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How Your Brain Controls Your Attention

Some people believe that great leaders must have impressive higher thinking skills. In reality, if you want to be a leader — the sort of manager that people admire — you need to use your entire brain. Believe it or not, even the basest survival-oriented section of your brain can make you into a better manager.

The reticular activating system (RAS) is the portal through which nearly all information enters the brain. (Smells are the exception; they go directly into your brain’s emotional area.) The RAS filters the incoming information and affects what you pay attention to, how aroused you are, and what is not going to get access to all three pounds of your brain.

For survival’s sake, your RAS responds to your name, anything that threatens your survival, and information that you need immediately. For instance, if you’re looking for a computer file that you’re sure you placed on your desk, your RAS alerts your brain to search for the name of the file — Andrews vs. State of Illinois, say — or focus on one word in the filename to help you find it.

The RAS also responds to novelty. You notice anything new and different. For leadership purposes, this includes anything out of the ordinary in day-to-day activities within your organization, attending to changes in your employees relative to production, mood, and interactions with others.

Your RAS is a great leadership tool. It is your radar detector. As long as you don’t bog it down with your own personal issues, it will work for you. Program your thoughts each morning by doing the following:

  • Take care of your personal issues. If you’re concerned about your child’s behavior, for example, devise a plan to deal with it. Make sure your plan includes an appropriate time that you can put your plan into action. And then put the issue on the back burner until you can act on it.

  • Read over your long-term goals. Make sure they’re still pertinent to your vision. Change, delete, or add goals as necessary.

  • Read or create your short-term goals. Determine the timeline for each. Change them according to current needs, trends, and modifications in your mission or vision.

Make sure that the last list you look at is your list of short-term goals; your RAS helps you keep them in mind. Even when you don’t realize you’re thinking about these goals, your brain knows that they’re important and makes note of anything that might relate to them.

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