What we can learn about productivity and focus from a cognitive neuroscientist and high-performance psychologist
July 9th, 2021
We live in a distracting world. Mobile devices, apps, ads, and our natural environments constantly divert our attention. For example, according to the Anatomy of Work Index, workers are switching between an average of 10 apps 25 times per day, hurting focus and productivity.
To share practical tips for achieving greater focus and flow in a distracting world, we brought a powerful duo together at our recent Focus & Flow Summit: cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Sahar Yousef and high-performance psychologist Dr. Michael Gervais.
Dr. Sahar Yousef is a cognitive neuroscientist and a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Her 10-plus years of research on “making superhumans” sheds light on how to improve focus, memory, and overall human performance in as little as six weeks.
Dr. Michael Gervais is a high-performance psychologist and host of the popular Finding Mastery podcast. He is one of the world’s leading experts on the relationship between the mind and elite performance. His clients include world record holders, Olympians, internationally acclaimed artists and musicians, MVPs from every major sport, and Fortune 50 CEOs.
Here’s what they had to say about how we can achieve greater focus and productivity in our professional and personal lives.
Commit to core principles
Dr. Yousef: Michael, you have the distinct pleasure of working with some of the most elite and high-performing business executives, athletes, and artists. I’m curious to hear what foundational principles they all have in common, since they are so widely different?
Dr. Gervais: They are incredibly agile, meaning they’re able to put their foot in the ground and adjust to unfolding and unpredictable conditions. That is a psychological ability to be able to adjust to the unknown. They are also relentlessly and uncommonly committed to their potential. And it’s not just their potential alone, but the shared potential of others in their community or tribe.
So there’s this uncommon commitment, and in that uncommon commitment, there are first principles that anchor them. They’ve got extraordinary talent, but it’s the principles that are rare. They’ve done the lonely work. They’ve done that internal work to say, “These are the core principles in my life, and these are the ones that I want to live by when I’m in high-stress environments.”
Dr. Yousef: The concepts of adaptability and cognitive resilience are so relevant right now. I’m curious to know through your work, what makes a human resilient?
Dr. Gervais: The way that I think about resilience is that it is the ability to deal with difficult situations and to continue to move forward. So agility, to the earlier point, is to put your foot in the ground and then adjust. But resilience is to deal with something that’s incredibly difficult. It’s like a shock absorber. It’s the ability to deal well with something that is very hard. And agility is like, just when it’s unfolding and it’s unpredictable, can you adjust to it?
Dedicate time to self-discovery work
Dr. Yousef: I love that you were referring to the common basic binding principles that all of these different groups and individuals have in common. One of those things is that they’ve done the hard inner work. What can people do today to work on their inner lives at the individual level or team level?
Dr. Gervais: One is the self-discovery work that you’re talking about. When you double click under self-discovery, what we find is they know their first principles. They have a personal philosophy that is guiding them. They are clear about their purpose: life purpose and yearly purpose, if you will. High performers use their imagination to create what they would like their future to look and feel like. Instead of their imagination running wild and finding a sense of anxiety, they use their imagination to imagine a beautiful future.
“High performers use their imagination to create what they would like their future to look and feel like.”Dr. Michael Gervais, high-performance psychologist
So they’re clear about their vision, they’ve got clarity of purpose, they know their personal philosophy, and their first principles. Then, maybe more importantly, there’s a practice that they invest in—mindfulness, meditation, journaling, or conversations with wise people—where they look within to understand how their thoughts, emotions and behaviors work well with the unfolding environment.
Separate signal from noise
Dr. Yousef: You speak a lot about separating signal from noise. It’s really from the world of physics, but it has so much to do with the world of biology and really the practical world of our lives. What do you mean by separating signal from noise, and how can people start to do that in their own lives at the individual, team, and organizational level?
Dr. Gervais: Noise is all the things that pull your attention from the present moment. The present moment is where the signal is found. So the signal to noise ratio is the idea of what are my available resources to spend time in the present moment?
The present moment, again, is the signal. And the internal chatter that we all deal with and the external distractions of our world are the things that pull us from the present moment. Why that’s so foundational is that the present moment is where all things that are true, beautiful, good, and amazing are experienced. It’s where high performance is expressed. It’s also where wisdom is revealed.
The present moment is the keyhole to flourishing. There are a whole set of trainable skills that we can organize and condition to spend more time in the present moment. I’d love it if you could pull on that thread a little bit, because I’ve heard you talk about how multitasking is a myth.
Dr. Yousef: When I say that multitasking is a myth, I’m really referring to the fact that the human brain is in fact a focus machine. We have a certain amount of cognitive capacity and a certain amount of attention. It’s a precious resource because it’s finite.
It’s up to us in any given moment to deploy that attention however we see fit. The only way to really do that is what I call attention regulation training or meditation. It’s taking your brain to the gym to get better at the act of focusing.
Dr. Gervais: Focusing is a decision. Refocusing is a skill. The entry point into practicing refocusing is through awareness training. When you increase your awareness of where your attention is and it’s not where you want it to be, then the skill is can you refocus?
“Focusing is a decision. Refocusing is a skill.”Dr. Michael Gervais, high-performance psychologist
The idea is to condition your mind to stay in that present moment just a bit longer than you were before. This is why we train our minds. This is why we organize our external world so that we can be in the present moment more often and experience the flourishing and the potential that we’re all capable of.
Dr. Yousef: I love all of that. We want to be good teammates, which means that we’ve really cranked up the volume on that noise all of the time. By default, everyone is hyperconnected. My number one recommendation for everyone is to undo some of the negative damage that has already been done in terms of mental and cognitive training as it relates to our relationship with our devices.
This is something that in my lab we call digital hygiene. It’s similar to any other kind of physical hygiene. It’s about making sure we’re doing our due diligence to keep that noise at a minimum so that it’s easier to maintain focus on the signal and what’s important in our lives.
Dr. Gervais: It starts with fundamental commitments to fundamental decisions. Then from that, building the capability to refocus your mind back to the present moment when you are distracted. So even when you set your external conditions to be ideal—which is rare and nearly impossible in the world that I work in—we need the internal capabilities to drive our mind back to the present moment.
Be intentional about what you focus on
Dr. Yousef: I think it’s all about intentionality. That really has resonated and what I’m hearing from both of us. When it’s time to rest and recover, be intentional about it. I think the takeaway is we should not be on autopilot. We should not take for granted what we’re putting into our bodies. We should not take for granted how we’re resting and recovering. We should not take for granted what we’re allowing our minds to pay attention to.
We should be in control and intentional about what it is that we attend to in the first place and make sure that we’re attending to the things that we want to actually focus on. Whatever you water and pay attention to will continue to grow and flourish inside of the brain. And it will get stronger, and stronger, and stronger.
“Whatever you water and pay attention to will continue to grow and flourish inside of the brain. And it will get stronger, and stronger, and stronger.”Dr. Sahar Yousef, cognitive neuroscientist
Dr. Gervais: There’s a fundamental belief that I need to do more, to be more. I need to do the extraordinary, to be extraordinary. And I need to post this and post that so you’ll think I’m extraordinary. The best in the world, they’re flipping that model. And what they’re saying is, “No, no, no. That game doesn’t work.” When they flip it, they say, “I need to be more. I need to be more present, more grounded, more creative, more authentic.” And from that place, let the doing flow.
For more insights on how to overcome disruption to achieve greater focus and productivity, watch this webinar featuring cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Sahar Yousef.