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Conserve your energy by chunking and batching.

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Our brain prefers to work on brief projects as opposed to longer ones; battles are invigorating; but wars are exhausting. Chunking and batching make longer tasks more doable. David J Levitin, author of The organized mind, says that “working in chunks gives a neurochemical satisfaction at the completion of each stage.” This means we get more frequent rewards, which lead to sustained motivation to keep working towards our goal, whether it is to write a book or renovate a home.

I suppose that’s why I find it so much easier to write books by first writing brief articles that link together to form chapters. And it is one of the reasons I like to work in 90-minute chunks of time throughout the days and weeks. It has also been found that our energy rises and falls in approximately 90-minute cycles throughout the day.

All conscious mental activities consume energy, and it stands to reason that the longer the work session, the greater the drain on your resources. Shorter sessions, followed by a break or change of pace will reduce this energy drain.

Batching, like chunking described above, conserves energy; but it goes further by batching together those smaller tasks that are similar in nature and require similar resources. For example, I might have a 90-minute block of time scheduled for writing articles for my newsletter and blog, material for my newsletters, courses or website – all requiring writing, voice activated software, reference books, notes from my journal, and so on. A batching session could also involve communicating with various people by phone, text or email, both business, at a particular time in the day.

Other examples of the types of tasks that lend themselves to batching are back-to-back meetings, interviews and errands – where you visit the places farthest from your home or office first and work your way back. It can also involve reading magazines, blogs, websites, books and other resources in search of information on a specific topic, posting and reviewing material on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter or organizing a specific area of your home or office.

Batching consumes less energy and causes less mental fatigue since you are using the same areas of the brain and not switching back and forth from one task to another or putting demands on your energy supply by having to make frequent and unrelated decisions. It also increases productivity since you are wasting less time locating materials, interrupting yourself or deciding what to do next.

Forming the habit of batching reduces the practice of multitasking, and eliminates time wasted and things overlooked that occur when you constantly transition between tasks throughout the day.

The practice of batching can be further enhanced by alternating your chunks or work sessions with high-energy brain work such as problem-solving and decision-making with low-energy work such as organizing files or physical activity. David Rock, in his book, Your brain at work, claims that one big advantage of this strategy is that it gives the brain a chance to recover.

Whether high-energy or low energy, the important thing is to maintain variety throughout the day, and avoid scheduling the same type of work in two consecutive modules.

For further reading on energy management, including ways of both sourcing and conserving personal energy, you might refer to my e-book, Managing your personal energy, published by Bookboon.com.

 

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Important decisions are best made off-line.

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According to Gayatri Devi, author of A Calm Brain (Plume, 2012), your core brain has the ability to quickly and accurately read and respond to the emotions of others. Your rational frontal lobes may be fooled by polite laughter or phony tears or any false display of emotions; but your core brain is much harder to deceive.

True emotions are picked up by the core brain from the other person’s cluster of cells that Harvard neuroscientist Clifford Saper calls “pattern generators.” If someone’s laughs are genuine, for instance, there is a pattern of telltale signs, including crinkling of muscles around the eyes, certain throat sounds and widening of the mouth, which reveal the laughter is genuine.

That’s why face-to-face interactions are much better than online relationships in order for the core brain to do its job. So if you are negotiating an important deal, meeting with a prospective client or engaging in an online romance, it’s wise to go back to the basics. Good old-fashioned face to face encounters, whether business or personal, should never be completely abandoned.

The prefrontal cortex, with its executive function and its skills in logic and planning has been getting a lot of press in the scientific journals these days. But the core brain, frequently referred to as the reptilian or primitive brain, not only controls the bodily functions that keep you alive and healthy, it also senses danger before your highly developed frontal lobes are even aware of it.

For instance, Mark Bowden in his book, Tame the primitive brain, explains that the primitive or core brain can pick up the heat of a hotplate before you actually touch it. In fact, before the core brain even gets the message, a reflex action is prompted by the spinal cord that causes your hand to jerk away. So thinking part of your brain isn’t the first one to get the message. That’s the core brain insuring your survival.

However, the core brain uses the senses – sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch – and responds accordingly – a knee jerk reaction that sends a message of caution to the thinking part of your brain.

When interacting with other people, information is gathered from such things as body language, tone and voice reflection as well as the words spoken. Corresponding via email or social media or chat rooms is fine when things of little consequence are discussed. But it will never replace personal one-on-one interaction when decisions of importance are to be made.

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How to break bad habits and form better ones

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Whether we were made from clay by the hand of God or whether we evolved from single-celled organisms who somehow made themselves from clay long after a Big Bang, it does not change the reality of how our body, brain and mind currently interact.

One thing seems certain; you are not your brain. If you were, you would not be able to override it, modify it or control it; because you would be it. Some neuroscientists believe this is the case.

That’s great news; because it means we (our mind) can use our brain (the body’s computer) to change our thinking, modify our brain structure, and in many circumstances, even heal our bodies.

For example, it means we can change bad habits that our brain has automatically developed, based on input it has received from the environment, past behaviours, and a preprogrammed initiative to survive.

The mind’s ability to change the brain is referred to as self-directed neuroplasticity, and is now considered to be a scientific fact – with plenty of proof to back it up.

If you can believe that the mind is separate from the brain, you can break bad habits using the following five-step plan.

  1. Identify the brain messages that got you into the habit in the first place and evaluate them with your mind. (For example, perhaps at one time it seemed essential to check email about every five minutes.)
  2. Direct your attention to the new action you prefer – the one that meets your personal values and that would be healthier and more productive for you. (For example, to check email first thing in the morning and after every 90-minute work session.)
  3. Use your “won’t power” the next time you have the urge to act out the habitual behaviour you have determined is more reasonable and more proactive. (Say no to yourself when you have that mental itch to check your email before it’s time to do so.)
  4. Use your “willpower” to act out the replacing behaviour – even though the urge is still there to do otherwise. This requires mindfulness and focus on your part.
  5. Focus on the new behaviour. The more you focus and follow through with the new behaviour, the sooner this new behaviour becomes the new habit, and the old habit fades from disuse.

The reason this works is that by acting out a new behaviour again and again, you are rewiring your current neurons to form a new circuit.

It’s akin to creating a new and shorter path through a field than the one usually taken. It will take initiative, self-discipline and effort on your part to form this new path through the long grass. But the more times you do so, the more entrenched the path becomes and the easier it is to follow. Meanwhile the original path will fade away from disuse. This is similar to the fate of neural pathways that are no longer used.

You are your mind. You have the power to decide what is important and what is not; what should be done and what should be delayed or abandoned; which behaviours should be changed and which ones should be retained. If you believe all that, you are in control of your life.

If you still need help, you will have to refer to the creator of the clay.

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Don’t confuse busy work with real work

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You will never seem as busy doing real work.

Mark Forster, in his book Do it tomorrow, points out that real work advances your business or job while busy work it is what you do to avoid real work.

Real work includes things such as planning, goal setting, creative thinking, problem solving and decision-making. There is little visible activity with this type of work; consequently busy work looks more like real work that real work does.

There is a tendency on the part of many people to keep busy, which has little if anything to do with being effective. We should judge others by their actual results, not by their physical activity.

I would be suspicious of any businessperson who was constantly in motion. When communicating, if you’re always talking, you can’t be listening. Similarly, in business, if you’re always busy working, you can’t be doing much planning, goal setting, creative thinking or problem-solving. And these are essential activities that simply can’t be multitasked.

Doing things right the first time saves time in the long run. Rushing through jobs or multitasking while you do them is not a smart thing to do.

It is even more important to do the right things. Spending time on unnecessary jobs is little better than sitting idle for the same period of time. In fact it could be worse; because if you were doing nothing, at least you would be relaxing. As Jo Owens claims in his book How to manage, “being a 100% perfect at doing the wrong thing is still 100% waste of time.”

Think before you act. Is that task really necessary? Does it contribute to your goals? Does it further your career or contribute to your well-being? One of the keys to effective time management is to be selective in what you do. There simply isn’t enough time to do everything. If there were time for all the things you should be doing there would be no problem. You could simply do everything and the priorities would get done along with all the other stuff.

The fact is, our time is limited. Doing everything is not an option. Doing one thing means not doing something else. And there is a big difference between the things that should be done and the things that must be done.

You may have seen ducks moving smoothly in a pond with no visible effort. But beneath the water, their little webbed feet are in continuous motion, propelling them forward. In the same way, what propels you forward in business and in life is not a flurry of activity that is visible to everyone. What makes you a success is not visible to others – the creativity, goal-setting, planning, problem solving and decisions that constitute real work. Double the time you are currently spending on real work and you won’t be as busy.

Note: The above article is excerpted in part from my e-book, Time to be productive, published by Bookboon.com

 

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Managing your brain, part 12

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Always check email in the morning.

My apologies to Julie Morgenstern, for the contradiction to her excellent book’s title, “Never check email in the morning,” but I am now convinced this is not the best strategy.

For years I have been telling people that checking email first thing in the morning would sidetrack them and send them on tangents, answering trivial messages and keeping them from the priorities of the day. And this made sense if you had planned to start on a priority project first thing in the morning. Email is addictive; you do want to check it every few minutes – like shoving one more coin into a casino slot machine hoping this one would result in a reward.

But after learning more about our brain, how it operates, and its impact on our productivity, I’ve changed my mind.

Most people have an irresistible urge to check email before they even get to work – sometimes before they even get dressed in the morning. After all, it’s been 10 hours or more since they last checked it. The world is on different time zones, and they could have won the Irish sweepstakes or had a new book accepted by a foreign publisher. The boss could’ve sent an urgent request, a relative could have died during the night or maybe there is a lucrative job offer awaiting them.

Blame it on this new technology, but the point is, it requires strong willpower and much personal energy to resist the urge to check email and to buckle down to work on that important, but not always delightful, first priority of the day.

Resisting temptation, mustering willpower and ignoring your inbox consumes a lot of energy. But assuming you are able to do it, how productive would you actually be during the rest of the morning? In fact, studies described in Scientific American Mind (May/June, 2011) have shown that people who exert themselves mentally, such as resisting the temptation to check email or whatever, gave up on problems sooner when presented with them immediately afterwards.

We are by nature, curious. This puts us into a mental multitasking mode, thinking about what might be awaiting us in the inbox while trying to concentrate on our priority task. And we now know that things left undone create anxiety and stress, which in themselves are known energy consumers and productivity killers. David Levinson, in his book, “The organized mind,” says the awareness of an email waiting to be answered, for example, can reduce our IQ by 10 points.

The mental energy consumed by exercising willpower is on a par with that required to make decisions or solve problems. Look at the impact this was shown to have had on parole boards. Prisoners who came before the board in the early morning were granted parole 70% of the time while those appearing in the late afternoon were granted parole less than 10% of the time. This wasn’t a case of being more productive and mentally alert in the morning; but simply showed the effect of decision-making fatigue on the part of the board members.

The energy loss and mental fatigue needed to resist that morning peek at email would negatively impact your performance for the rest of the day. On the other hand, very little energy would be consumed by spending a half hour on something you really wanted to do. So why not satisfy your curiosity and give your mood a lift by quickly checking your email before starting your first scheduled priority task?

In 15 minutes you could probably delete, forward and give two-minute responses to most of those email messages, leaving only those that require more work. Leaving them in your inbox rather than moving them to a folder for later action is easier and faster. Simply jot a reminder to yourself in your planner or daily priority pad.

This new strategy is working great for me. I actually allow about 30 minutes to check email each morning and start on my first scheduled 90-minute module of uninterrupted time by 9 AM. And yes, I have plenty of energy left for the rest of the day since I work from a home office with no stressful commute.

By working on a project no longer than 90 minutes before quickly checking email again, you are setting your brain at ease, and able to easily focus on that 90-minute work session. After all, four or five email checks during a full day is not excessive. And if you always allow more time for a priority task than you think it will take, you should have time to spare anyway.

So give your brain a break. It works hard for you day and night and certainly deserves one.