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Want to Cultivate Focus? Here's How to Train Your Brain
According to Pulitzer winner Charles Duhigg, the art of focus is training your mind to know what it can safely ignore.
Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter for The New York Times and the author of The Power of Habit. He is a winner of the National Academies of Sciences, National Journalism, and George Polk awards. A graduate of Harvard Business School and Yale College, he lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.
Charles Duhigg: Nowadays it’s incredibly hard to stay focused. There’s so many distractions around us at any given moment. Your pocket vibrates at any given moment because you’re getting ten new emails and on social media there’s all these new notifications and the phone is ringing and your kids need help and your colleagues are coming up because you are working in an open office plan and they’re asking you to chime in on some memo. Maintaining focus nowadays is harder than ever before. But it’s way more critical too. One of the things that we know about the most productive people and the most productive companies is that they create ways to enhance their focus. They manage their mind in such a way that they’re able to focus on what’s important and ignore distractions much better. And the way that they do this is by what’s known as building mental models.
Essentially telling themselves stories about what they expect to see, engaging in this kind of inner dialogue about what they think should be happening that allows their brain almost subconsciously to figure out what to pay attention to and what to ignore. One of my favorite examples of this is a big study that was done of nurses in NICUs. Some researchers from a group named Client Associates went into some hospitals because they wanted to figure out why some nurses were so good at paying attention to the right things whereas others got distracted by all the noise and bustle around them. And what they found is that the best nurses in NICUs which is the neonatal intensive care unit who were handling these babies, the nurses who were almost had a sixth sense or an ESP about figuring out which babies were sick and were getting sicker were the ones who were constantly telling themselves stories about what they expected to see as they were walking around the hospital. So one of my favorite interviews from this study was with a nurse named Darlene. And Darlene said that what she would do is that she always was keeping a picture in her brain of what she thought the perfect baby should look like. And so she would walk through the unit and she would notice when babies didn’t kind of match that picture in her brain, right. And they would match – they would mismatch that picture in kind of odd ways.
Like she might be walking past a crib and she might expect a baby to be crying because babies cry all the time. And so if a baby was being uniquely silent she would go over and she would try to figure out what’s going on. Like why is this baby being so quiet. Now to all the other nurses a quiet baby seems like a good thing. It seems like that baby is happy and doesn’t need any attention. But to Darlene because she has this picture in her head of what the perfect baby should look like when she sees a quiet baby she thinks that doesn’t match the picture in my head. I need to go pay attention. And so she’d walk over and she’d see all these things that are all small issues on their own, right. Maybe the baby’s blood was taken from its heel and instead of a dot of blood on the Band-Aid there’s a little bit of a bigger splotch. Maybe the baby’s temperature is a little bit elevated. But nothing that like is out of place. Nothing that’s worrisome. But for Darlene and nurses like this who keep this picture in their head, this mental model of what should be occurring all of those things don’t jive with the story inside their head. And so as a result their attention is grabbed by it and they start saying to themselves why? Why is this baby bleeding a little bit more than I expected? Why is its temperature off just a few degrees? And in this case they discovered that the baby was incredibly sick. And there was not a lot of evidence that it was sick. And in fact if they had waited half an hour or 45 minutes more the baby actually probably would have passed away. But because Darlene noticed all these things, because the baby that she was seeing in real life didn’t match the picture in her head she acted immediately. They started the child on antibiotics. The sepsis, the infection in its system was stamped out.
But the only reason that Darlene was able to notice these warning signs, the only reason she started to have this ESP or sixth sense for something going wrong was because she had a strong mental model. She had a picture in her head that she was comparing reality to. Now not all of us work in NICUs, right. We don’t work in hospitals. We’re not dealing with life and death issues. But think for a minute about what it’s like when you walk into a meeting and your boss asks you an unexpected question, right. Or you’re sitting there and you’re juggling the kids and dinner and suddenly your phone vibrates and it’s this email that causes this spike of panic. Our instinct in a moment like that is to react immediately, to type something that we end up regretting later on. Or to answer our boss and blurt something out. And we think to ourselves afterwards god, I could have put that so much more eloquently. Why are some people so much better at maintaining their focus and not reacting and not getting distracted by all these things? It’s because ahead of time they’ve envisioned what they expect to see. They’ve envisioned what they expect to occur. So on the subway when they’re riding to work they think about what is this day going to be like. I know that I’m going to this meeting. What do I expect to occur at that meeting. And so when they walk in and their boss asks them some unexpected question their brain almost subconsciously says I didn’t expect that question to occur. This isn’t matching the picture in my brain of what I anticipated. So I need to put that question off. I need to say can we take that off line and I’ll answer that later. Or they have a picture in their brain of what it’s going to be like to deal with the kids and to make dinner. There’s some type of expectation. And so as a result when their pocket buzzes and an email comes in they can say I can’t handle this right now. I need to give myself five minutes and I’ll deal with this later.
I use this all the time. It used to be when I would ride the subway in to work I would spend that time reading the paper or I would try to get caught up on memos or something else. What I do now is I put everything away and I spend that 30 minutes just trying to envision what is this day going to be like. Because I know that the more that I have thought through what’s about to occur, the more that I have a strong vision in my mind of what I should expect and anticipate, the more my subconscious is going to be able to decide this is what you should focus on, this is what you can safely dwell on. I’m trying to train my brain by just doing a couple of minutes of thinking through what’s about to occur to make better decisions about where my focus should actually go.
We all get the same amount of hours in a day. Some people definitely seem to have more. Writers like Steven King and James Patterson, performers like Beyoncé, filmmakers who release a new blockbuster or shoe-gazing comedy every year, and world leaders who are across all of humanity’s problems. Even some humble ordinary folks seem to get more done than appears possible, but 24 hours is the contract our planet signed with the sun so there it is, cut and dried.
In these distracted and competitive times, there is an overwhelming thirst for knowledge on productivity and life hacks to beat procrastination. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charles Duhigg finds it incredibly problematic that even though we have more tools and digital assistance than ever in achieving our goals, that same luxury interrupts us more often and makes it so much harder to focus.
In researching his latest book Smarter Faster Better Duhigg spent an inordinate amount of time (well-structured time, we assume) talking to over 400 people about productivity, collecting several hundred tips and hacks, many of which contradicted one another. So what reliably and consistently sets ultra-productive people and organizations apart?
One of the key commonalities he found was the ability of some people to selectively focus. It turns out the most efficient among us are constantly prioritizing and asking themselves: what are the goals that I should be chasing after right now? According Duhigg, this process starts with mental imagery, what he calls building a ‘mental model’ in your head at the start of each day, something Duhigg now dedicates his morning commute time to. He advises that we spend that time picturing what our day will look like – what do you need to get done? What are the events you can expect? How will you go about doing them? We are surrounded by the needs of others all day long, whether it’s a boss, colleagues, family or friends, email requests or social notifications, and it’s our natural impulse to react immediately when called upon. A notification 'ding!' is tragically pavlovian. Many of us will get a text while we’re busy and send a quick reply that we later regret, or blurt out an unsatisfactory answer to a boss who puts us on the spot. People with a mental model in their minds, on the other hand, already know what to focus on, and have the ability to say or ‘Can we discuss that at a later time?’ or simply leave a text or email to sit for a while. "The more that I have thought through what’s about to occur, the more that I have a strong vision in my mind of what I should expect and anticipate, the more my subconscious is going to be able to decide this is what you should focus on." Instead of reacting immediately, your time is actually much better spent taking a couple of minutes to make a better decision about where your focus should go.
Charles Duhigg's most recent book is Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business.
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
Want help raising your kids? Spend more time at church, says new study.
- Religious people tend to have more children than secular people, but why remains unknown.
- A new study suggests that the social circles provided by regular church going make raising kids easier.
- Conversely, having a large secular social group made women less likely to have children.
Be fruitful and multiply<p>Scientists in the United Kingdom collected data on more than 13,000 mothers and their children. Most of them were religious, but 12 percent were not. The data included information on their church habits, social networks, number of children, and the scores those children achieved on a standardized test.</p><p>In line with previous findings that religious women have more children than secular women in industrialized countries, a connection between at least monthly church attendance and fertility was confirmed. However, religious parents showed they could avoid the pitfalls that having more children can bring. </p><p>Typically, more children in a family leads to reduced cognitive ability and height in each <a href="https://academic.oup.com/ije/article/37/6/1408/729795" target="_blank">child</a>. Some studies find that children do less well in school for each <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13524-016-0471-0" target="_blank">additional sibling they have</a>. This makes a kind of intuitive sense, as parents with more children would have to divide their time, energy, and resources among more people as families expand. One would expect that the larger families would also lead to things like lower test scores. </p><p>Despite the expectation, the children of religious parents didn't have lower scores on standardized tests. There were small positive relationships between the size of the mother's social network, the number of co-religionists helping out, and the children's test scores. However, this association was small, didn't show up in all of the testings, and was unrelated to other variables. </p> These effects might be explained by the size and helpfulness of the social networks around the more religious. Women who went to church at least once a month had more extensive social networks than those who never go or who attend yearly. These social networks of co-religious people mean that there are more people to turn to for help with child-rearing, a point also demonstrated in the data. The amount of aid women got from their fellow churchgoers was also associated with a higher fertility rate. <br> <br> Conversely, an extensive social network was associated with fewer children for secular women. This finding is in line with <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1207/s15327957pspr0904_5" target="_blank">previous studies</a> and suggests that the social networks comprised of co-religious individuals differ from those found elsewhere.
So, how quickly should I join a local religious group?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="6RrmYM8M" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="9eb4740a7d1e10108a75fd2ed627a90f"> <div id="botr_6RrmYM8M_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/6RrmYM8M-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/6RrmYM8M-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/6RrmYM8M-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>The study is not without its faults, and more investigations into the relationship between fertility, childcare, ritual, and social networks are needed.</p><p>These findings all show correlation, not causation. Though it might be said the results point towards causation, various alternative interpretations of the data are apparent. The authors note that most religions are explicitly pro-natal. It is possible that religious women have internalized these values and simply choose to have more children than secular women do.</p><p>This idea is similar to a potential interpretation of why large social networks have the opposite effect for secular women. The authors suggest that, in some cases, these more extensive social networks are associated with work and exert an anti-natal influence. Again, the people who build such networks may be people unlikely to have large families under any circumstances.</p><p>However, the researchers' hypothesis endured. The help religious women get from their church-based social networks allows them to have larger families than those who lack these support systems. In some instances, these support systems also prevent the adverse effects of larger families. </p>
The community religion offers<p>As we've mentioned <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/what-is-secular-humanism" target="_blank">before</a>, religion offers a community, and a community provides social capital. As religion continues to decline in the West, the social bonds of faith communities that used to tie social communities together begin to decay. However, as has been noted by a variety of observers for the last few decades, fewer and fewer new organizations appear ready to replace religion as a source of community in our lives.</p><p>While many different organizations might offer social support that religion once provided the whole of western society, this study shows that different social circles can differently affect the people in them. This finding must be considered by those trying to find new communities to join or the authors of future research. </p><p>The community offered by religious groups provides real benefits to those who join them. As this study shows, having the support network religious community offers allows some parents to avoid pitfalls that bedevil those lacking similar support. It suggests that previous studies demonstrating that group ritual offers benefits like increased amounts of <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797612472910" target="_blank">group trust</a> and <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1069397103037002003" target="_blank">cooperation</a> are onto something and that those benefits have a variety of applications. </p><p>While this study is not without its blind spots, it offers a strong starting point for further investigations into the nature of ritual in our modern lives and how local support networks remain vital in our increasingly globalized world. </p>
Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
Can an orgasm a day really keep the doctor away?
- Achieving orgasm through masturbation provides a rush of feel-good hormones (such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin) and can re-balance our levels of cortisol (a stress-inducing hormone). This helps our immune system function at a higher level.
- The surge in "feel-good" hormones also promotes a more relaxed and calm state of being, making it easier to achieve restful sleep, which is a critical part in maintaining a high-functioning immune system.
- Just as bad habits can slow your immune system, positive habits (such as a healthy sleep schedule and active sex life) can help boost your immune system which can prevent you from becoming sick.
How masturbation affects your brain...<p>Orgasms are a very common human phenomenon. The physical and mental health benefits have been researched frequently as a result, and yet, there is still so much to be learned about how our bodies and brains react to the chemicals and hormones released during and after experiencing this type of sexual release.</p><p>"The amount of speculation versus actual data on both the function and value of orgasm is remarkable" explains Julia Heiman, director of the <a href="https://kinseyinstitute.org/" target="_blank">Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction</a>.</p><p>Masturbation causes a rush of <a href="https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-is-dopamine" target="_blank">dopamine</a>, which is a chemical that is associated with our ability to feel pleasure. Along with the rush of dopamine that is released during an orgasm, there is also a release of a hormone called <a href="https://www.livescience.com/42198-what-is-oxytocin.html" target="_blank">oxytocin</a>, which is commonly referred to as the "love hormone."<br></p><p>This concoction of chemicals does more than just boost our mood, it also can play a key role in decreasing stress and promoting relaxation. Oxytocin decreases <a href="https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-cortisol" target="_blank">cortisol</a>, which is a stress hormone that is usually present (in high volumes) during times of anxiety, fear, panic, or distress. </p><p>According to BDSM and fetish researcher <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists/dr-gloria-brame-colbert-ga/278388" target="_blank">Dr. Gloria Brame</a>, an orgasm is the biggest non-drug induced blast of dopamine that we can experience. </p><p>By boosting the oxytocin and dopamine levels and subsequently decreasing our cortisol levels, the brain is placed in a more relaxed, euphoric, and calm state. </p>
Masturbation boosts your immune system and raises your white blood cell count.<p>How do those effects on the brain from reaching orgasm translate to boosting our immune system and making our body healthier?</p><p>The increase of oxytocin and dopamine that causes a decrease in cortisol levels can help boost our immune system because cortisol (well-known for being a stress-inducing hormone) actually helps maintain your immune system if released in small doses. </p><p>According to <a href="https://www.health24.com/Sex/Great-sex/incredible-health-benefits-to-masturbating-20181030-2" target="_blank">Dr. Jennifer Landa</a>, a hormone-therapy specialist, masturbation can produce the right kind of environment for a strengthened immune system to thrive. </p><p><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15316239" target="_blank">A study</a> conducted by the Department of Medical Psychology at the University Clinic of Essen (in Germany) showed similar results. A group of 11 volunteers were asked to participate in a study that would look at the effects of orgasm through masturbation on the white blood cell count and immune system.</p><p>During this experiment, the white blood cell count of each participant was analyzed through measures that were taken 5 minutes before and 45 minutes after reaching a self-induced orgasm. </p><p>The results confirmed that sexual arousal and orgasm increased the number of white blood cells, particularly the natural killer cells that help fight off infections. </p><p>The findings confirm that our immune system is positively affected by sexual arousal and self-induced orgasm and promote even more research into the positive impacts of sexual arousal and orgasm. </p>
Masturbation can ease and prevent pain, which allows you to achieve the restful sleep that helps your immune system stay strong and healthy.<p>The benefits of masturbation have long been debated, but the more research that is done on the topic the more we understand that there are many positive reactions that happen in our bodies and brains when we orgasm.</p><p>Orgasms can help prevent or mitigate pain, which boosts the immune system, preventing cold and flu symptoms. </p><p>According to neurologist and headache specialist Stefan Evers, about one in three patients experience relief from migraine attacks by experiencing sexual activity or orgasm. Evers and his team <a href="https://www.livescience.com/27642-sex-relieves-migraine-pain.html" target="_blank">conducted an experiment</a> with 800 migraine patients and 200 patients who suffered from cluster-headaches to see how their experiences with sexual activity impacted their pain levels. </p><p>The study showed that 60% of migraine sufferers experienced pain relief after participating in sexual activity that resulted in orgasm. Of the cluster-headache sufferers, about 50% said their headaches actually worsened after sexual arousal and orgasm. </p><p>Evers suggested in his findings that the people who did not experience pain relief from migraines of headaches during their sexual activity did not release as large amounts of endorphins as those who did experience pain relief. </p><p>According to <a href="https://www.sharecare.com/health/chronic-pain/chronic-pain-affect-immune-system" target="_blank">rheumatologist Dr. Harris McIlwain</a>, people who suffer from chronic pain have immune systems that are simply not functioning at full capacity - therefore, alleviating pain (through orgasm, as an example) can help boost the immune system. </p><p>Orgasms can also promote relaxation and make it easier to fall asleep. Serotonin, oxytocin, and norepinephrine are all hormones that are released during sexual arousal and orgasm, and all three are known for counteracting stress hormones and promoting relaxation, which makes it much easier for you to fall asleep.</p><p>There are <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1233384" target="_blank">several studies</a> showing that serotonin and norepinephrine help our body cycle through REM and deep non-REM sleeping cycles. During these sleep cycles, the immune system releases proteins called <a href="https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/how-sleep-affects-your-immunity" target="_blank"><span id="selection-marker-1" class="redactor-selection-marker"></span>cytokines<span id="selection-marker-2" class="redactor-selection-marker"></span></a>, which target infection and inflammation. This is a critical part of our immune response. Cytokines are both produced and released throughout our bodies while we sleep, which proves the importance of a good sleep schedule to a healthy immune system.</p>
Masturbation promotes a high-functioning immune system; a healthy immune system prevents cold and flu.<p>The immune system is a balanced network of cells and organs that work together to defend you against infections and diseases by stopped threats like bacteria and viruses from entering your system. While there are many things we need to do to keep our immune systems functioning at optimal levels, masturbation (or other means of achieving orgasm) has proven to have positive effects on the immune system as a whole.</p><p>Just as bad habits (such as an inconsistent sleep schedule or harmful chemicals in your body) can slow your immune system, positive habits (such as a healthy sleep schedule and active sex life) can help boost your immune system. </p>
The word "learning" opens up space for more people, places, and ideas.
- The terms 'education' and 'learning' are often used interchangeably, but there is a cultural connotation to the former that can be limiting. Education naturally links to schooling, which is only one form of learning.
- Gregg Behr, founder and co-chair of Remake Learning, believes that this small word shift opens up the possibilities in terms of how and where learning can happen. It also becomes a more inclusive practice, welcoming in a larger, more diverse group of thinkers.
- Post-COVID, the way we think about what learning looks like will inevitably change, so it's crucial to adjust and begin building the necessary support systems today.