Trick Your Brain to Staying Calm and Focused

In a world where we have so many ideas and plans and an exploding “to do” list, staying calm and focused can be one of our most valuable assets: it can be a real, concrete, competitive advantage. We all have our own ways to calm ourselves and remain focused, and now neuroscience is showing us another great way: In his book The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, Alex Korb, shows that when you are dealing with a problem or uncertainty, the brain thinks it’s better to keep worrying rather than do nothing, and so you start spiraling down. We know worrying and anxiety doesn’t help the situation, but it’s hard to stop yourself. He gives us a few brain friendly tips on what to do minimize stress and slow the downward spiral. Here are my two favorites: practicing gratefulness and touch.

  1. Re-focus the Brain by practicing gratefulness. Korb (along with many others!) suggests focusing on what you have to be grateful for and then try to feel grateful for it. The amazing thing is that you don’t actually need to be or feel grateful, just the act of trying to be grateful refocuses your brain and moves away from the anxiety to make you feel better. For all the sceptics out there – there’s no voodoo thinking going on here: It’s just a matter of chemistry – countless studies have shown that gratitude actually boosts the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which therefore increasing a sense of wellbeing and positivity
  2. Release Oxytocin. Oxytocin, known as the “cuddly” hormone is what makestrick your brainus feel “warm and cuddly”. It dampens activity of the amygdala which drives the anxiety response. Touch is the fastest, easiest way to release oxytocin (think of the initial maternal-infant bonding). So a big long hug is the best option, but pats on the back, hand squeezes will work too. There is so much research that shows how hand-holding, literally, reduces activity in the stress and anxiety circuits. (Of course, here you need to be careful, particularly if you’re in a work environment.)

Obviously, there is no magic formula that lets people be in a good mood all the time. But next time you feel yourself spiraling down. What about trying these? And let me know what you think!


When Play Makes Good Work

It’s obvious that play outside of work  ̶  through sports, games, family activities and community functions – is essential. What is less obvious is our need to play at work, as we work. Playing as we work can energize us, help create stronger bonds with others, help us to see new patterns, spark curiosity and trigger ideas and innovation.

What kind of play is appropriate at work? You don’t have to engage in off-site team-building games to play at work (although those too are occasionally beneficial). But there is a playful mindset that doesn’t involve elaborate planning. It simply means to step-back, to see the humor in things, to appreciate things from a different perspective, to play with possibilities, words, observations, and to allow openness.

Newsletter15A playful attitude gives people the emotional distance and open-ness to rally. Often the problem is not the problem itself; it’s how we react to the problem. Usually for clients struggling with big issues, I see that their focus is on the turbulence, rather than how to make the (usually unavoidable) turbulent ride more manageable or even, heaven forbid, enjoyable. But reframing and deliberately changing things up truly has benefits.

I worked recently with a CEO who wanted to reboot the company’s working culture to create a trusting and sharing environment focused on performance. The strategy was not to rely entirely on “serious” vision discussions, coaching and training but to also use games and informal sharing to move to the objective faster. We introduced visual cards and story-telling games to facilitate and reframe discussions on values and to fast-track trusting and emotional risk-taking so that real communications could take place within the team.

Playing in this way accelerates cooperative socialization and nourishes trust, empathy, caring and sharing. Perhaps one of the biggest advantages is that it stimulates individual creativity and imagination. In the case of the client above, these meetings provided the leadership team an opportunity to have deep and meaningful discussions with each other ( for which they never had the opportunity in their day to day business meetings). As a result, this entire team emerged re-energized and with stronger bonds to each other, ready to take charge and drive the cultural transformation of the company.

In my work, I often find people a little reluctant to play. There’s a fear of being perceived as flippant, or of inadvertently offending someone. I get it, but I have also always found the reward to be well worth it. What do you think?


How the Holidays Can Help You up Your Inner Game

Winter is a time of hibernation, starkness and, after the busy holidays, can be a time of reflection. As the New Year sets in, we start to think about the year past and the year ahead.

For me this is the perfect time to think of your “inner game”, the one that is played internally, in your mind. It is the deep core of your character which helps overcome “inner” obstacles such as anxiety, self-doubt or fear. Most leaders focus their time addressing external hurdles and obstacles, but the more I do this work, the more I believe, that mastering the inner game of leadership is as important as mastering the outer (or external )competencies.

This concept of “inner game” was made popular 15 to 20 years ago through the books of sports coach and consultant Tim Gallwey, whose idea has proved to be timeless.

It’s all about finding ways to constantly grow in the character strengths that are key to any great leader. Think about it – in truly inspirational leaders — from Gandhi to Bill Gates — character is an integral part of their achievements and who they are in the world.

It’s not always easy for leaders, particularly at the top of organizations, to recognize a need to learn and grow – as a person – and then to actually follow through. It takes deep self-awareness, humility and commitment to putting yourself in play in such a fundamental way.

So here’s my holiday wish for you: That you find time this season to do some deep reflecting on your inner game and on the key ways you can grow your internal “core”. What will help you ground yourself better? Do you need to update or clarify vision? Do you need to refocus your values? Do you need to work on listening to your intuition more? Here are some questions to help you in your thinking:

  1. What do I need to learn to enhance my leadership presence?
  2. Where and with whom can I ask questions and practice these skills?
  3. Who can help me? Which resources are available to me?
  4. How do I like to learn and grow?

So give yourself the gift that keeps on giving – invest in strengthening your internal core! And as all those who work-out know, core strength drives everything you do, including driving the way you deal with external challenges.
What do you think? 


What Fall Teaches: The Beauty of Letting Go (…Even at Work)

Intuitively we all know that somethings we need to let go of. But it’s so much easier said than done, even when we know that we’re holding on to things that hold us back from achieving our goals, being our authentic selves or just finding inner peace. Letting go of old thoughts and old baggage is just plain difficult.

As a coach, I see Leaders holding on to a huge list of things including (and not only!):

  • The need to know everything
  • The need to feel in complete control
  • The need to be right
  • The drive for relentlessly climbing up the corporate ladder to more responsibility or status
  • The fear of being “caught” as an imposter
  • The habit of focusing on problems

Not being able to let go, however, in the long term keeps us stuck and slows down our progress. When we refuse to leave our comfort zones, because we are clinging to limited or old beliefs or driven by an addiction to being safe, no growth can happen. Letting go means putting ourselves into unknown territory. Even for those who know and understand the huge body of brain research that repeatedly and unequivocally demonstrates brain plasticity and how the brain CAN rewire itself, it is not easy to trust ourselves enough to let go. And the higher up we are in an organization, the stronger our resistance seems to be. Rewiring new behaviors and thoughts takes time, faith and patience. And usually we feel that there is too much to lose if we don’t get it right immediately.

I once heard a story about a person locked in dark, dank cell, desperately struggling to get out by clinging to a tiny barred window through which a small glimmer of light shone. He died just looking out the window. If he had taken time to explore the dark, he would have discovered that there was an unlocked door that led to greater rooms filled with treasure and a way to escape. Letting go is exactly like that – you might have to grope in the dank smelly unknown for a bit before you find a door. (And frankly, even if there was no door, as in the story, it’s not exactly that the window was going away, you could always come back to that option).

Letting go as a leader, while admittedly can feel uncertain and unstable while new, usually leads to better quality relationships and enables others to become more engaged and motivated. And the more we let go of our need to control, to have all the answers, the more we start to draw from the strength of others and create a truly empowered workplace, where everyone has the opportunity to contribute and collaborate in a meaningful way. It’s only by shedding old notions of our roles or images of what a good leader should be, and replacing it with basic authenticity, that transformation can begin.
What can you let go? What will it take for you to do it? As always, I am interested in hearing your thoughts.


4 Foolproof Steps to Find Inner Focus

One of the most valuable skills today is the ability to focus. It improves the quality of your thinking, your conversations and your relationships with others.4 Foolproof Steps to Find Inner Focus Being present and concentrating on what is right in front of us can seem impossible. It seems that our brain races off on its own, instantaneously starting a “dialogue” that goes inside our heads, making assumptions about what’s being said, formulating responses and opinions. It’s a natural reaction to agree or disagree almost immediately. It’s quick and it’s efficient and absolutely critical in making the thousands of tiny decisions we face every day. But how do we find that inner focus when we need it? When we don’t want our distracted thinking? When quick judgements don’t lead to the best outcomes?
Here’s a simple process to help you decrease distraction and practice better focus – I call it the FANS approach.

  1. Focus without judgment. Simply observe what is present, what is right in front of you, without coming to any judgement or opinions.
  2. Awareness. Observe closely all the details and issues at play and how they connect.
  3. Narrow attention. Intentionally hone your attention to what the critical variables are that will determine success.
  4. Story. Create a story or a mental model of the situation, including the variables, next steps, and expectations.

The first three steps seem fairly obvious, but do we take the time to do this? Are we methodical in our focus or just slapdash? And the forth tip is key. It’s a key aspect of sense making. Competent and experienced advisors, including a coach can help you work through mental models to enhance performance and agility.

Studies reveal that people who create mental pictures of a situation maintain focus better and demonstrate greater cognitive flexibility – fluidity in both quick and deep thinking and faster and more accurate anticipation of issues. In today’s 24/7 world, faced with a constant stream of incoming stimuli and distractions, mental models help triage information and offer choices as to where to direct attention. Better decisions can replace indiscriminate reactions….which all lead to better outcomes.

What’s it like where you work? Is it getting harder to focus on what truly matters? How do you maintain focus? I’d love to hear from you. 


Tattered Flags, Deep Water

I love my friend Jeannie Chisman’s photo above called “Tattered Flags, Still Waters” because it completely reflects the feeling I have when we get to the end of the school year and summer is in full form. Beautiful, proud and cheerful flags – wilted and weary – but with the promise of access to deep cool, refreshing water right there waiting.

One of the great things about summer is the chance to recharge your batteries. To dive deep inside yourself and finding that calm that rebalances you. In fact this type of profound thinking, introspection, is critical in keeping your brain in tip top shape and getting clearer, cleaner access to different parts when you need them.

With today’s many distractions – work, smartphones, multi-tasking- it’s really hard to have the luxury of time to immerse yourself into the wellspring that is your brain, to allow ourselves to rest, to let your soul speak to you in the quiet spaces between your busy thoughts. There’s a great New York Times article that explores this issue very well if you’re interested in finding out more. 

So let’s do it, let’s kick back and dip into those deep waters. Gift it to yourself. You deserve it. 
Dive in!