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This article was published on April 17, 2014

How to retain mental and creative focus

How to retain mental and creative focus
David Hassell
Story by

David Hassell

David Hassell is the founder and CEO of 15Five, lightweight performance management software that delivers a full suite of integrated tools - David Hassell is the founder and CEO of 15Five, lightweight performance management software that delivers a full suite of integrated tools - including continuous employee feedback, objective tracking (OKRs), pulse surveys, and peer recognition. Named "The Most Connected Man You Don't Know in Silicon Valley" by Forbes Magazine, David has also been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Inc., Wired, Fast Company, and the Financial Post. You can learn more about 15Five and David Hassell at

David Hassell is the CEO of 15Five. This post originally appeared on the 15five blog.

Have you ever wondered why, when you leave a two-hour meeting you usually have very little retention of what was said? An onslaught of stimuli and information comes our way every day. Why do our minds label some of it as important, and the rest becomes no more memorable than this morning’s Starbucks experience?

Lack of focus is not due to too much TV as a child, it’s a function of our Reticular Activating System (also called the extrathalamic control modulatory system, but let’s just call it the RAS). The RAS is a structure embedded deep within the brain, that helps with two main business functions: 1) highlighting information as relevant while it is being experienced, and 2) stimulating pattern recognition that can be used as innovative fuel.

What if you had a tool that could improve information retention in the moment, and mind training for the future? By simply asking the right questions at the right cadence, you plant seeds of thought in the minds of your employees and create thought patterns that drive your business forward.

Too much input

Awareness must be regulated during our waking lives, since our minds have a finite amount of resources and simply cannot process all of the external stimuli that we experience each day. 

The metaphor ‘asleep at the wheel’, is not far from the truth. Our brains are actively ignoring information that isn’t deemed vital.

When we zone out in meetings, the RAS is acting like a switch to protect us from being overstimulated by a massive amount of information in a short period of time. When it is turned off, we “zone out”. When the RAS is on, we have increased awareness and retention of vital information.

Meetings are a turn-off

In meetings, the person in control of the conversation is often a leader who is forwarding a well thought-out agenda. But for the employee who is listening to the information, it may be perceived as uninteresting or even threatening.

When we are uninterested, the RAS is not activated  and what we hear just becomes noise. And when we feel threatened by something because we don’t understand it or it seems overly burdensome, many of us shut down.

Bolt, the fastest pigeon in the world was sold for £300,000 last year to a Chinese millionaire. Belgian pigeon fancier Leo Heremans also sold the rest of his aviary collection at auction for over $5 million. Did that seem random to you? It was my intentional strategy to activate your RAS.

I recommend starting meetings with information that people are not expecting, as it gets them to pay attention. This technique brings them fully into the room and makes them present.

What did I just say?


Unfortunately, too many managers are not focused on what their people are thinking, they are focused on what they are doing. That’s the impetus for far too many boring meetings.

Managers give direction so that employees will hustle and get sh*t done. For most of today’s knowledge-worker industries this strategy makes no sense.

Yes, we are all results-focused and desire a certain amount of output. But unless you are running an assembly-line, you hired people for their creative thoughts, unique perspectives and experience.

Take a minute to stop and think if there is a better way of managing employees. Is there a way to elicit brilliant ideas from your best and brightest? Companies must create space to allow for people to create and think innovatively, or they are missing out on a competitive edge.

As inventor Charles Kettering said, “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.” When a person asks a question, the process of solving it begins in his or her own mind. This not only leads to employee growth, but exceptional retention.

When someone else places an idea in our heads, we may or may not retain it. But when we form our own ideas, they are more relevant to us.

In the business context, I activate the RAS in others by asking questions instead of just telling them what to do. To stimulate innovation, we ask, “What is one thing to improve your role? What is an innovative idea you have for the company/product?”

Employees offer responses, and place those ideas into their mental “important” bucket.

When something is relevant, it becomes top of mind, new neural pathways are formed and the listener naturally retains that information. The trick is to sow the right seeds so that we place certain goals within the category of important information. The best way to do that is through the repetition of what we learn every day.

Ask, Answer, Rinse & Repeat

The good news is that the RAS can be trained. If you ask somebody a question once, you can get them to reflect in that moment. The person may draw a blank for the first response, but ask again. They will likely offer some idea, and with repeated questions they keep thinking about it. Soon, it becomes embedded in their minds like a piece of code.

Repetition allows each priority to become increasingly relevant. You probably experienced the phenomenon the last time that you purchased a new car. You researched it, looked at images of it over a long period of time and see it every day after purchase. Suddenly you starting seeing that car everywhere. Did people follow your idea to buy a silver Toyota Camry, or did that particular object become more relevant to you through repeated exposure?

Ask employees a question four times over the course of the month and they begin to always think about certain activities and ideas on a regular basis. After three months, an employee’s RAS is automatically activated by the most important initiatives. Ask your team those same questions all year and they become idea-generating machines.

As an added bonus, employees begin to fine-tune their systems. The particular details of one’s job has more weight, and employees see information once perceived as extraneous, as now being beneficial to their roles. They connect dots that they could not sense before, and what they see and hear becomes the inspiration for great ideas instead of being just another lost opportunity.

What’s the one question you want top-of-mind in the thoughts of your employees? Leave us a comment below.