This brain resource is your most valuable and your most scarce...

In our commercial world commodities that are high in demand and low in supply command great value. Internally, we have a resource that is the basis for engagement, learning, respect, felt empathy and even love. This resource is also under huge demand, internally and externally - we are bombarded minute by waking minute with opportunities to spend this resource, often without our conscious awareness. Yet the high-demand and low-supply ‘rule’ does not apply to this resource, for it remains massively undervalued.

Can you guess what this resource is? Most people say time' when I ask this question in workshops, but use of time is really an artefact of this resource. It’s attention.

When it comes to attention, we have the supply-demand formula around the wrong way: we think that we have ample supply, more than enough to cope with attentional demands. This is probably the key reason why we don’t value our attention in the way that we should. And yet, it is where our attention falls that determines so much of our current reality and our future.

Given this, attention is wildly complex in its own right, and neuroscience has yet to understand fully how attention works. Even defining attention is difficult. We can easily come to a common understanding for other cognitive terms such as memory and perception, yet there is no standard definition of ‘attention’. The book How Attention Works, by Stefan Van Der Stigchel, has a more than decent working definition for attention:

Attention is the mechanism we use to make a selection from all of the ... information available to us and then to process only that information.
— Stefan Van Der Stigchel, How Attention Works

Van Der Stigchel’s definition is insightful because it exposes the inherent limitation of attention: attention is selective, and in selecting an information source, we filter out most everything else. Think of the party phenomenon of someone calling your name from across the room. Your attention zooms in on your name, at the cost of your current conversation, which you now no longer hear.

We can only attend to a fraction of the inputs into our brain, and we can only remember a fraction of what we attend to. We operate with a double reducing filter system in play every waking moment, as this telling infographic shows:



This model from Tor Norretrander confirms the view that our awareness/attention is a fraction (0.7%) of the inbound information from our senses. Take a little time to think about this… how else could magicians weave incredible (literally) illusions? How else can you constantly miss continuity mistakes in movies? Why can’t you text and drive well at the same time? The rich experience of life that our senses provide us lull us into a false belief that our brains have attentional superpowers.

Visually, at least, the brain can compensate for our attentional shortcomings. The brain has a neat trick when it comes to incoming visual information: it can fill in the gaps for us. Your eyes actually don’t see everything that is in your field of view, and to avoid annoying black spots, it pattern-matches the fill in the gaps. It’s like you have constant software running that applies the healing brush you find in Photoshop.

Listening, however, has no such help from the brain. The act of listening is simply an outcome of selective attention. As a sense, hearing is our second weakest, according to the Norretrander model. Good listeners, however, work against this limitation, and are great at keeping attention on the speaker. They are adept at filtering out other conversations, particularly those inside the mind. For me, this is mindful or observational listening. Mindfulness, in this context, is the redirection of attention away from thought to being present with our senses. Hard to do, especially now in a world (internal and external) that bombards us with layered demands for our attention.

I have developed a model of listening that is linked to how much attention you don't spend on yourself. This model, based on Theory U bu Otto Scharmer, illustrates 4 levels of listening, from Distracted, Factual, Empahtic and Engrossed. Most of us spend most of our time in levels 1 or 2.

Levels of attention in the ‘listening channel’.

Levels of attention in the ‘listening channel’.

Conversations that really matter demand that you be in level 3, where most of your attention is on the other person, or people. Level 4 is characterised by deep romantic love or fully immersive performance where very little attention is on your conscious self.

My mission with this post is to raise your awareness of the preciousness of your own attention. It will determine your success or failure in any venture, any learning or any relationship. Grow your awareness of how you spend your attention, for most of us wander through our days with little, if any awareness of how we have spent our attention. Help others to shift their attention, for this is a core skill and behaviour of leadership.

The one question to ask after giving feedback...

Feedback is a conundrum and a contradiction. It is absolutely necessary for growth, yet it triggers the threat-based pathways in the brain that prevent acquisition and deep learning. Particularly feedback done poorly.

One question alone can help shift a feedback conversation from being awkward to gifting a real opportunity for learning…

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7 magic inputs to keep your brain working at its best

If the brain is a system, and the outputs include decision making, sensing, problem solving, creating, collaborating and more, then the quality of these outputs are dependent on the quality of inputs to the system. Most of us don’t consider sleeping, eating and hydrating as anything more than satisfying a biological need, yet these, and other factors play a huge part in how well you turn up each day.

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Are you conflict phobic? 7 steps to mine conflict for growth

Natively we see conflict and confrontation as something akin to a visit to the dentist: if we face up to it, it will probably be full of pain, much better to avoid it. In amongst the 'ore' of pain and effort lies some significant paydirt: conflict is the bedrock of innovation and improvement. We rarely learn when we are comfortable, and relationships won't grow without learning. If we can permission and harness conflict, great things can happen.

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Integrated Leadership - leverage your mind, brain and body to lead well

It amazes me. In spite of so much new and interesting information about health, exercise, brain function and nutrition, we see leadership and growth mindset as something that occurs above the shoulders, while fitness and wellbeing falls below the shoulders. Just take a look at the vast literature available today in each of these domains and you'll get my point.

It's a simple case: the brain and mind are subject to the same biological rules as the rest of the body. If diet, hydration, fitness and sleep are poor then the brain will simply not function as well as it could. Take a leadership as a broad example, from the perspective of brain systems, to consider what happens under wellbeing deprivation. The leaders brain conducts an amazing array of complex processes that many of us simply take for granted:

  • Decision making (we generally make around 35,000 decisions a day)
  • Problem solving
  • Managing competing demands and resources
  • Applying values and beliefs
  • Speaking and presenting
  • Listening (which most of us do poorly)
  • Influencing and convincing
  • Managing our emotions and our own internal battles
 Photo by  taha ajmi  on  Unsplash

 Photo by taha ajmi on Unsplash

This is all going on inside an organ that is already our most expensive 'equipment' to run, consuming 20-25% of our biological resources each minute of our day.

Despite all of this, we rarely give a second thought to supporting the brain with the quality and quantity of resources needed to be on our game each day. 

So this begins a series of blogs taking a deeper look int  the inputs that we need to ensure that others around us see and receive our best brain. 


Doing the Flip - Flipped classrooms that work (and how they could apply elsewhere...)

For those of us in education, the flipped classroom model has been one of those nirvana-like strategies that sounds great, works for savvy teachers, but, well, there is just so much to learn.

In reality, and done well, the flipped model can be both as efficient, in terms of teacher effort, as  it is effective. The model leverages students' preference for video/visual information and the true expertise of a teacher in guiding application and understanding in the classroom.

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How do our brains compare to the internet?

In reviewing content for my updated Success Zone Classrooms workbook, I cam across this wonderful YouTube video on the brain, models to explain the brain, and comparing the brain to the internet (as a model).


This well produced and equally well-explained piece could easily be used by teachers in expelling brain function to kids, if not for, ourselves, simply better understanding the organ we are trying to influence as educators.


Technology, schools and change...

Schools and education systems are not widely known for their agility and adaptability to change, all the more the case in the technology domain. Interestingly, it could be argued that, from a device and infrastructure perspective, schools have been at the forefront of technology deployment. Take my experience in the Victorian education system (Australia), where, in 1995, a 1:1 laptop program for teachers was rolled out to 35,000 educators, where broadband was deployed to every school (ISDN back then), and that system wide serves such as email and intranets were very much on the agenda. Did any of the above transform education in Victoria? Sadly (from the perspective of ROI), probably not a great deal.

You see, for change to occur, both at the level of the individual and their behaviour, and at the level of organisations and their systems, attention and time have to be diverted (as mission critical resources) to creating new workflows, new habits, new explorations. When a teacher, as driven by imperatives of the system of education, spends nearly every available moment on the delivery of teaching (preparation, delivery, marking and followup, reporting...) there is no time left for learning. Teacher learning that is.

The good news is that many schools are finally getting it - that organisational change is the aggregation of individual adaptation, and that the growth of the individual demands vision, focus, clarity, reflection and (most importantly) time. Teachers need access to learning opportunities that allow for differentiation of learning styles and entry points of engagement. Sound familiar? Isn't this what we try to provide our students?

The way that this is approached at AIS here in Singapore is constant with the complexity and diversity of learning in any brain (teacher or student):

  • Vision and Mission - at a school level, and at the ICT intent level. We have both a school level vision, and a document that positions the intent and design of ICT use ("driven by pedagogy, inspired by technology). 
  • Structure and Strategy - we have leadership and management structures across the school, and within the ICT department, that are reflective of and adaptive to the changing demands of integrating ICT. Two clear strategies (initiatives) that pervade the whole organisation are our PLRS (Professional Learning Review System), a coaching approach to individual teacher growth, and TIGs (Teacher Inquiry Groups) that provide the opportunity for group learning around key pedagogical inquiries.
  • A Culture of Learning - where the vision and strategies shape what people do on a day to day basis, and where the accumulated behaviours of many individuals lead to a set of beliefs and values that become 'who we are'.
  • Workflows and Opportunities - as provided through both the PLRS and TIGs initiatives, as well as collaborative planning, targeted professional learning sessions and a strongly developing teacher-as-learner culture
  • Action and Reflection - where at the ground zero level of change within an individual, goals, reflection, feedback, discovery and action are intertwined in an action learning cycle. 

What should be immediately obvious in the above list is that a simple approach to 'training' teachings is far from sufficient. The other discovery available here is that this all takes time and effort, and successful schools have deliberately created resources for developing this approach by strategically abandoning strategies and workflows that do not contribute to mission and vision. In other words, some hard calls have been made about prioritisation to release precious time for learning.

Watch this space...


My Morning Happy Juice

Quite a few people ask me about my morning juice regime, and I've often found myself describing the recipe verbally. Well here it is for reference - I credit this daily habit as largely responsible for my energy and capacity in what is a demanding role in a dynamic organisation. I've named it my "happy juice" literally because it gives me a general feeling of energy and well being, often within 10-20 minutes of consumption. It is also jam-packed full of bioactive nutrients, antioxidants and prebiotics. So, while it is wonderful for the short term effects, the drink contributes massively to ongoing health outcomes.

The Recipe (for 2 serves)

  • 2 heaped tablespoons of raw organic cacao
  • 1 heaped tablespoon if organic Maca powder
  • 2 sachets if YOR Healt Berry Blast energy powdet
  • 2 serves (approx a tablespoon) of YOR Health Supergreens
  • Half to a whole teaspoon of turmeric powder (depends on taste) 
  • Half a red dragon fruit and/or 6-10 strawberries and/or a 125g punnet of blueberries, and/or half a cup of frozen berries
  • 250ml of a quality juice or coconut water - I use a pomegranate and mangosteen juice available here in Singapore
The Morning Happy Juice Ritual

The Morning Happy Juice Ritual

I'll update this post soon with the research and benefits that each of the ingredients bring.