Why UNFOCUS Time Might Help Your Employees Solve Their Retirement Readiness Problems

When it comes to investing in today’s economy towards a secure retirement, too much focus may mean employees may be doing nothing, even if they have the means and opportunity to do so.

Another article about mindfulness and investing? While the U.S. news media seems steeped in the benefits of mindfulness and learning to concentrate or focus, maybe its time to hear the benefits of unfocusing for a little while.

Staring at your computer (or smartphone) for too long can show you just how negative continual focus can be. According to the American Optometric Association, cautions against staring at computer screens for 7 plus hours a day. Instead, they recommend the 20-20-20 rule – take a 20 second break every 20 minutes to view something 20 feet away.  Your brain needs a break just like your eyes do.

To that end, we’ve covered decision fatigue before in this newsletter and how that can impact household budgets and retirement savings. As discussed in this article, people think they like having lots of options, but in reality having too many options can lead to choice paralysis, and effectively, mental shutdown.

Similarly, we’ve also covered the science of splurges. That is, how not doing something, like not taking your coworker’s cupcake from the fridge, that’s been sitting there all day, can be just as draining. Come on Janet, eat your treat already! Constant self-control is also taxing on the brain. When either scenario happens, either too many choices for too long or too much self-control for too long, the most common human response is to become more passive. When it comes to investing in today’s economy towards a secure retirement, too much focus on finances may mean employees may be doing nothing, even if they have the means and opportunity to do so.  

In 2019, the economy and personal finance may seem to occupy all of an employee’s spare time. Economists are predicting growth to slow and businesses to slow with it. The remedy to all of that constant focus on savings, household budgeting and making decisions about retirement may be to, well, do something completely different. As the Harvard Business Review recently reported, your brain works better when it shifts between focusing and unfocusing. This back and forth fosters resilience.

As we’ve covered before, financial resilience is a skill that can be taught. What is it? It is a set of skills that allows an employee to adapt to stress, trauma or adversity, without significant reduction in energy or wellbeing. It makes sense that the shift between focusing and unfocusing would relate to resilience if resilient people have that same trait of being organized, yet flexible.

So if unfocusing touches on the many of the themes we’ve been discussing over the last year, of financial resilience, decision fatigue, the science of splurges and mindfulness, how can a plan sponsor introduce this topic to its employees? Harvard Business Review suggests positive constructive daydreaming, taking a nap, and pretending to be someone else as ways to unfocus. These options seem a bit, well, not best suited for the business environment.

Instead, you might find that your employees respond to the idea of setting 5 or 10 minutes for “unfocused time.” Some businesses have creative options for this unfocused time, including having large jigsaw puzzles in public spaces, like the law firm Ballard Spahr LLP does in its kitchen areas. Employees can take a few moments to arrange puzzle pieces while waiting for their coffee to brew.

Other options are to look for “flow” activities. This article in Positive Psychology defines flow state is the intense experiential involvement in moment-to-moment activity. This state can occur when someone is deeply focused on a creative pursuit, like coloring an intricate pattern. Buddhist monks do similar work on their mandalas, and office workers can mimic this monk state with a few colored pencils and coloring book pages. The intense flow state brought from these exercises can then help employees understand their states of focus and unfocus. Ultimately, the goal of either puzzles or paper can be to help employees understand their need to focus and release focus. Just as the 20-20-20 rule from the eye doctors say, employees need to shift their focus throughout the day.

With greater understanding of their focus and unfocus states, employees may be able to see how their decisions and planning abilities change after each state and make better choices.

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