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We Should Limit our Use of Technology

Holistic Time Management

The Shallows - Nicholas CarrTechnology is a beautiful and wondrous thing. We can shop online, do online banking, send electronic greetings to our family and friends, download music, watch movies on our laptops, dictate to our computers using voice-activated software, and read electronic books on portable handheld devices — among hundreds of other things, most of which were unavailable in our grandparents’ lifetime.

I see nothing wrong with reading e-books or performing any of the above activities with the aid of technology. But we should limit our use of technology. What will happen to us if we stop reading altogether and remain cocooned in our homes, infrequently meet personally with friends and relatives, and spend more time watching movies than interacting with our children.

Nicholas Carr, in his book, The Shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains, claims he has noticed changes in his own reading. He loses concentration after a page or two, becomes fidgety, loses track of the story line and looks for something else to do.

Available for Kindle

The ability to focus is one of the most critical brain functions according to Barbara Strauch, author of The secret life of the grown-up brain. And this ability depends on the strength of our executive skills, which are currently under attack by the unrelenting impact of both technology and our fast-paced lifestyle.

Multitasking taxes the brain, and gets progressively worse as we age. Have you ever been distracted by a telephone call only to forget what you were going to do before the distraction? The other morning I found myself brushing my teeth with after-shave lotion! (But others might attribute this to senility.) Research indicates you can have several motor programs running simultaneously, such as steering a car, chewing gum and reaching for a cell phone; but you can only focus your conscious attention on one thing according to Shelley Carson, author of Your creative brain, because your brain thinks sequentially.

Available for Kindle

Our lifestyle seems to be changing to one of constant rushing to get more things done, and researchers studying people’s behavior at traffic lights have spotted people combing their hair, applying makeup, eating breakfast cereal, reading newspapers, talking on cell phones and even using laptops. To quote Barton Sparagon of the Meyer Friedman Institute in San Francisco, “Hurrying is a struggle against time — and that’s unhealthy.” And Faith popcorn, author of The popcorn report, claims “Speed-eating has developed into a fine art.”

Cramming more activities into a day causes stress, and stress causes sleeplessness, and lack of sleep causes impatience and the ability to concentrate (among the other ailments mentioned in my brief book, Sleep: a time management strategy.. It’s a vicious circle. Is technology to blame? No, we are to blame. We have allowed technology to manage us rather than the other way around.

Controlling technology and taking action to strengthen our brain-based executive skills, we can not only cope with the rapid increase in technology, information and speed, we can increase our productivity and our ability to manage our time and our lives as well.

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What are the benefits of sleep?

Benefits of sleepYour body is programmed to spend one third of its life asleep – and to sleep in specific cycles of light sleep, deep sleep, and active brain sleep. Each cycle takes about 90 minutes and each has a specific assignment that affects thinking, memory, growth, your immune system and even your weight. So what are the benefits of sleep?

Benefits of Sleep

We spend about a third of our life sleeping for very good reason — or I should say reasons — many of which are yet to be discovered. But what we do know is that sleep allows us to learn new things and transfers the significant ones into our long-term memory. Sleep prepares and replaces damaged neurons, calms disease-triggering inflammation, and keeps us mentally sharp, creative and productive. It even controls the aging process, helps keep our weight down, lowers our blood pressure and impacts our overall health.

Another important benefit of sleep was reported in the February, 2014 issue of Scientific American Mind. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that sufficient sleep not only restores cognitive functioning, but also may fortify the brain over the long term. During sleep, activity is increased in genes involved in producing brain cells responsible for coating neurons with myelin, the brain`s insulating material. This allows electrical impulses to travel quickly and efficiently to other neurons. Myelin deficiency is at the root of multiple sclerosis disease, and can contribute to symptoms such as fatigue, vision and hearing impairment and a loss of coordination.

A study published by the National Academy of Sciences reports that even an hour or two less sleep a night can negatively impact more than 700 genes required for repairing cell tissue.

Chiara Cirelli, a neuroscientist and author of the paper describing the above research, suggests that sleep helps cells regenerate and repair themselves by helping the body produce new myelin after it has deteriorated.

When it comes to managing time, sleep can be classified as a time management strategy. I explain why in my book, Sleep: a time management strategy, available through Amazon.

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Sleep is an important time management strategy

Sleep as time management strategySleep will help extend the time you have available to get things done, and thus sleep is an important time management strategy. And as I continue to write, speak professionally, and develop training programs in my eighties, I can almost speak from personal experience. I say almost since there are a lot of things besides sleep that contribute to brain health and longevity. But just as I tried practicing what I preach in order to slow the perceived passage of time — as described in my book Slowing down the speed of life — I have recently brought my sleep time from six hours a night to seven hours a night with equally good results.

I didn’t always think this way. Over thirty years ago I had joined other time management consultants in recommending the opposite; sleep less and get more done. We urged our clients to set their alarms 15 minutes earlier each week until they noticed that they got tired by early afternoon, and then set it back to the last setting. We felt many people were getting more sleep than they needed (and some were), and that if they could get a head start on the day with an extra half hour or more of “prime time”, they could get more done.

This was before the holistic time management era — and before all the research now available on the role sleep plays in our health, longevity, and productivity. It was also before the digital age of speed. Now, people don’t even have to get out of bed to start working; they can sleep with their Blackberries, iPads, or smart phones, which can then accompany them from bedroom to bathroom to breakfast to bus or car to business and to the boardroom.

Today there is little concern about sleeping too much; the concern is about sleeping too little. The lure of the Internet, computer games, social media, e-mail and text messaging keep us from going to bed early. And the stress of the day, the worry of unfinished tasks lingering in our thoughts, and the widespread view that sleep is an inconvenience to be tolerated but not enjoyed, keep us from sleeping soundly once we are there.

Gary Small, who writes the Brain Bulletin, and speaks on that topic, says that sleep deprivation is one of the risk factors in Alzheimer’s. The June, 2014 issue of Scientific American Mind quotes neuroscientist Dwayne Godwin as saying that sleep helps clear the brain, flushing away waste products such as Alzheimer’s-related proteins. One sleep scientist claims that sleep is one of the most important predictors of how long you will live — as important as whether you smoke, exercise or have high blood pressure.

And I claim that through adequate sleep, you can increase your personal productivity and effectiveness by at least 20 percent, reduce anxiety and stress, and increase your health and well-being in the process.

In my brief book, Sleep: a time management strategy, I claim that sleep is one of the most important time management strategies for you and for your staff, clients and family.

Perhaps I couldn’t make this claim before the advent of electronic technology; because back in those days most people were probably getting sufficient sleep. The average person now gets 90 minutes less sleep a night than a century ago. In my lifetime, the average amount of sleep we get has decreased from just over eight hours to 6.7 hours. (I recently read a figure of 6.5 hours, along with an explanation that this is the average amount of sleep people say they get but by the measurement of brain activity while these same people were sleeping, the actual figure was 6.1 hours.)

62 percent of Americans report difficulty sleeping at least a few nights a week. About 90 percent of teens in the U.S. don’t get enough sleep. And children who don’t get enough sleep are often misdiagnosed with ADHD.

If you get less than six hours sleep a night you are considered to be sleep deprived. And even getting less than seven hours a night produces sleep debt that should be repaid by napping, which is also discussed in my book, Sleep: a time management strategy.

Yes, taking dementia and any current health issues out of the equation, getting an average of 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night will increase your personal productivity. I am referring to the amount of actual sleep you actually get, not the amount of time you spend in bed.

Both of the short books I mentioned in this article are available on Amazon as Kindle e-books:
Sleep: a time management strategy
Slowing Down the Speed of Life

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General Suggestions for Strengthening Executive Function Skills

strengthening executive function skillsThis is the last article in the series on strengthening your executive function skills, those brain-based skills required to execute tasks – that is, such things as getting organized, planning, initiating work, staying on task, controlling impulses, regulating emotions, being adaptable and resilient and having a strong working memory. Following are some general suggestions for strengthening executive skills.

In stressful situations, your weakest skills fail first and become more pronounced. Fatigue and information overload tend to weaken them further. Avoiding releasing or being able to manage stress is important. Also you should re-examine your workload. Keep organized, plan, and allocate your time to things of importance. Simplify if possible. Delegate and outsource. Pace yourself. Too much exertion without breaks taxes the executive skills. In fact studies have shown that people who exert themselves mentally, such as resisting the temptation to eat chocolate or whatever, gave up on problems sooner when presented with them immediately afterwards. (Scientific American Mind, May/June, 2011)

You should also get plenty of sleep. Sleep deprivation definitely impairs functioning of the executive skills. For example, a student scoring in the top 10% in grades dropped to the bottom 9% after only seven hours per sleep per night and seven hours 40 min. on weekends

Many of these skills have to do with self-discipline and that definitely can be improved through practice. For example turn down desert once in a while, or second cup of coffee. Give up your favorite TV program or sporting event and so on. You could have a glass of water instead of a milkshake and resist that chocolate bar after golf.

Neuroscience has proven that the more you use a circuit in the brain, the stronger it becomes. The reverse is also true, so don’t relinquish all your tasks to a computer. Training your memory, creative writing or any skill can be strengthened through practice. But variety seems to be the key. Improving one executive skill does not necessarily improve all the others. Doing crossword puzzles only increases your ability to do crossword puzzles. And this is true for most computer games as well.

There are exceptions, however. Exercise, for instance, stimulates the creation of new neurons not confined to the region of the hippocampus that stores new memories. Art Kramer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that a year of exercise can give a seventy-year-old the connectivity of a thirty-year old. Other activities such as meditation and certain video games can change brain structure so brain processes are more efficient. And learning a second language can sharpen many of the executive skills.

The important thing to remember is that your brain needs exercise just as much as your body – and you won’t remember that if you don’t give it enough exercise.

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Building stress resistance

building stress resistenceChuck Martin, Richard Guare and Peggy Dawson, in their book Work Your Strengths, include stress tolerance as an executive skill. I would think that being strong in many of the other executive skills would help you to tolerate stressful situations, including emotional stress such as that caused by illness. But being able to manage stress is critical since it can weaken the immune system, raise cholesterol levels, accelerate hardening of the arteries, disrupt the digestive system, and lead to overeating and obesity. And according to Tiffany Chow, in her book, The memory clinic, it can also increase the risk of developing dementia. So we will include stress tolerance as one of the executive skills.

Available for Kindle

Stress tolerance is the ability to thrive in stressful situations. With strong stress tolerance, you are able to take things in stride, and work well under stress. If you don’t handle stress well, panic during crisis, and feel uncomfortable when things don’t go smoothly, you are weak in this skill.

Working memory, as discussed previously, allows you to hang on to memories long enough for them to be consolidated as long-term memories in the hippocampus area of the brain. And if we don’t protect the hippocampus from excessive stress, we may lose the ability to file these new memories, putting us at risk for Alzheimer’s.

Things we should not do to relieve stress is turn to drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. Tiffany Chow, in her book, The memory clinic, claims that smoking is a risk factor for heart disease, heart attacks, and high blood pressure and she mentioned that one study reported that it doubles the risk for dementia.

It’s usually impossible to relax, do deep breathing, meditate or go jogging when you’re in a stressful situation. But you’re not supposed to relax. The “flight or fight” response that you experience under stress is not something that you can avoid. It’s a product of your automatic nervous system, which regulates the release of adrenaline, blood pressure, heart rate, hand temperature and other physiological changes. It’s an automatic response to perceived danger. If it were someone threatening you with a knife, the response could save your life. Your increased strength and heightened awareness could get you out of danger. And the adrenaline would be used up as you take action.

But with an unrealistic deadline or an overload of projects, you’re not engaged in physical activity. The excess adrenaline causes you to feel terrible. You experience palpitations, dry throat, trembling. You’re nervous and upset. You weren’t meant to feel the adrenaline; you were supposed to be too busy to feel anything.

Relaxing is not what you should be trying to do. Relaxation is something you acquire when you’re not under stress. It’s preventative medicine, so to speak. It makes stress easier to handle. What you need at the moment is stress management. You need to take control of the situation, change your attitude, be assertive and accept life’s challenge.

Combine healthy attitudes with action and you have stress management. When you are faced with a stressful situation, look at it as a challenge. Take a positive approach and look at the bright side. You can’t do the impossible. The important thing is to be active, take control and be assertive. Activity dissipates the adrenaline, and along with it, the worry and ravages of stress. A Yale University study revealed that those who changed their outlook on stress after watching a video urging them to rise up to whatever challenge faced them showed improved psychological symptoms and better work performance.

To build stress tolerance, make sure you schedule adequate leisure time, build quality relationships with others, laugh often, keep healthy and physically fit, participate in relaxation exercises and massages, get plenty of sleep, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Meditation or mindfulness can also help you change the way you perceive potentially stressful situations. A Newsweek special issue, Your Body (October, 2014) suggested that taking 15 minutes a day for silent meditation can help lower stress levels and prevent it from increasing in the first place. Studies showed that even taking a few deep breaths can lower cortisol levels.

You might also maintain a positive attitude, turn off your cell phone, and drink black tea to help develop a resistance to stress. According to the Newsweek article referenced above, studies show that taking three or four hours each day away from the Internet and digital communication is not only a healthy distraction, but also a partial antidote to stress. It also referred to a study by University College London that found that those who drank four cups of black tea a day for four weeks had a lower cortisol level in their blood when facing a stressful situation.

And believe it or not, orderliness seems to help as well. UCLA researchers discovered that the sight of clutter can induce the production of stress hormones. So get organized.

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Metacognition – what it is and how to improve it

MetacognitionMetacognition is the ability to observe yourself in a situation and make changes so you’re better able to solve problems, build relationships and succeed in life. If you can see a situation objectively and evaluate how things are going, you are strong in this skill.

But if you don’t think through the possible results of your decisions, tend to make quick decisions, often repeat the same mistakes, and don’t think through long-term consequences, you are weak in this skill.

Metacognition is not an easy skill to develop because we have to step outside of ourselves — and our subjective thoughts, habits and biases — to look at each situation objectively. As David DiSalvo says in his book, Brain change, we have to “think about our thinking,” Although the prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher- order thinking and reasoning, multiple brain areas are involved in metacognition as well as in other executive skills.

We all have memories from the past – many unconscious ones — that influence how we think, feel, and react to different situations and behaviors. With a strong metacognition skill you are able to actively examine each situation on its own merit while resisting the impulse to react involuntarily. By doing so you can more easily adapt to change, make better decisions and become more creative and successful.

Since our brain is plastic, we can train ourselves to improve our metacognition; but it takes a conscious effort to reject unconscious and false beliefs and reasoning. As mentioned in a previous article, the brain is more flexible than most people realize. Through practice you can strengthen any skill, and maintain conscious control of your thinking. You can’t stop thoughts and feelings from popping into your mind; but you can question their validity.

I choose to view the mind as a separate entity that can control the brain. The brain is a computer that will never be duplicated in its complexity and amazing functionality. But the mind is who you are, and the brain is at your disposal. But it doesn’t come with a user’s manual, except for the findings of the neuroscientists, and you must learn how to operate it yourself. And just as we can be controlled by technology instead of the other way around, we can be controlled by our brain if we don’t take charge.

You must do your own programming and updates. You must service your brain regularly with proper diet, exercise and mental challenges to keep it in good working order. Have a questioning attitude. Read. Continue with lifelong learning. Maintain an active social life. Never compromise on sleep. Manage stress. And question your own thinking so you don’t feed it faulty information. Remember the old GIGO acronym – garbage in, garbage out.

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Flexibility – An Important Executive Function Skill

Flexibility - executive function skillsFlexibility is the ability to revise plans in the face of obstacles and setbacks. If you are strong in this skill, you’re adaptable and can easily adjust to a change in plans. You are good at coming up with alternative courses of action if conditions change.

But if you have trouble adapting to change, and are reluctant to change plans, and don’t handle crises well, you are weak in this executive skill. It’s easy to get stuck on one way to solve a problem or complete a task. By focusing on a detail you might miss the big picture.
Being able to roll with changes and take what you know and apply it to a new situation not only requires flexibility, but is a component of creativity as well. And participating in creativity exercises is one way to strengthen these skills.

Neurobics is a word popularized by Lawrence Katz and Manning Rubin in their 2014 book, Keep your brain alive. Neurobics is a takeoff on aerobics, and refers to exercises for the brain. The authors describe Neurobics as helping you to maintain a continuing level of mental fitness, strength and flexibility as you age. The exercise is described in the book uses the five senses (vision, smell, touch, taste and hearing) in novel ways to increase the brain’s ability to form associations among the different pieces of information that you encounter.

An example would be to get dressed, brush your teeth and find your way around your home wearing ear plugs and a blindfold. By doing this you are stimulating rarely used pathways in the brain and increasing your range of mental flexibility, touch and flexibility.
As mentioned in previous blogs, what’s good for the brain is good for all the executive skills, including flexibility.
The brain itself was created to be flexible, and all you have to do is nurture this innate ability. To give you an example of how our brains can be rewired, in the year 2000, a study of London taxi drivers revealed that they had a much larger posterior hippocampus than men with a similar profile, but who did not drive for a living. That part of the hippocampus is responsible for a person’s navigational skills.

As far as our brain is concerned, it seems to hold true that if we don’t use it, we lose it. Another example appeared in the December 12, 2009 issue of the Toronto Star. It was an article on handwriting, which seems to have been replaced by the keyboard – at least by the younger generation. It concludes, based on research, that handwriting works the brain differently and builds distinct cognitive skills. It reinforces reading and spelling, develops motor memory as it becomes automatic, teaches students to focus, and may help them remember what they learn. So as keyboards replace handwriting, new neural pathways are created and new cognitive skills replace the old.

To maintain flexibility and continue exercising the brain, it is a good idea to get away from a task for a short period of time, and then return to it mentally refreshed. The brain thrives on variety. Also, don’t schedule too tightly, introduce change gradually, take other people’s agenda into account when making plans, recognize that you always have choices, and get in the habit of developing alternative plans.