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Play...To Get Job Done

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Full Disclosure. This article was submitted a week past its deadline (and this admission comes only because appraisal season is over). The delay wasn’t because the reporting wasn’t done, but because this reporter couldn’t get her thoughts together long enough to write the article. This was plain irony, since the subject of this piece is just that — how to concentrate at your workplace (or at least, on your work). 
 
The inability to concentrate on the work at hand and, thus procrastinate, leads to undue bottlenecks in processes — hampering not only an individual’s productivity but, in the long run, the company, as well as the country’s economy. In a chat over the phone, J.M. Radhakrishna, HR consultant and executive coach for several multinational companies, says people “often forget to see the bigger picture, which is why the focus is often lost. Perspective matters”. To add numbers to the mix, according to a Gallup 2011 survey, disengaged employees cost the US economy $370 billion annually. One shudders to think of the figures if the survey was done in India.  
 
There could be a zillion reasons for not being able to focus. Recent studies about possible corrective action suggest zapping yourself with controlled amounts of electricity to “supercharge” your brain, but till more conclusive results are out, if you think you need a little help to get your groove on, here are four hol­istic approaches to a more focused you. 

Let’s Play
Ever been chastised for spending too much time on the gaming console? Now’s the time for Revenge of the Execs. According to Rajnish Kumar, consulting neurologist with Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurgaon, “Video games trigger the parietal and frontal lobes of the brain — the parts that are responsible for executive decision-making and problem-solving.” This trigger helps to improve working memory, concentration and what scientists call “fluid intelligence” — the ability to adapt to new situations and solve problems they haven’t faced before. 
 
This breed of video games is called cognition-enhancing games, or CEGs. Rohit Nair, CEO, Contests2win, a mobile game firm that specialises in CEGs, says, “These social games help with strategy and are perfect for management and executive roles.” Games such as SimCity, Clash of Clans, Mafia Wars, and Farmville have been touted as strategy games to help the modern-day executive.  
 
Nair also draws from Radhakrishna’s point by saying that “such games help you realise there’s a larger goal at the end of the game or day, and you strategise accordingly”. Expounding on the positive impact of CEGs and MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games), Nair says they improve teamwork, and sometimes even help break the ice among colleagues. 
 
If you’re getting seriously into this, then try Dual N-Back and offers from the Lumosity shelf. These have been recognised in academic circles as games that improve fluid intelligence. Closer home, there is Parking Frenzy. And although it is highly unlikely that organisations will see game-playing during office hours as constructive, there is still a solid case for video-game playing after work — after all, you’re just trying to make yourself smarter.
 
Pop The Nuts
Remember all those foods that were forced on you as a kid? Bring them back into play. Yes, our parents were right after all. Have your fill of fish, wholegrain breads, cereals, pumpkin seeds, broccoli, sage, and go specially all out on the nuts — almonds and walnuts, that is. According to Ambica Sharma, dietician with Columbia Asia Hospital in Ghaziabad, these foods provide the brain with the raw material it needs to function efficiently. 
 
Sharma says today’s highly stressful and sedentary lifestyles don’t allow the brain to get charged easily, so this is where brain food comes in. “Vitamin E and B complex (mainly B12), omega-3 fatty acids and glucose are essential to improving focus and concentration, and enhancing memory by triggering neurons.” She also cautions against bingeing on fried foods, such as the ever-popular samosa. 
 
So, if you feel your energy sapping and mind wavering, Sharma suggests keeping some almonds and walnuts (about a fistful) handy for some extra energy. Wholewheat biscuits or sandwiches and roasted gram will also give your brain’s parietal and frontal lobes a glucose kick. 
 
Take The Pill To Un-Chill
When the boss is breathing down your neck, and the deadline is way past, you need that extra push to burn the midnight oil and deliver. And that’s where medical science comes to your aid.
 
It is a truth not very commonly known that certain drugs — usually used to treat cognitive disorders like attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Alzheimer’s — when taken in low dosages by the regular, middle-aged Joe helps him perform better in high-stress environments by increasing focus and combating fatigue. To quote a 2006 study published in Neuropsychopharmacology, “It is now known that low doses of stimulants focus attention and improve executive function in both normal and ADHD subjects.” 
 
Although doctors are not usually in favour of popping pills to improve brain function, Fortis’s Kumar accepts that “many use the Domitazol, Rivastigmine and Memantine class of drugs to enhance memory, others like Ritalin and Adderdall to reduce sleep so that you can work for long stretches without getting tired, and Piracetam — a neuroprotective agent — to enhance memory and attention span”. 
 
There are sceptics aplenty who advocate that these pills don’t work at all. Kumar himself admits that a fair percentage of users come under the placebo effect, and trick themselves into believing that the pills are working wonders for their brain function. 
 
Simultaneously, he cautions against the use of such drugs on a regular basis since they can adversely affect the liver. But as quick fixes to a rather stressful week at work, they may just do the trick.
 
B-r-e-a-t-h-e. Seriously
Sometimes the solution is that simple. Executive coach Radhakrishna says the most common reason for loss of focus is usually the tendency of the mind to wander anywhere but stay in the present. “People think about what happened that morning at home, or about the outcome of a meeting that will happen in the evening, even next week, and the casualty is usually the job at hand.” His tip: “Close your eyes; concentrate on your breath — just inhaling and exhaling; do this for 30 seconds. This will bring you back to the present, push the extra thoughts on to the back
burner, and allow you to focus on the task at hand.”  
 
Fitness experts also advocate taking a short walk — ideally outside, but up and down the office corridors works too. And do some stretches while you are at it. This will pump some blood into your brain, thus enabling you to gather your thoughts, focus and, improve productivity.
 
As the late Steve Jobs once said, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.” So, the next time you think of checking that Twitter/Facebook update or feel like taking that call during a meeting — let go... take a deep breath, and keep your eyes on the bigger goal. 
 
As for yours truly? “Article completed!” And thanks to all the fish. 
 
Hocus Focus
Self-improvement methods need not always be about healthy eating and keeping a sound body and mind. Here are some quirky ways to get those smarts going. Even if they don't work immediately, at least you will have fun trying them. 
 
Get Artistic: A study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology shows that doodling while listening can improve concentration and recall. The idea is that doodling occupies enough of your mind to keep it from daydreaming, but not enough to hamper listening and memory. 
 
Go Red And Blue: That colours affect the  mind has been known, but when it comes to work, a study by the University of British Columbia found that red boosted detail-oriented tasks involving memory retrieval, while blue cues prompted creative tasks like brainstorming.
 
Noseworks: According to various studies, scents like peppermint, lemongrass and rosemary enhance memory and alertness.

shruti(dot)chakraborty(at)abp(dot)in
shrutic(dot)bw(at)gmail(dot)com
Twitter: @chockro

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 06-05-2013)