? How often have you found your mind hijacked by the seductive pull of the digital world – texting, email, or Facebook? With all those pressures and distractions fighting for your attention, how can you as a leader find the focus and the clarity needed to make effective strategic decisions?

We live in an age of information overload with too little time to really reflect on what it all means. The potential for addiction increases with the shot of serotonin you receive with each digital ding or click. But leaders need to take time to reflect on goals and priorities and thoughtfully develop ways to overcome challenges. What’s needed is greater focus and clarity. It’s not information we’re lacking but rather attention.

As Herbert A. Simon, economist and Nobel laureate foresaw back in 1977, “information consumes … the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

How exactly does attention work and how can you enrich this capacity? How can you develop the skill to easily shift attention to where it’s needed most? School children are often reminded to “Pay attention now class” but they are never taught how to pay attention.

The good news is that because of the brain’s capacity to change and adapt to what’s needed, the parts of the brain which are important for paying attention can be engaged and strengthened. Until relatively recently it was believed that the brain had a finite number of neural cells (over 100 billion) and could not develop new ones; that once brain cells died that was the end. But research in neuroscience has discovered both the brain’s ability to develop new cells – neurogenesis – as well as develop new neural pathways – neuroplasticity. And this capacity extends throughout your lifetime.

The regions of the brain involved in attention are like muscles which one can strengthen. You can train your brain to change. In ways similar to increasing the muscle fibers in your arms through repeated biceps curls, practicing mindfulness meditation, over time, can increase the grey matter in the prefrontal cortex, the area associated with executive functions such as memory, problem solving, planning, and emotional regulation.

In Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, author Daniel Goleman, well-known Emotional Intelligence thought-leader, explains that leaders need to focus attention in three areas: to reflect on themselves, on others, and on the wider world “because a failure to focus inward leaves you rudderless, a failure to focus on others renders you clueless, and a failure to focus outward may leave you blindsided”.

Mindful leadership and the development of mindfulness practices will provide the training you need to develop the capacity to focus your attention on what matters most, and to not get caught up in the random, erratic thoughts that careen your mind throughout the day. Strengthening the attention “muscle” is a trainable skill, and if practiced regularly, even if only 15 – 20 minutes per day, has been shown to change the brain.

Consider a mindfulness practice like mental hygiene, as common as brushing your teeth every day. The practice is simple but complex. There are many resources but the best way to develop mindfulness skills is with a teacher.

Remember, it’s never too late to train your brain.

In the meantime, try these simple mindfulness tips to keep you on your path:

  • Close your eyes and focus on the pattern of your breath for two minutes. When thoughts start to intrude, gently refocus your attention back to your breath.
  • Enjoy a leisurely, phone-free walk around the block
  • Perform two minutes of mindful movement (stretching & desk yoga)
  • Mindfully consume a healthful snack. Take slow, intentional bites, pausing between each bite, and savor the flavor and texture.

You can also find a wealth of resources at http://www.mindful.org/resources/ and at http://www.freemindfulness.org/home.

Jody Daniels teaches Leadership in Healthcare at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and is an instructor in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, trained at the Center for Mindfulness, University of Mass. Medical Center. She works with businesses as well as community members through www.MindHeartHarmony.com and can be reached at jody@mindheartharmony.com.


When your attention wanders, what do you do to refocus on what matters most? Do you have a little trick that brings you back or a mindfulness practice that helps you stay centered? Please share it with our community below!