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Managing your brain, part 9


Creativity in action.

My habit over the past twenty years or more was to go for a walk in the morning with my writing tools tucked inside a computer bag, thinking along the way about the article I was to write that morning. When I reached my destination – a coffee shop about twenty minutes from my home, I would take out my pad and pen, and amazingly I would complete the article without difficulty in the span of 30 minutes or so. It had almost written itself in my mind as I had been walking.

I originally thought it was the fresh air, relaxed state of mind, and the free time available to think about the topic that made the ideas and thoughts flow so easily.

But it was actually the body movement. Our creative ability is enhanced by walking, exercise or even simply gesturing. As expressed by Sean Beilock in her book, How the body knows the mind, (Atria Books, 2015) “moving the body can alter the mind by unconsciously putting ideas in our head before we are able to consciously contemplate them on our own.”

Movement can help us to solve problems and even increase productivity. And it’s one of the keys to remembering long lists of information in workshops through the storytelling, thinking and association techniques that we teach. (See my ebook, Boost your memory and strengthen your mind, published by

Moving your body can actually change how you think. Whether you are an actor rehearsing lines, a speaker memorizing a speech or a student recalling facts, when you include motion either physically or in your mind during the memorizing process, it makes memory and recall easier.

You have no doubt heard the expression “thinking outside the box” when talking about creativity. Well, researchers at Cornell University actually had volunteers sit inside a huge box while solving problems. They were outperformed by others walking freely outside the box. So resist the impulse to sit at your desk when solving a problem. And don’t sit around a boardroom table when brainstorming new ideas in your company. Research appears to substantiate the wisdom of stand-up meetings from more than simply a time management perspective.

The neurotransmitter, dopamine, which declines with age, plays a role in creativity, and exercise helps to slow or prevent this decline. So keep active your entire life; because if you’re idle, your mind may be idle as well. By managing your body, you are helping to manage your brain as well; because the body and the brain work in tandem.

This doesn’t mean you won’t get ideas while working at your desk as well. Ideas could flash through your mind and then disappear while you are busy working on a project. It’s a good idea to capture those thoughts immediately – either in a journal, smart phone or booklet – something more substantial than a scrap of paper that could itself disappear.

For example, we have a “Back Burner” page at the back of our Taylor Planner where we can quickly jot down those fleeting thoughts before continuing with the task at hand. The Daily Priority Pad also has a section for these ideas.  Creativity frequently happens when you’re busy doing something else. You can see both of these items at our website,

By the way, I still take that walk – sometimes varying the route and coffee shop. I still write the article, or book chapter or whatever longhand, in cursive writing – perhaps from habit – but I do believe it is also good exercise for the brain. Then I dictate it to my computer when I get home – using voice-activated software.

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Managing your brain, part 8


Develop goal-directed persistence.

The brain develops gradually, and continues to build neural connections throughout our lifetime. A person’s “executive skills” take from 18 to 20 years to develop. The executive skills are mainly located in the prefrontal cortex, and are the last areas of the brain to develop in late adolescence or early adulthood.  Among other skills that the executive skills control is the ability to think before you act, plan, and focus – skills that are essential to personal organization and time management.

This week’s blog discusses goal-directed persistence, the ability to have a goal and follow through until its completion. If you are strong in this skill, you have a good record of achieving goals that you set. You are steady, persistent and reliable, and seldom let setbacks or obstacles prevent you from completing a project on time.

Many people struggle with the ability to set, pursue and achieve goals since it involves self-discipline and focus. An intentional act such as this does take willpower, focus and attention. But studies in neuroscience show that you can do this – literally change your brain – by thinking about what you have decided to do.

Joe Dispenza, author of the book, Evolve your brain, claims that what we think about and where we focus our attention is what we neurologically become.

For example, if you decide to make it a goal of yours to write a book or build a tree house or complete a course in social media – and then think about it, including how you will start, the time you will need, and so on, you are building the brain power needed to achieve that goal. The more time you spend on that goal, both thinking about it and acting on it, the easier it becomes for you.

The default setting on our brain seems to be goal-oriented. But if we stop learning, stop changing our habits, stop being creative and stop seeking new experiences, our brain can become hardwired to maintain the status quo. This does not change its neuroplasticity; we can change it at any time. But we must consciously want to change and start thinking about the changes that we want in our lives.

Although setting, pursing and achieving goals consumes energy by making decisions and practicing self-discipline and focus, you can make it easier on your brain by applying the following suggestions:

  • Don’t overwhelm yourself with too large a goal. Our short-term memory, discussed in an earlier blog, allows us to hold only a limited amount of any project in our mind at any one time. So it is important to break a large goal into smaller segments and work at these segments step by step.
  • Build the habit of spending a certain amount of time each day working on a specific goal-related task. You can then apply this habit to any goal, no matter how large, whether it is writing a book one chapter at a time, completing a self-study course one lesson at a time or becoming a super salesperson one sale at a time.
  • Keep motivation high. Be clear on both the benefits of achieving the goal and the steps you must take in order to get there. Motivation requires both a strong desire to possess what the goal promises, and a belief that the action they are taking will achieve the goal. According to a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and reported in the October, 2014 issue of Psychology Today, lessening the gap between expectations and outcome increases our satisfaction.
  • Maintain brain health. You will also encounter both internal and external distractions that could impede your progress. That’s why the other executive skills discussed in this blog series are important as well – such as response inhibition, sustained attention and emotional control. Internal distractions could include such things as stress and tiredness as well as self-interruptions. So it’s important to get adequate sleep, a healthy diet and plenty of exercise. These are especially important to strengthen your goal-directed persistence and other executive skills since we are more easily side-tracked and lack energy when we are tired, stressed or ill.
  • Schedule time, not tasks. If you schedule a goal-related task to be achieved in a specific time frame, you could feel stressed and out of control if you still don’t get the task completed. To prevent this, change your mindset. Schedule time to work on a task rather than the task itself. The expectation then becomes to spend one hour or 90 minutes each day (or week) until the task is finished. This way you can’t fail.
  • Choose a high performance zone. Your working environment has a lot to do with how effective you are. Find your “high performance zone” – the place where you have the most energy and seem to be the most creative, and spent a couple of hours each day working there. This could be a coffee shop, a room at home or a library, not necessarily your office. Another suggestion is to have plants in your office or a view of nature. Sian Beilock, in her book, How the body knows its mind, gave the example of university students with mostly natural views from their dormitory rooms scoring higher in tests of working memory and concentration than students who lived in the same dormitory but with views of other buildings.
  • Organize your work area to increase focus. As we read more about the workings of our brain, we learn more about the importance of getting organized. For example, according to neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg, author of The overflowing brain, the more items on your desk, the greater the demand on your attention. So keep your workplace clear.
  • Overcome mental blocks. If you find yourself staring at the computer screen with no idea how to start, start typing anyway. As you write nothing of consequence, something of consequence will start spilling out of your brain. In a similar way, if you have ideas or notes scribbled on a napkin or piece of paper, type them. Your brain is activated once the task is started.





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Managing your brain, part 7


Avoiding perfectionism.

Perfectionism is said to be the desire and the self-imposed expectation to achieve the highest level of performance. So for some people, nothing less than perfect is acceptable. But perfect cannot really be defined; because most things can always be made better, whether it is an article you are writing, a training program you are designing or a meeting you are attending. I wager everyone has had an experience where they spent countless hours “perfecting” something only to have someone criticize it or offer suggestions for improving it.

The answer is not to try to keep improving the item endlessly; but rather to learn how to accept criticism without it damaging your ego or giving you bad feelings.

Your brain wants to achieve your goal; but you must supply it with a set of criteria so it knows exactly what you want. A deadline is only one of three essential criteria. You have to create balance among three criteria – quality, time and cost.

Quality refers to how good your project or task has to be in order to fulfil its purpose. Time refers to when it has to be completed. Cost refers to expenses such as labor, personal energy, materials and so on.

Perfection is out of the question. No company or individual could afford the time and cost to attain such a degree of quality even if it were possible. The time alone that would be required might approach infinity.

The balance you’re aiming at can be represented by the following equation:

Quality + Time + Cost = Value of outcome.

The equation, Q + T + C = V is true at the “breakeven point,” where the degree of quality, time consumed and cost of resources equals the value of the outcome to either you or the company. You certainly don’t want to spend more than the results warrant, just as a company wouldn’t want to spend $100,000 a year to sell a product that brings in $50,000 a year.

If either you or someone else puts an unrealistic deadline on a project, either the quality must decrease or the cost must increase. You can’t have everything. Emotionally you may want everything; but logically or intellectually you know that you can’t have it.

To maintain balance, consideration must be given not only to the time allowed to complete the project, but also the quality expected, the cost you are willing and able to invest, and the value of the results that you’re aiming to achieve.

Perfectionists are quality-oriented, and in many cases are blind to the other criteria involved. To avoid perfectionism, you must use the power of your brain’s prefrontal cortex – the executive of your brain – to focus on the realities of the situation and the value of the outcome expected. This is the actual goal when working on any task, project, meeting or activity. And as Dr. Theo Tsaosides states in his book, Brainblocks, “our brain is hardwired to set and achieve goals.”

Always pay attention to what you’re doing, but keep your main focus on the outcome you want to achieve. This is the outcome that you will have thought through in advance – your goal – which always takes into consideration the time, quality and cost aspects of the project, task or activity. These criteria would have been determined at the outset when you set your goal, making it unnecessary to obsess over quality or any of the individual criteria.

If people complain about the quality, be assured that they are not criticizing you; they are simply complaining about the fact that they can’t have it all. The most they can have is any two of the criteria mentioned.

If they want a project or task done faster and cheaper, it will be of poorer quality. If they want it done faster but with better quality, it will be more expensive. And if they want it done with better quality but cheaper, it may be possible, but it will take longer.

You can always improve on any task, project or activity you perform. But question whether by doing so you would put the equation out of balance with greater quality, time and cost than the outcome would warrant.

In most cases you will find that good enough is good enough.


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Managing your brain, part 6


Developing willpower

There are different theories on willpower. Originally it was thought that willpower was like a muscle that was easily depleted. And research backed this up. But newer research also suggests we have as much willpower as we expect we have. If you believe you have the willpower to resist interruptions, you will have it. Sort of like the placebo effect.

This latter theory also seems to be backed up by research conducted at the University of Rochester as a follow-up to the marshmallow experiments of the 1960s. The original marshmallow experiments, referenced in my last blog article, were conducted at Stanford University by Walter Mischel, professor of psychology at Columbia University. He spent decades studying self-control. In the experiments of the 1960s, he monitored the ability of four-year-old children to resist a treat when left alone with it.  The children were given a marshmallow and told that they could eat it immediately if they rang the bell to summon the researcher; but they would receive two of the treats if they could resist eating it until the researcher returned, Some of the children were able to wait over 15 minutes and some even longer; but most could not. Those who resisted the longest, showing the greatest self-control, were more successful later in life. Long-term follow-up studies showed that a child’s ability to delay reward correlated with later academic success and adult income, as well as with the ability to tolerate stress and rejection.

The Rochester experiments, however, involved giving one group of children old used crayons and telling them if they resisted playing with them, they would be given new ones. But they never received the new ones. Another group was told the same thing but the researchers made good on their promise of new crayons. When they all took the marshmallow test afterwards, the group with a good experience behind them resisted eating the marshmallow for 12 minutes. The other group, who obviously had lower expectations, lasted only two minutes.

Although our brain hasn’t evolved recently, perhaps it doesn’t have to. We already have a brain capable of resisting temptation – although it may need strengthening – and we can still do a lot to remove the source of the temptation.

Removing the source of temptation could involve turning off your handheld devices while you work on priority projects, keeping the paperwork, to do lists and other distractions out of sight while working on a specific task, and leaving your cell phone at home if you decide to work in a coffee shop. You could also do all your priority work in the same place — one devoid of distracting scenery, pictures or paraphernalia so your brain gets to associate that space with work.

Resisting temptation might involve not going online or checking e-mail before 10 a.m., ignoring a ringing telephone when talking with family and friends, and resisting any urge to buy electronic devices that you really don’t need.

Self-discipline or self-control, focus, attention, prioritizing and planning are essential if we are to remain effective in this digital age of speed. These are all functions of our executive center in the prefrontal cortex area of our brain. That’s why I claim that the time management battlefield has shifted from the office to the brain.

When it comes to procrastination, it seems like our brain has a mind of its own. According to Esther Laandhuis, writing in the January/February, 2015 issue of Scientific American Mind, you can trick your brain into meeting any due date by thinking differently about deadlines. When we think of a deadline as something occurring in the present, we are more likely to begin the task.

For example, something due this week would be perceived by the brain as something more urgent than something due this month; something due this month would be perceived as being more urgent that something due next month, and so on – even though the actual number of days to the deadline are identical.

So a project due date of March 31st set on March 21st would prompt action faster than a due date of April 1st set on March 20th even though you had the same number of days to complete the task.

Research confirms this. One experiment, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, involved asking 100 students when they would start a data-entry task if they had 5 days to complete it. The ones who were assigned the task late enough in April so the deadline fell in early May were less likely to start the task right away compared to those whose deadline fell in March – even thought they had the same number of days to work on the task.

Since the brain seems to divide time into segments, we could use this fact by issuing assignments early enough so the deadlines fall in the same week, month or year. This might necessitate breaking the longer tasks or projects into shorter sub-tasks with shorter deadlines.

It might also suggest that making New Year’s resolutions might be best moved to the middle of the year rather than the end of the year so that the deadlines fall in the same year. After all, leaving a resolution until next year when you thought of it this year could be construed as procrastination.