Expert Time Management Interview: Focusing with Dr. Lucy Jo Palladino

Expert Time Management Interview: Focusing with Dr. Lucy Jo Palladino

In 2011 I read a book that changed the way I think about focusing. This book was called “Find Your Focus Zone” and it was written by Dr. Lucy Jo Palladino. This book taught me a great deal about the topic and I’m following this advice on a daily basis.

I’m happy to say that I had a change to interview Lucy Jo regarding to this very topic of focusing.

I hope that you enjoy the interview and that you can improve your focus too.


1. Tell me a little bit about yourself 

I’ve been a practicing psychologist for 35 years. In graduate school, I got focussed on completing my doctoral dissertation by doing it about attention. I’ve been fascinated by the subject ever since. I took some advanced training in sports psychology to study the methods athletes use to concentrate, and see how they could work for the rest of us. I wrote my first book, Dreamers, Discoverers and Dynamos: How to Help the Child Who Is Bright, Bored, and Having Problems in School, when my children were in grade school. Parents of school-age kids face big challenges today. How do you get a kid to leave a World of Warcraft quest to sit down and practice linear equations?

2. In your book, “Find Your Focus Zone”, you talk about mindful multitasking. Would you like to describe a little bit what it is?

Often, we fall into multitasking automatically, without making the conscious decision to do so. We hear a ringtone and we answer reflexively. The more we do this, the more automatic this reflex becomes. We’re conditioning the response, strengthening those neural pathways in our brains. But we do have a choice, and we need to exercise it. Sometimes multi-tasking helps and sometimes it hurts, and we need to decide with awareness every time.

Multi-tasking is a trade-off. When we’re bored, it can give us exactly what we need, namely the extra stimulation to stay motivated and energized. But at other times, multi-tasking costs too much, for instance, at the price of safety, accuracy, or someone’s feelings.

Interestingly, we believe we multi-task to save time, but cognitive scientists have shown that this is seldom true. All things considered, multi-tasking usually decreases, not increases, efficiency. But depending on the demands of the tasks, multi-tasking can be beneficial. Why? Because up to a point, stimulation increases attention. We’re sharper with the stimulation that multi-tasking adds. What happens past that point? Too much stimulation degrades attention.

Picture an upside-down U curve. (See illustration).

The U Curve of FocusingOn the left side, you’re under-powered. On the right side, you’re in over-drive. The middle part is your focus zone, where your task gives you just the right kind and degree of stimulation. If you’re underpowered, multi-tasking can kick you into your focus zone. If you’re already in over-drive or near to it, multi-tasking overstimulates you and impedes your attention. This relationship between attention and stimulation is based on the effects of adrenaline on your physiological arousal level.

Olympic athletes use this knowledge to guide them to stay focussed and motivate themselves through years of dull, routine practice. Then they use it to control their nervous energy to concentrate at high-stakes moments of history-making competition. It’s called the Yerkes-Dodson Law, and it’s the foundation for my book, Find Your Focus Zone.

3. If my boss told me something nasty at work, I would find it hard to focus on my work assignments. How could I clear my mind and get back into focus zone again?

It’s natural and normal to get stuck thinking about your boss’s negative remark. Ask yourself this critical question: Can I do something about it? For example, can I compose a calm, respectful, effective response? If the answer is yes, or you can’t decide, block out time on your calendar to think about it later.

If the answer is no, think of a way to sooth yourself later, for instance, a favorite meal, a movie, or time with a friend — something sweet to add to your life to supplant the bitterness of his remark. Then, make a rule that every time you think of his remark, you use the sting you feel as a cue to remind yourself that later, you’ll take care of the matter one way or another. You know it’s on the calendar so you can get back to work.

If you’re prone to rumination, catch yourself at it and stop by reminding yourself that your boss doesn’t have the power to take any more of your time or choice or mental energy away from you than you’ve already allowed him to do.

4. When I work at home, I’m most productive when it’s quiet (for example in the early morning).

However, I have also found that I’m able to focus well in noisy environments, like in a coffee shop or in a train. Why do you think we are able to focus well in those kinds of environments too?

Your productivity when it’s quiet at home versus your ability to focus at a noisy coffee shop is most likely related to what neuroscientists call “the cocktail party effect.” Recent findings from the University of California at San Francisco have identified an area in the auditory cortex just behind the ear that boosts some sounds and turns down others before the signal reaches the higher brain.

At home, your auditory cortex won’t do this; background noise such as the sounds of your children at play holds meaning for you. Your brain doesn’t want you to miss what could turn out to be a significant auditory input. At the coffee shop, your auditory cortex feels free to turn down the signals. Conditioning, through experience, has not ascribed any significance to the sounds there.

5. Focus comes in many levels and it is much more than just focusing on a task at hand.

If I have a goal that I want to reach in 5 years, how do I make sure I can focus on that goal only? How can I prevent myself from working on other goals instead?

Write your goal down on paper and develop a long-term, committed relationship with it.

  • Visualize what it will be like when you’ve accomplished it. Keep a touchstone of that mental picture on your desk where you can see it.
  • Break your goal into sub-goals that you can achieve every one to three months. Write your subgoals on your calendar on the approximate date you’ll achieve them. Use a color reserved only for your 5-year goal. Celebrate each victory. If you don’t make it, sit down and honestly ask yourself what you need to do to reach that subgoal and by when.
  • Write down 5 reasons why you chose this particular 5-year goal. Keep the list in your nightstand drawer and every Sunday night, before you go to sleep, take it out and read it word for word.
  • During your work day, get into the habit of asking yourself the question, “What am I not doing now?

One more thing. Your goals serve you, not vice versa. We live in a rapidly changing world. Before the invention of the iPhone 5 years ago, no one’s goals included developing iPhone apps. The developers who adapted quickly and capably were abundantly rewarded.

6. It seems that electronic distraction is growing all the time and it is a true enemy to our work productivity.

Why is it so that we have to check out an e-mail message as soon as we get notified by it?

Or, why do we always rush to answer the phone even in the middle of our work – even if we know that we can call the person afterwards? Is this just the way we people are?

Yes. We’re hard-wired to be attracted to new information, and for most of human history, this survival mechanism served us well. News meant food, mating, safety from predators,  Now, however, we need to train ourselves to override this impulse, which is easier said than done. Novelty triggers the brain chemical dopamine, which activates the reward centers of the brain. We like it . . . a lot.

Does this make electronic distraction the true enemy to our work productivity? I don’t think so. The same technology that distracts us, also empowers us to work faster, smarter, and in more interesting ways. Maybe the enemy lies within . . . our own complacency in allowing technology to control us, and not vice versa.

7. Working from home has many benefits but also downsides when it comes to productivity.

What advice would you give an entrepreneur, who is trying to get the work done, but who is also trying to cope with family interruptions?

Balance, patience, and perspective

  • Balance your work and family commitments, remembering to take care of yourself.
  • Be patient with your children because you’re the adult and they’re the children. Be patient with yourself, and get back on track after every interruption without anger or self-criticism.
  • Keep a life-span perspective. When you’re a parent, the days are long and the years are short. It’s hard to believe right now, but sooner than you guess, you’ll be missing those family interruptions with all your heart.

Also, I invite you to drop by my website,, to learn more about the topics we’ve discussed here, and to keep up-to-date on new ideas and research about staying focussed.

If you liked this post, please share it or opt-in to my e-mail list for updates and future articles.

  • Carolyn

    I really enjoyed this interview Timo. Understanding how to focus is more than half the battle in running a successful business from home and I already use Lucy Jo Palladino’s suggestion of writing your goal down. Each day that I do something towards it, I mark a tick in my diary. If I haven’t had a productive day or choose to take a day off, I mark a cross. It’s a gentle but effective way to keep me on track and acts like stepping stones through the week. It’s easier to take small steps than to leap over a large gap.
    The biggest problem I face is getting friends to understand that I’m not just “playing” at working from home and that I can’t just go somewhere with them or do a favour because I’m at home.
    How do you suggest we get others to appreciate our need to focus?

    • Timo Kiander

      Thank you Carolyn!

      Making your productivity visual is a effective way of telling, if you have been working on the real stuff or not. It reminds me of the Seinfeld’s productivity method where he was marking a big red cross to his calendar to show, that he had written (I guess it was about that) on a certain day. The longer the “chain” of Xs was on his calendar, tougher it was him to break it.

      To be quite honest, I haven’t faced that much issue with my friends disturbing me. In fact, I think that this would make a great post title in the future.

      I guess it all comes down to communication: letting them know that you are running a business and not playing around.

      Of course, you could find a place where you could work in peace (only your closest ones would know the place, but your friends not). That way you could physically “isolate” yourself for the time being and be in contacts with them again when you want.


  • This is a really interesting article and it actually makes me rethink my working habits. I would especially try to meditate before and after I work, and because I work on the computer I really have to rest my eyes. One thing that meditation also gives me is that I have enough time to set my focus on what I will be doing. That way I can neutralize anything that would serve as a distraction as I work.

    • Timo Kiander

      Hi John!

      Meditation is a great way to improve your focus.

      Do you use any particular program when you meditate?