Prefrontal Cortex Focus
Have you ever put a note on your refrigerator or at your desk and within a week or less discover that you no longer see it? This is a representation of what happens when your working memory gets full. Working memory represent what you are able to focus on as a priority throughout any given day. As you add new things onto your plate and your working memory gets full, old things start to drop off. It is as if you have 10 lines you can fill with to do items and once you add more than this the last one on the list falls off. The part of your brain responsible for your working memory is your prefrontal cortex. Your prefrontal cortex gets easily overloaded and similar to a computer that is maximizing any available memory (RAM) it slows down to compensate. Unmanaged stress along with multitasking slows down your prefrontal cortex capacity tremendously. Multitasking in fact has been shown to decrease efficiency by 40%. A full working memory is why it is easy to no longer see the note right in front of you or no longer have the capacity to focus on your goal no matter how important you thought it was. If you want to increase your focus you have to ensure that your working memory is not overloaded.
What is the number one factor that decreases focus?
Stress clogs, clutters and overwhelms your working memory. This is why stress is the number one saboteur of making lasting changes. The mere nature of stress implies your working memory is already too full. This means you cannot access your ability to focus your attention on what you want for any lasting period of time. The new neural pathways or freshly planted seeds of your goal will not have the proper environment to grow. Neural pathways are the physiological basis of your habits of thinking, feeling and acting. They are why you do what you do. Expecting to follow through on your goals when stressed is like attempting to grow a garden that is filled with weeds. The weeds will easily consume all of the oxygen available that your new plants need to grow. The weeds are the clutter in your mind and the stress in your life. You have to de-clutter your mind daily. In fact, you have to de-clutter several times per day in order to prepare the soil of your mind to grow the seeds of your new intentions and goals into strong, vital manifestations. If you don’t de-clutter your mind, the weeds will overrun your garden of goals. Chronic stress will not allow you access to the motivation, inspiration and creativity needed to follow through on your desired change. Stress literally renders you neurologically incapable of creating stable new neural pathways.
Feeling From The Past, Living From The Future
A second reason stress is the number one factor decreasing focus is due to the fact that your brain won’t give you access to the present moment when you are stressed. You can only access the past and how you have done things before. This is because when stressed the body and mind go into a conservation mode in order to ensure self-preservation. Conserving energy is a top of mind priority to getting through or ‘surviving’ a situation perceived to be stressful. Consequently you will only have access to how you have done something in the past to deal with any present issues. For example, if in the past you had a habit of stopping by the fast food restaurant on your way home to soothe yourself from a long day, you will likely find yourself heading for the drive through without consciously thinking about it. Even if you catch yourself and remember your goal to eat healthier, it will likely feel highly compelling to still enter the drive through. It is as if some other part of you has taken over your mind. This is what happens when you are stressed and only have access to how you have done something in the past to deal with a situation in the present. Acting on a new strategy or dealing with something in a novel way is considered to take too much time and energy.
Is Your Working memory Full?
If your working memory is already full and you attempt to add your new goal items on your list (of to do’s) it is likely going to end in frustration and disappointment. This would be like attempting to save more data on your computer when your hard drive is already maxed out. No matter how hard you try to make your computer save your document unless you get rid of some items first you are not going to have the room for your new content. Also if, due to stress, you can’t expect to do better than you have done before, how can you expect to truly follow through on your goals? Following through on your goals requires changing the way you are doing something and acquiring new habits towards your desired objective. Decreasing stress and de-cluttering your mind are two prerequisite steps for focus and follow through.
Hilary Stokes Ph.D. and Kim Ward Ph.D. have been a team for 20 years, specializing in mind, body, spirit psychology. They are the authors of the bestselling books The Happy Map: Your roadmap to the habit of happiness and Manifesting Mindset: The 6-step formula for attracting your goals and dreams and founders of Authenticity Associates Coaching and Counseling. They are passionate about combining the best of holistic and traditional approaches to health and happiness. If you are interested in learning the answers to the most frequently asked questions on how to decrease stress and increase happiness sign up for their free video series.