The Soundtrack of Strategy

The human brain is perpetually switching between two modes.

One is the default network, in other words, daydreaming. When you turn off your focus and lie back to let your imagination take over, your mind wanders. This is a healthy endeavor for emotional processing and creativity.

This function is not specific to any particular neurological region. As neuroscientist Daniel Levitin writes in his book “The Organized Mind,” “It ties together distinct populations of neurons that are distributed in the brain and connected to one another to form the equivalent of an electrical circuit or network.”

Then there’s the central executive network. This is the mode in which we focus intensely. We cannot be in two modes at once, however. When we’re locked into what we’re doing, daydreaming is absent. If we’re mentally checked out, strategizing becomes impossible. For this month, we’ll stay engaged.

You’re the boss

The central executive network is responsible for a number of essential tasks, including working memory, attentional control, problem-solving and planning. All of these functions help us control our behavior to accomplish the task we’ve set for ourselves.

While a number of regions are responsible for executive functions, the major players are the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which helps us organize and reason; the anterior cingulate cortex, where decisions are made and we integrate emotional responses; and the orbitofrontal cortex, responsible for impulse control and weighing the value of rewards.

Interestingly, Levitin and his colleague Vinod Menon found that the insula, which acts like an attentional switch, is where we swing from daydreaming to focus. Your insula is in bidirectional communication with your anterior cingulate cortex. Beyond scheduling and planning, this area includes a motor region responsible for initiating movement. This integration is essential when strategizing; it allows us to put thoughts into action.

The neuroscience of strategy

Action is the critical link between having a goal and realizing it. Staying on track is challenging in an era of information overload. The constant dinging of devices and social media chatter make it difficult to focus on anything. As Levitin confirms, humans are terrible at multitasking.

Mindfulness, which is simply observing where you are and what you are doing at a particular moment, is one powerful way of remaining focused. Mindfulness meditation is an outgrowth of this practice and can be initiated anywhere by pausing the deluge of thoughts streaming through your mind and observing what’s around, and inside, you.

Envisioning a goal is often the realm of default mode—indeed, many of our dreams are realized while wandering—but a specific mental targeting of the steps necessary to achieve what you desire requires your full attention. And you’re going to need these cognitive resources whenever you strategize.

Strategy is an art. You’ll be most tested under duress. An inability to control the switch between default and executive modes creates stress, which in the long run is not helpful in achieving goals. Constant busyness and distractedness pull us from the ultimate aim of strategizing. To be successful, you need to recognize the difference between these two modes. That way, when you achieve your goal, you can relax and fully enjoy the fruits of your endeavors.

The playlist

I base all my yoga and fitness classes on Joseph Campbell’s four phases of mythological storytelling. Put simply, they are setting off, the journey, returning home and integration.

Since strategizing is the first stage of any endeavor, I chose songs I’d use at the beginning of a movement class. They all have a motivating motion in the beats and lyrics, as if you’re embarking on something fresh. They help you focus and get into the flow. This playlist sets the stage for such a journey.

Photo credit: ThinkStock, seb_ra