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How PhDs Maintain Focus Under Pressure (Cheeky Scientist Radio)

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Skip ahead to:
12:50 – Show Me the Data
36:23 – How PhDs Maintain Focus Under Pressure w/Dr. Greg Wells
56:45 – Maintaining Focus In Your Job And Career w/Aja Isble

Are you constantly distracted and not able to focus on your job search?

Do you know what gets you into a flow state? 

In this episode of Cheeky Scientist Radio, Dr. Greg Wells, talks about his book The Focus Effect, and give us tons of insight into everything having to do with focus. With highly practical and strategic tips you can implement right away. Then, we have on Aja Isble, who will talk about maintaining your focus once you get hired in industry. 

About Our Guests

Dr. Greg Wells is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, and associate scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children, and the CEO of The Wells Group. He is the author of best sellers Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World’s Best Athletes, The Ripple Effect: Sleep Better, Eat Better, Move Better, Think Better and, most recently, The Focus Effect: Change Your Work, Change Your Life.

Greg is a sought after speaker on the topic of human performance, and has spoken at top events like TEDX and the Titan Summit, alongside Sir Richard Branson, Robin Sharma and Steve Wozniak.

Dr. Wells is a frequent contributor to The Globe and Mail and has been an expert source to other top media outlets like ABC News, “20/20,” The Discovery Channel, TSN, CBC and CTV. He also served as the sports medicine analyst for the Canadian Olympic Broadcast Consortium for the 2010 and 2012 Olympic Games.

Aja Davis Isble completed her M.Sc. in Pathology from the University of Iowa and obtained her MBA from Darden Graduate School of Business Admin, a Top 10 US MBA Program. She has over 10 years experience working in sales and marketing at Amgen, and in new product and strategy roles at Baxter, Baxalta, Shire. Aja recently accepted a position as Director, New Product Planning, Gastroenterology at Takeda.

Key Takeaways

1. If you are controlling your own attention then you’re probably doing what you need to be done. But, if your attention is being controlled by someone else then that’s a problem.

2. Move from time management into priority management and you’re gonna crush everybody.

3. Be prepared for topsy turvy  times in your job by knowing your priorities and maintaining your focus on those priorities.

More About This Show

Today’s show is all about how to stay focused during your job search as a PhD. We have on a very special guest, Dr. Greg Wells, who will be talking about his latest book, The Focus Effect: Change Your Work, Change Your Life, and bringing us his expert insight into how you can get and stay focused. He gives super practical and actionable strategies to improve your focus and achieve success in your job search. 

We also have on Aja Isble to talk about staying focused in business and why increasing your business acumen is so important for PhDs. Not only should you be focused on the technical side of things, you also need to focus on the business aspects of working in industry. Aja discusses how you can expand your focus onto new things, new business concepts, and how that will help you get hired and propel you forward in your career trajectory.

What Is Focus? Getting Into The Flow State.

Flow is what happens when you do something and you completely lose track of everything else. You’re completely engrossed in whatever you’re doing. You’re totally focused. During flow you’re totally focused on what you’re doing, nothing else matters and the task feels easy. 

The book by Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines the flow state, where you are able to reach your optimal focus with 8 traits: 

  1. Complete concentration on the task
  2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback
  3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down of time)
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding
  5. Effortlessness and ease
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task

What gets you into a state of flow? And how can you replicate that to achieve optimal results in your job search?

A study out of the University of Lincoln found that throughout the literature there are a few things that people need to have into order to achieve the flow state – and one of the most important was focus. They had to be focused on the right things at the right time in order to enter this state of flow. And the other things that were important are preparation, motivation, arousal, thoughts and emotions, and confidence. You have to have all of these things together to enter that ideal flow state.

How To Maintain Focus During High Pressure Situations: A Conversation with Dr. Greg Wells

Isaiah: Why did you write The Focus Effect? What was the reason behind it?

Greg: So what was happening is I was actually at a speaking event in Zurich and I was with my buddy Bruce Bowser. We were at the back of the room where all the speakers hang out. And I was sort of just looking around and I noticed that so many people were on their devices in the middle of some of these epic talks. And I’m sure some people were taking notes so it’s all good. But it really just struck me.

And then we went on break and everyone’s on their phones. And then we went out to dinner. People were on their phones. We walked along the street and someone walks into us ’cause she’s looking at her phone not looking where she’s going. Like oh my God, it’s crazy. And I’m like we should write a book about that. And so Bruce and I ended up collaborating together and over the course of about six months to put together the book.

Isaiah: When you do become distracted by your phone, or something else, it takes your brain a while to come back to being focused and actually taking in the information. Is that right?

Greg:  Yeah, absolutely. And what a lot of people can probably relate to is imagine you’re engrossed in a book, a great story, where you’re reading,  your imaginary world is all around you in this amazing book. If you get distracted, someone asks you a question, and you’re like whatever, and then you come back to it, how long does it take you to get back into the state where you’re completely engrossed with that book? Probably 60 seconds up to like five minutes.

That happens to us every single time that we’re pinged by an email alert or a message on your phone. So the first strategy that I have for everybody, because I like to keep it granular and give people specific tactics, is right now on your phones, iPads, tablets, computers, turn off all your audio notifications at all times. They should never be on, ever, because they interrupt you and they interrupt everyone else around you.

But what I’ve started to think about is four things. Focus to distraction, and then intention versus compulsion. And if you’re intentionally recording something because you wanna keep those notes, an important thought, that’s great. If you’re compulsively scrolling through Instagram, that’s problematic. These devices are designed to capture our attention. Our attention is the currency. That is what we are, that is what’s being taken from us. As long as you are controlling your attention then you’re probably doing what you need to be doing. If you’re attention is being controlled by someone else then that’s a problem.

Isaiah: Do you have any tips for how we can trigger the ‘zone’ or flow state in ourselves? 

Greg: It’s self awareness, honestly. It’s knowing what zone you need to be in in order to perform at your best. And the exercise that I use for athletes is we actually take some time and we go back and we think about a moment when you were in the zone, a moment when you were performing at your best, when you’re deep in focus, when you were writing that paper, you’re delivering an amazing presentation, what were you doing?

What were you doing, physically? Were you physically relaxed? Were you standing tall? Were you stretching? Were you sitting? Physically, what was happening? Second thing, what was happening mentally? What were you thinking? What type of attitude did you have at that moment? And then the third component is what were you feeling? Were you excited? Were you scared?

So I actually know that if I’m gonna be the best that I can possibly be on stage when I’m doing public speaking, I have to be slightly scared. So sometimes, I have to actually to get myself more agitated, because if I’m too relaxed I don’t perform well. But there’s other times, like when I’m playing with my daughter and son in the park where that doesn’t work well. In those cases you’ve gotta be chill. You cannot take your stress into your family life. So in those cases you’ve gotta really really calm yourself down.

So it’s about self awareness. Where are you right now? And understanding what state do I need to be in? And understanding you have control of your state.

Maintaining Focus In Your Job And Career: A Conversation With Aja Isble

Isaiah: How can PhDs stay focused once in industry, when things kind of go topsy turvy?

AjaNow I will tell you that topsy turvy times happen more frequently than not, whether there’s a merger or an acquisition or not. I like to call them fire drills. Fire drills are extremely common in the working world and that’s because people don’t know how to plan ahead and then they need something from you. So this happens almost on a daily basis.

During times of fire drills it’s even more important to structure your day in a way that allows you to get the work done that you need to do. I focus my effort and my sort of hard thinking time in the mornings. I will put meetings in the afternoon. So meetings I’m not leading, that’s kind of out of my control a little bit, but the meetings that I’m leading I can put in the afternoon and that requires a different type of mental energy than the heads down, more strategic thinking, putting presentations together for senior leaders, etc. That I do in the morning.

During mergers and acquisitions you have to stay focused on your work. Mergers and acquisitions will just automatically cause people to start doing things like talking a lot in the hallways, gossiping about what’s gonna happen to whom. And frankly speaking, there’s a lot of loss of productivity because of that. I value myself enough to know that I can contribute to the company during those times. So I don’t allow myself to be as distracted as other folks during those times because people are relying on me to get stuff done, right?

So if I know what the company priorities are and if I align most of my activity to those priorities, then that can help you stay focused. So literally asking myself sometimes is the thing that I’m doing right now actually meaningful? Or can I put this off until tomorrow? Where do I actually need to be working and doing my focusing is something I ask myself all the time. 

And if people were asking me to do other stuff I would literally ask, these are the five things that we agreed upon that I was gonna work on in the next year. Happy to change my focus if it’s a meaningful business impact but how is that gonna impact the other things that I’m working on? Those prioritization discussions, which I think we were just kind of getting to at the end, should drive your day to day and should help you focus your mental energy.

Listen to the full podcast episode to get even more insight into: How to come back to a state of flow after a disruption, breathing techniques that enhance focus and much more.

To get advanced access to the full length versions of these podcasts, as well as access to our live training webinars, exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the waitlist for the Cheeky Scientist Association now.

Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah is a Ph.D. in Anatomy & Cell Biology and internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant. He is an expert in the biotechnology industry and specializes in helping people transition into cutting-edge career tracks.

Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.
Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.