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How your work environment can impact productivity.

Office environment

Your environment definitely affects your actions, and in turn, your productivity. This holds true in situations other than work. For example, if you use a larger spoon or a larger plate, you will eat more, hospital patients with a window view need less medication and heal faster, and children who live closer to a fast food outlet are usually more obese.

Consider the impact of nature, whether in the form of green space, gardens or parks, on the health and well-being of individuals. According to the June, 2016 issue of Scientific American Mind, “exposure to natural settings has been linked with a vast array of human benefits, from reduced rates of depression to increased immune functioning.”

Recent studies have found that urban green spaces improve cognitive development in children, and those close to park land had better memory development, attentiveness and creativity.

As for productivity in an office environment, potted plants, white noise, music, natural lighting, air circulation, physical organization, windows facing the outside world, the ability to feed off the energy of others, and even a cheerful office decor with scenic pictures on the walls can increase productivity as well as improve mood and personal well-being.

Take plants for example. Based on recent research, it might appear as though your ideal office environment would be a forest with plenty of vegetation surrounding your desk and a trout stream gurgling its way past you. Unfortunately that discounts the blackflies, mosquitoes, gusty winds, darkened sky, and the noise of trains, tractors and thunderstorms in the distance.

Convert your house plants to office plants.

But in choosing our office and decor, we should not overlook the possibility of merging more with nature. The more we gravitate toward the cities and hole up in our offices, the more we withdraw from nature and its largely unrecognized or unappreciated benefits. Studies have shown that the presence of potted plants, for example, improves productivity, creativity, performance and learning ability. In the case of schools, the presence of plants improved scores in mathematics spelling and science between 10% and 14%.

Researchers have also found that plants act as vacuum cleaners removing pollution from the air. Exposure to indoor and outdoor pollutants in both home and offices has been linked to anxiety, depression, irritability, fatigue and short and long-term cognitive decline among other afflictions.

One study involved new computers, which had been shown to give off chemicals into the air. When a batch of new computers were hidden behind a divider, cognitive testing showed it reduced performance and increased errors by those workers closest to the hidden computers.

Plants not only give off oxygen, they are able to absorb environmental chemicals and transport them to the soil, rendering them less harmful. NASA used plants to keep their astronauts healthy while working in enclosed places constructed of synthetic materials. Potted plants have reduced indoor pollutants by at least 75%.

A few years ago I moved my home condo office from a windowless room that used to be a dining room to the solarium where I am surrounded by two walls of glass and access to the balcony. I bought plants for the balcony, complete with window boxes. I have a table and chairs there where I do a lot of my writing and have a view of treetops from my ninth floor condo.

It is not my highest performance area. That’s a local coffee shop, which I referred to in my blog a couple of weeks ago – “Are you going to work or working on the go?” It’s important to add a little variety to your workplace. It gets you moving, which in another key to productivity in the office. I will discuss this in my next blog article.

Next blog article: Motion sickness beats death by sitting.


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A little self-discipline goes a long way

Brain power 3

Many of us have allowed the demands of technology to bypass our minds and go directly to our core brains. Your core brain doesn’t think on its own: it simply reacts according to past programming, even answering the smart phone when it rings, responding immediately to text messages as they arrive, and interrupting work in progress to check email messages as though they were priorities.

Your mind is capable of curbing impulses to react, changing time wasting or dangerous habits, and giving directions to your brain. 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 research to back it up.

Use your mind to rid yourself of destructive habits

If you can believe that the mind is separate from the brain, you can break bad habits and replace them with more productive ones 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, but no longer makes sense.)
  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 then only 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, and instead, act out the new 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. Neurologists seem to agree that every time you make a conscious effort to practice willpower, your willpower becomes stronger.
  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. The old habit will fade from disuse.

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

Of course it takes willpower to focus on what’s important and ignore the many environmental distractions. And since willpower consumes energy, you must get plenty of sleep, eat well, avoid stress as much is possible and avoid long work sessions beyond the recommended 90 minutes. You may further assist your mind by scheduling in the mornings those tasks that require deep thinking, problem solving and creativity. Your energy is generally higher in the morning. (That’s why people seldom break from their healthy diets early in the day; but grab snacks and cheat on their diets before bedtime.)

Your mind has the power to manage your brain.

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. Once you really believe that, you are in control of your life.

As Mark Bowden explains in his book, Tame the primitive brain, our core brain perceives any change as a threat until proven otherwise. It doesn’t “think” as such, but simply receives information from the senses and relies on the thinking part of the brain, (which I choose to refer to as the mind) to evaluate the situation and prescribe the appropriate course of action. But if we (our minds) are under constant stress, with an overload of information, responsibilities and tasks and a limited supply of energy and time, we are too busy playing “Rushing roulette” (as mentioned in my last blog) to respond quickly. In these situations, our primitive or core brain takes over and checks the email, responds to the text messages or answers the vibrating cell phone in order to counter the perceived threat. It is programmed to ensure our physical survival. Action is the default response whether it’s appropriate for that particular situation or not.

In effect, we are allowing technology, our environment, and others to hijack our brain and torpedo our personal productivity. That’s why we must get organized, introduce structure into our lives, put boundaries on our workday, prioritize on an ongoing basis, and accept the fact that we cannot do everything ourselves. It is essential that we manage our brain as well as our environment, technology, health, energy, and time.

You can make it easier to exert willpower, focus, and goal-directed persistence, in spite of distractions, by managing your physical environment as well – as we will discuss in next week’s blog.

Next blog article: How your work environment can impact productivity.


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Are you going to work or working on the go?


For some people an office is still a physical place of work such as a fully equipped room, a cubicle or a desk in a fixed location. But for more and more people, the office is their digital handheld device, which goes with them wherever they go. They feel it’s no longer necessary – or in some cases they no longer have the opportunity – to have a specific place of work. And many no longer have a hardcopy planner, paper documents and files, a landline telephone and regular face-to-face interactions with others.

For these people, work is no longer a place to go to, but a state of mind. There is no limit to the length of a workday. The 9-to-5 day is being replaced by the 24-hour day. There is no beginning or end to work – just as there is no single location where the bulk of the work gets done.

In days gone by, when we all had structure in our lives, we scheduled breaks, lunch hours, and time to rejuvenate. When he did work at home, it was said to be “on our own time.” Normally, the time after 5 PM was spent at home with family and friends or going to a ball game or for a walk in the park or kicking a soccer ball with the next-door neighbour’s kids.

And in spite of spending two thirds of our time away from the job, we managed to build successful businesses, drive nice cars, and maintain a decent level of productivity.

I’m not saying the old way of working was better, only different. We increased productivity in those days by taking time management seriously and utilizing most of the working portion of the days getting the important things done. This required that we set goals, establish policies and procedures, increase efficiency, focus on priorities and learn when to say no. We had to overcome both procrastination and perfectionism, cooperate with our coworkers, and generate new ideas through team effort. We did not work in isolation. The result was quite astounding considering that we had limited technology and limited time.

Just think what today’s workers could accomplish with today’s technology, flexibility and unlimited access to information if they were also able to add structure to their lives, control the technology, and work efficiently in this ever changing environment.

Different times require different strategies. So the next few articles may apply more to those millions of mobile workers who either work on the move or at least partially work from home.

The June, 2016 issue of Mindful magazine mentioned that an estimated 105 million people will be “mobile workers” by 2020, getting their work done with flexible office situations. And a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey found that 24% of all workers work at home at least part of the day.

How does one stay productive in an environment that may change from week to week or even day-to-day? Well to start, we can apply those time-tested strategies that will still work regardless of the environment. These would include setting specific goals for the week, developing personal policies or guidelines, planning our week, and making specific commitments as opposed to simply working from “to do” lists. Many of these strategies have been lost as we scurry to keep up with the quickening pace of life.

We have been playing “rushing” roulette, gambling that the next email opened might not be a waste of time. So quickly check your email in the morning if you feel less stressed doing so, and then limit yourself to 90 minute intervals throughout the rest of the day.

You could add additional structure to your week by selecting at least one high-performance work area where you are more self-disciplined and focused, and spend at least part of each day there.

Your high-performance area is a place where you have the most energy and get your best ideas. This could be a coffee shop or a room at home or a table on the patio. For instance, I like to spend a good hour and a half working on priority tasks at a coffee shop immediately following a brief walk. Being a morning person, I am most mentally alert and creative at that time. Also the coffee shop is well lit with natural lighting and a soothing hum that tends to mask noises and encourage creativity. This is not meant to be a coffee break but rather a work break – free from text messages, email or phone calls. So turn off or silence your devices while working in your high-performance area..

Once we add structure to our lives, most of the other strategies become easier to apply. I suggest the following order:

  1. Set boundaries for your workday. It doesn’t have to be 9 to 5 but be specific. For many people this currently varies greatly from day-to-day – even extending into weekends, family time and vacation time. Structure is essential because if you have 24 hours to complete your priority tasks, it may take 24 hours to do so. So define your workday.
  2. After deciding in advance what your workday will be, roughly allocate time for the important projects, tasks and activities that are currently on your plate. This requires the use of a planner or other tool that matches your style. I prefer a hardcopy planner in which I block of times for the important activities – both discrete tasks and ongoing projects. Block out project times at least a week or two in advance.
  3. Develop routines and habits for those ongoing important repetitive activities that you have identified. This conserves energy, saves time, and makes it easier to get things done on time.

These steps, which seem to represent old ways of doing things, may seem impossible in today’s environment. But I hope to prove to you in future blog articles that it is possible if you make a few tweaks to the way you currently do things.

Next blog article: A little self-discipline goes a long way.


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Who is calling the shots, you or your computer?

Don't let technology high-jack your brain.
Don’t let technology high-jack your brain.

In today’s work environment our brain is on constant alert – both the reactive core brain, and the frontal lobes, which are constantly called upon to make decisions, choices, as well as plan our day minute by minute. At the same time, we play nursemaid to technology and its own set of demands. This is not only stressful, but drains our energy and throws our natural body rhythms out of sync. Trouble sleeping, anxiety, fatigue and even depression could ensue.

Bombarded by digital messages, cell phone calls, artificial light from computer screens and handheld devices, the working environment is generally not user-friendly, and not conducive to improved productivity. If we allow our environment to control us, incessantly distracting us from our priority tasks, interrupting our train of thought and kidnapping our minds for minutes at a time as we respond to emails or instant messages, we will never regain the productivity of the past.

Sure technology itself is synonymous with increased productivity; but it’s the computers that are productive, while we are used as “go-fers” at their beck and call. Computers are efficient to the nth degree; but without the creativity and thinking power of the human brain, they will never be able to manage companies, let alone a family or a personal life.

Yet the human brain is frequently being relegated to making service calls to keep technology humming. There is little time left for creative thinking, problem-solving or planning. And what little time is left is being utilized by tired and sometimes exhausted brains that are no longer working on all cylinders.

No wonder the emphasis these days is on the development of artificial intelligence. Ours is being rapidly dissipated. Already we are seldom required to add or subtract, spell or even write – activities that enhance our brain power in one way or another.

What I am proposing is to take control of our working environment – including the technology – so that we can establish a pattern of working that not only increases our personal productivity, but maintains a healthy, energized brain and body.

I have written enough articles in the past about the negative impact of technology on our brains and bodies – enough at least to attract criticism as being anti-technology. (Which is not true since I use technology daily to maintain a high level of personal productivity.) I do not criticize technology itself, but our use of it. Technology should not dictate when or where we check email or receive phone calls or the extent to which we participate in social media and so on. Those are our decisions to make.

But we have taken the path of least resistance and forfeited these responsibilities, allowing technology to hijack the more primitive parts of our brain and developing self-defeating habits that keep us from realizing our full potential. That’s not surprising considering the amount of personal energy required to make decisions, muster willpower and take charge. It’s imperative that we manage our energy as well.

In the next few articles I will give some suggestions as to how you might manage your environment to increase personal productivity and well-being. It will include more than just the control of technology; it will cover everything from the location of your desk and working area to the addition of plants and natural lighting. The most critical change of course will be the way you interact with technology. Technology is a driving force; but don’t let it drive you. Get a good seven hours or more sleep each night this week. Be sure to eat properly and keep up with your daily exercise. You will need all the energy you can get in order to take back the control that is rightfully yours.

Next blog article: Are you going to work or working on the go?




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Effective time management requires making wise choices.


Researchers have claimed we get a dopamine rush whenever we capture a Pokemon creature or receive favourable news in an email message or see our name mentioned in a Facebook or Twitter post.

This carrot and stick approach motivates us to enter deeper into the technology trap until we become helplessly addicted to the highs we get. But a shot of the “feel-good” hormone called dopamine is a poor exchange for the time and productivity that we sacrifice in order to get it.

Take the latest fad or phenomenon (depending on how it turns out) of the augmented virtual reality game called Pokemon Go. In its defence, I will admit that it at least it gets people active – although reports of walking along subway tracks and playing the game while riding a bicycle are not exactly safe exercises. Walking through the city, cemeteries, and museums and even off-limits military bases catching virtual creatures might be a lot of fun. But it’s the degree to which we are drawn into these fantasies that concern me. Pokemon Go was launched on July 6, 2016, and one week later had about 21 million users.

Did all these people, who already were spending more time on this game (about 33 minutes a day) than they spend on Facebook (about 25 minutes a day) really make a conscious decision to get involved? Or were they so conditioned by the lure of technology that it was an automatic response?

In the July 18, 2016 issue of Toronto Star, the game developer CEO was quoted as saying, “The game itself is intended to facilitate the real-life stuff.” I’m not sure what’s wrong with the real life stuff as it is; but much of it is being ignored in the process. Who is looking after the store, the schoolwork or the family? Games make real life easier, but not better.

According to a list of facts gleaned from the Internet, 6 of 7 billion people have a mobile device, 4.5 billion have a toilet, and 4.2 billion have a toothbrush. Perhaps we should spend less time playing Pokemon Go and more time making toilets and toothbrushes.

Whether it’s email, instant messaging, Facebook or Pokemon Go, I reiterate what I said in a previous blog, “Everything in moderation.”

We should spend more time honing our willpower and self-control so we can spend less time on virtual reality. What we think about and focus on is what we become. It’s easier to dunk a donut into a cup of coffee in the morning than to cook oatmeal; but it’s not better for you.

Effective time management has been defined as making good choices. Are you choosing wisely?

Next blog article: Who is calling the shots, you or your computer?