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Find Your Focus Zone

It can be a tough spot to reach, but once you're there, it's worth it.

Allyson Lewis, 05/27/2010

Your "focus zone" is that perfect balance of attention, concentration, enthusiasm, desire, and motivation. Your senses are in tune with what you are doing. You experience an incredible sense of fulfillment and have an uncompromised feeling of productivity and efficiency.

Athletes often speak of being "in the zone" when they are competing at their peak levels of performance. And great businessmen and businesswomen have knowingly or unknowingly discovered the secret to finding their focus zone. Recently, I interviewed Lucy Jo Palladino. She is an award-winning psychologist and attention expert with 30 years of professional experience and the author of the 2007 book "Find Your Focus Zone: An Effective New Plan to Defeat Distraction and Overload."

Foundations of Productivity
She's a time-management and productivity expert, so I first asked her to define time management and explain why it's important to financial advisors.

Lucy Jo Palladino: "Most people think of time management as being defined as writing down your priorities on paper and allocating the appropriate amounts of time for completion of each task. But, this is only a good first step. Time management is really attention management. It is making a conscious choice to engage the full power of your brain and the chemicals it releases to turn your written priorities into daily activities.

The best analogy I have is if you are going on a trip and you are merely holding the map in your hands, then the map is a great first start--but the map doesn't take you to your destination--only action can take you somewhere. Absolutely taking the time to define your priorities and allocating time to complete each task is the beginning of time management, then choose to take it one step farther and choose to initiate the action on accomplishing each of the priorities you have deemed important in your life."

Question: Once you have established your priorities, how can you really find your focus zone and work at a more optimal level so priorities turn into action?

Lucy Jo Palladino: There are three steps to finding your focus zone:

* You need to understand what your personal optimal focus zone is. It may be helpful to understand how the brain works. Your brain is like an elaborate orchestra and the frontal lobe carries out the executive function and is in charge of attention and planning. Your focus zone is closely tied to your intellectual arousal levels. You have neurotransmitters or chemicals in your brain that are adrenaline based that act like a dimmer switch in your brain--pump more adrenaline, then you can increase your attention span--pump too little and you lose interest. But, adrenaline only works to a certain point. If you pump too much adrenaline--you can move quickly past your optimum focus zone and you can become overly excited, frustrated, irritable, anxious, and distracted. The key to working at your most efficient level is to find the perfect blend of brain chemicals--where you are pumping just the right amount of adrenaline based chemicals to keep you interested in what you are working on, but not so much that you feel stressed or overwhelmed.

* Then, you work to create the optimal conditions for the specific tasks you need to focus on at that moment. You will work to manage your external and internal environments to bring them into alignment with the specific activity you would like to accomplish. For example, if you are planning to do 30 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise, then you will want to crank up your favorite workout music to increase the chemical release of more adrenaline.

However, if you are going to be working for two hours on a strenuous mental task like completing a comprehensive written financial review, then you may need to drink a stout glass of green tea and plan to take a brisk walk every 45 minutes to physically release more adrenaline into your system.

Or, if you are going to be making a presentation to 200 people and you are already scared to death and you have too much adrenaline pumping, then under those circumstances you may wish to walk slowly around the block, listen to some classical music and spend five minutes breathing slowly.

* The last step is to learn to monitor your focus zone. As you gain understanding of the importance of working within your optimal focus zone, you will discover you can control the amount of adrenaline your body produces. You can quickly and easily increase the amount of adrenaline by listening to loud music, walking up a few flights of stairs, or walking quickly around the block. Conversely, if you have just had a difficult conversation with someone and your adrenaline level is too high to concentrate--you can lower your adrenaline levels by listening to classical music, drinking some decaffeinated hot green tea and by breathing deeply.

Setting Goals and Sustaining Motivation
Finally, I asked Palladino about one of my favorite sections in her book, which dealt with goal setting and developing your mental skills. It tackles the concepts of how the brain deals with perception, motivation, comprehension, learning, reasoning, planning, beliefs, intentions, and desires.

I was most interested in asking Palladino what she means when she writes about "how to develop sustainable motivation" and what she means by "having goals that pull you forward."

Lucy Jo Palladino: Many authors and motivational speakers teach that you have limitless potential. This is simply not true. Every physical structure has limits. You are limited by the physical structure of your brain and by the chemicals you choose to release. Your future potential is really a combination of how well you can sustain your personal motivation by balancing your brain chemistry through how much adrenaline you allow into your life. It is possible to reach your full potential by going back to your priorities and making sure you are spending your time paying attention to what is most important to you. If you will set goals from your heart and allow them to pull you forward you will be amazed by their power. Use your imagination. Simplify your goals so you can see them, so you can feel them, so you can taste them. You must believe your goals are attainable and when you can see them clearly enough, they will pull you forward like a powerful magnet.

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