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Can colors actually improve your performance?


In my last blog article I mentioned that the presence of potted plants in offices improves productivity, creativity, performance and learning ability. One of the reasons given was that plants and trees act as vacuum cleaners, absorbing the indoor pollutants that have been linked to anxiety, depression, irritability, fatigue and cognitive decline.

But that’s not the whole answer. If it were, why is it that that people with windows facing the outside world are more productive, healthier, and maintain a higher level of concentration than people with windowless offices? And why did researchers find that the more green space that residents can see out their windows, the less aggression and violence they reported at home? And why did researchers find that university students with mostly natural views from their dormitory windows score better on tests of working memory and concentration than college students who lived in the same dorm but with views of other buildings?

We have a definite link with nature, and the human brain is influenced by our environment – what we see, smell, hear and feel. The book, How the body knows its mind, by Sion Beilock reported that city dwellers are at a 20% increase risk for developing anxiety disorders and a 40% increased risk for mood disorders compared with people who live in less populated areas. And in the book, Your brain on nature, by Selhub and Logan, the authors state that research has shown that emotions of pleasure and happiness are elevated with an increase of tree density – even in urban settings.

It’s more than simply pollution at play. Japanese researchers have noted increases in the number of natural killer cells and increases in the amount of intracellular anticancer proteins after spending time in a forest. And natural chemicals secreted by evergreen trees have been associated with improvements in the activity of the frontline immune defenders.

And what about the impact of the various colors on our mood and performance? Is it a coincidence that blue and green – the colors most frequently found in nature – have also been found to be the most effective in stimulating personal productivity? Selhub and Logan point out in their book that recent studies show that the blue portion of the light spectrum stimulates the areas of the brain that involve attention and memory. Blue enriched light has been shown to improve mood, performance, alertness, irritability and evening fatigue. Blue is known as an excellent color for productivity as well as having a calming effect on employees. It stimulates the mind and increases productivity. Ravi Mehta, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, believes that a blue background screen on your computer also improves performance when working on a creative tasks, while a red background is better with more detailed oriented tasks.

Green has also been associated with calm and well-being. One study found that 95% of the university students questioned associated the colour with positive emotions. Deep greens can excite and motivate staff. Melanie Feltham, social media community manager at Upwork, claims we feel at ease in blue and green rooms because of their relationship to nature.

You may want to experiment with colors. A national survey of 1000 office workers found blue to be their preferred hue. One researcher suggested a mixture of blue-green with accents of motivating soft red. Some workers are more productive in rooms painted in bright colors while others find it overwhelming.

It has been suggested that you use a lighter color on your desk since reducing the amount of contrast between your computer screen and desk will reduce eyestrain. Alternatively, you could use a large blotter or desk calendar.

Avoid beige or white. A University of Texas study found that grey, beige or white offices induced feelings of sadness and depression – especially in women. Yellow can give you a burst of energy; but it can cause irritability and induce fatigue faster. Red tends to increase heart rate and blood pressure and should probably be used only to draw attention to something – like stop signs, fire hydrants or fire engines.

It would appear that sticking to the colors found in nature – blue skies, blue water, green trees, green grass and fields – is the best choice for efficiency, focus and a lower stress level.

It’s hard to improve on nature.


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Improving performance with office greenery.


We are all aware of the benefits of walking; but it has been shown that a 40 minute walk in a forest results in lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol then an equivalent walk in the laboratory – plus improved mood and feelings of vigour. It also lowers blood pressure, and improves sleep.

There is little doubt that trees, plants, grass and other vegetation affects us both physically and mentally. In order to increase performance of students and workers alike, Ratey and Manning, in their book Go wild, recommend designing buildings with greenways, open space, landscaping and potted plants. And as reported in an issue of Scientific American Mind (January February, 2015), even staring at pictures of outdoor scenes has been linked to pain relief, stress recovery and mood improvement.

A more recent issue of Scientific American Mind (May June, 2016), linked exposure to natural settings with many health benefits, from reduced rates of depression to increased immune functioning. For example, patients in hospital rooms with a window view require less pain medication and spend less time in the hospital. Recent studies found that urban green spaces, such as plants and gardens, also improve cognitive development.

An old clipping on the environment that I found buried in my files from some 20 years ago, and attributed to the National Wildlife Foundation, claimed that one large sugar maple can remove as much airborne lead as the city’s cars emit by burning 1000 gallons of gasoline. City planners in Los Angeles had said that by the year 2000, trees would remove some 200 tons of dust and smoke from the region’s air each day. I have no way of checking the accuracy of that prediction; but one article I came across recently states that according to the U.S. Forest Service, the trees around the world removed about one third of fossil fuel emissions annually between 1990 and 2007.

Mounting research suggests that city living is not conducive to mental or physical health. A July, 2012 issue of suggested we’re more disconnected with nature than ever – exchanging outdoor activities for playing video games or using social media indoors. An item in the March 17, 2016 issue of reported that on a global scale, it is estimated that the transportation sector is responsible for approximately 5.8 million deaths per year: 3.2 million from physical inactivity; 1.3 million from vehicle related collisions; and 1.3 million from outdoor pollution. And a string of studies from all over the world suggest that common air pollutants such as black carbon, particulate matter and ozone can negatively affect vocabulary, reaction times, and even overall intelligence, according to a report in the November/December, 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind.

In an older blog article I talked about my decision to move my office to the condo’s solarium, add plenty of greenery on the balcony visible from my desk, take advantage of natural lighting, and even hang a picture or two of scenery. I did find an improvement in my overall mood and productivity, although that was an extremely subjective observation. There are other things I could have done as well, which I will mention in my next blog. But last month I went the extra mile – or more accurately 1500 miles – and moved to Sussex, New Brunswick.

Thanks to the digital world in which we live, the move (from a business viewpoint) was seamless. And after almost a lifetime spent in the city of Toronto, I expect the impact on my well-being and productivity to be quite significant. I’ll report my findings in a few months.

In the meantime, I will continue to review some other suggestions for improving productivity without having to move to the country.

Next blog article: Can colours actually improve your performance?

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7 ways to maintain focus in your office.


Rather than drain your current energy, you should protect it by choosing a suitable working environment, adopting policies that eliminate continual interruptions, and maintaining a work pace that does not create stress or put an unrealistic demand on your brain. This might be achieved by limiting work sessions to a maximum of 90 minutes before taking a major break, and alternating between mental work and physical or emotional work throughout the day.

Distractions in particular are energy drainers because they involve multitasking – switching mentally to and from the interruptions – in an attempt to address those new challenges while maintaining a degree of focus on the project at hand. That’s why it’s important to build a habit of turning off cell phones, engaging voicemail on land lines, ignoring email, and having a workplace devoid of visual distractions while you focus on your priority work.

Here are 7 specific things you can do to help maintain focus while working on an important project.

  1. Schedule priorities during “prime time.”

Our brains are programmed to keep alert for danger, and pick up quickly on any perceived threats, including innocuous interruptions.  So when it comes to interruptions, even your own brain works against you. Most traditional suggestions of the past, such as a closed door, screened calls, departmental quiet hours, and office layout no longer apply since the office environment has changed considerably. Two things that are still important, however, are the times you choose to work on priority tasks, and the length of time you spend on that task or project. The most productive time of the day is 10:30 AM for most people so mornings should be reserved for priority work. Early birds should start their major products even earlier. Focus is at a high during this prime time so schedule your top priorities during this first 90-minute work period.

  1. Dispense with the little things first.

 It’s the little things that distract you and prevent you from focusing fully on the important things. For example, according to Daniel Levinson, author of The organized mind, the awareness of an email waiting to be answered can reduce your IQ by 10 points. A part of your brain is constantly alert for something unusual – which it perceives as a threat – so it’s natural that you are susceptible to these distractions. It makes sense therefore to get rid of those distractions before attempting to concentrate on the priorities of the day. Spend the first half-hour or so of the day checking your email, voicemail, text messages etc. – things that would otherwise be preying on your mind throughout the day. Any actions required that cannot be handled in a minute or two can be added to your “To do” list. I know this flies in the face of most experts’ advice; but it works. And it also gets you started, acts as a warm-up period, and builds up momentum for the day.

  1. Select a “high performance” work area.

 If you have any influence on selecting your work location, take advantage of it. Some people work best at home in the mornings; others at a coffee shop. Choose a location where you can best concentrate on the task at hand. Research carried out at the University of Illinois on the effects of background noise on creativity found that the level of noise experienced in a bustling coffee shop enhanced performance and even helped people concentrate. If you can’t get away from the office there’s a website at that lets you bring the sound of a coffee shop to your computer while you work. Coffitivity recreates the ambient sounds of a cafe to boost your creativity and help you work better. Also, you might experiment with background music, some of which has been shown to improve focus.

  1. Try shorter work modules.

Stefan Klein, in his book The Secret Pulse of Time, reported that psychologist Leonard Giambre documented our mind’s tendency to wander. He asked people to solve a puzzle. At random times he would remind them of their task with a beep. If they were daydreaming or thinking of something else other than the task at the time of the beep, they were to push a button. In the course of the half-hour experiment, they pressed the button an average of over 40 times. The longer you work on a specific task, the more chances you have of interrupting yourself. The planning or executive center of your brain likes to work in controllable chunks with well-defined beginnings and endings. Five or 10-minute spurts work amid continuing interruptions are counterproductive and exhausting. It takes less energy to focus than to multitask. So organize your day in a way that maximizes your brain’s efficiency. If the 90-minute work sessions recommended earlier don’t seem to work for you, however, try shorter work sessions. But avoid all-day marathons.

 Control the technology.

Attention spans seem to be getting smaller for everyone. Research shows that the Internet and digital technology can have a negative impact on our ability to learn, focus, pay attention, memorize and relate to others on a personal basis. It also gobbles up our time, encourages busyness and multitasking, and stifles creativity. Regardless of where you work, it’s important that you control the technology. Turn off your cell phone or smartphone, engage the voice mail and ignore email while you work on your scheduled project. Maintain focus on the task, jotting down ideas that pop into your mind without being detoured by them. And be sure to develop personal policies as to how often you check incoming messages and when you turn off the technology for the evening.

  1. Get plenty of sleep and exercise.

 You will always encounter a certain number of both internal and external distractions that impede your progress. That’s why our brain-based executive skills – such as response inhibition, sustained attention and emotional control – discussed in other blog articles impact our focus. Internal distractions could include such things as stress and tiredness as well as self-interruptions. 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. Dr. Mike Dow, quoting CDC statistics, says that 50 million Americans report they are not getting enough sleep. Sleep deprivation has been linked not only to susceptibility to distractions, but to such things as Type 2 diabetes, obesity, breast and colon cancer, cognitive skills and performance as well.

  1. Organize your work area.

Organizing your work area increases your ability to 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. Set up your electronic and hard copy file systems, your follow-up system, the location of your inventory and office supplies, the layout of your desk and bookshelves, and so on. We tend to deal with problems and work on tasks in the order in which they crop up instead of prioritizing them. So organize your work as well, prioritizing your tasks based on importance rather than urgency, and entering these important tasks in your planner rather than leaving them on a “To do” list.

By using self-control, and being mindful that distractions are likely to occur, you can consciously resist the impulse to yield to distractions when they appear. The more times you resist, the easier it becomes. The habit of interrupting yourself can be replaced with one of sustained attention to the task at hand.

Several of the executive skills have to do with self-discipline and willpower and can be improved through practice. For example turn down desert or second cup of coffee once in a while, periodically give up your favorite TV program or sporting event, and so on. Have a glass of water when you really feel like soda, and resist that chocolate bar after golf. Self-discipline is like a muscle that can be strengthened through use.

Next blog article: Improving performance with office greenery.


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Use the “Triple 90” strategies to get the important things done on time.


Organizing business and personal tasks and meetings
Organizing business and personal tasks and meetings

There are three rules that might help you maintain focus and get the essential things done in the today’s hectic environment where 24/7 connectivity is the norm and your office is more a state of mind than a specific place. They involve the three essential strategies of goal setting, planning and scheduling.

The 90-day rule
for goal-setting.

Short-range goals are more realistic in this digital age of speed – for example, 90-day goals instead of annual goals. This allows for an ever-changing environment, the rapid advances in technology, and the instantaneous influence of social media and so on. Priorities also seem to change more quickly in this digital age of speed.

90 days – three months – provide enough time to accomplish something significant, yet not so short as to be seen as a glorified “To do” list. Your 90-day goal could very well lead to an annual goal, while having measurable results in itself. But if we work on annual goals, we could deceive ourselves into thinking that a last-minute rush near the end of the year would enable us to achieve the goal.

With shorter goals we are able to adjust or even discover that the goal is impossible or impractical – and we would still have most of the year available to re-evaluate and reset our goals.

Many goals don’t take 12 months in the first place, and Parkinson’s Law could take place as the time it takes to achieve the goal expands to fill the time we have available. Many important goals such as product launches or sales promotions are time sensitive. If you don’t act now you lose much of their benefit. If you can’t make significant progress in 90 days, you probably wouldn’t do much better in 365 days anyway.

Deciding in advance that you will do something and actually planning when you will do it increases your commitment to get it done. There is no real commitment to complete any tasks on a “To do” list with no time frame, and your brain picks up on that.

The 90-hour rule for planning.

You must get your own priorities into your planner first – before your planner is filled with other people’s priorities. This necessitates that you schedule blocks of time for both business and personal activities, tasks and projects at least 90 hours – or about 4 to 5 days – in advance.

That’s why I prefer a week at a glance planner – so I can see my plan for the entire week. People normally ask if you are busy tomorrow or the next day or the next when looking for a time to meet with you. If you don’t have anything scheduled in your planner for the next few days, you can easily give up your valuable prime time to others, leaving only scraps of time to work on your own projects. It’s a lot easier to say no when you see a commitment in your planner at the time slot being requested.

Choose times when you are the most mentally alert and creative to work on your ongoing projects and important tasks. Leave other times blank so you can schedule other people into these time slots or work on the lower priority activities. How much of your week you actually schedule will depend on the nature of your job. If your main job is to trouble shoot or fight fires, you will block off less time. But schedule at least 20% of each day for your own priorities. If you don’t have fires one morning, you want to be committed in advance to work on one of your top priorities. Most people can block off at least the equivalent of 3 or 4 hours each day to get to get the really important work done.

The 90-minute rule for scheduling.

The probability of a scheduled task or project being completed as planned is increased immensely if the time to work on it is scheduled in 90-minute blocks of time.

One of the biggest problems for most people is sustained attention. Working for shorter periods of time is generally more efficient since the longer you work on a project, the more difficult it is to maintain focus, and the more susceptible you are to interruptions – either by yourself or others.

For most of my adult life I have scheduled projects and tasks in 90 minute chunks of time, including the writing of books. Originally, this was simply due to the fact that I found I had to allow about 50% more time than I thought a task would take due to the interruptions that invariably occurred in a corporate office. But since that time, I have accumulated a whole series of reasons why working in 90-minute chunks of time is more effective. And the experiences of other people as well as recent brain research seem to confirm this.

Concentration and energy rises and falls in 90 minute cycles. This is a continuation of the sleep cycles where we go through stages of non-REM and REM sleep that in total last about 90 minutes before the cycle begins again. During the evening we are more easily awakened about every 90 minutes, and during the day we tend to get sleepy about every 90 minutes. So it makes sense to schedule work sessions of about 90 minutes with brief breaks in between to rejuvenate.

In addition, 90 minutes is an acceptable wait time for most people before they receive an answer to their e-mail, text message or phone call. Of course a few people expect instant replies, but those people are simply being unrealistic. 90 minutes isn’t an unrealistic period of time to be unavailable to staff members either.

90-minute segments allow at least two major projects to be worked on each day – possibly both in the morning if that’s your prime time (when you are the most mentally alert and energetic), leaving the balance of the time for other people and less important tasks.

90 minutes is about the minimum length of “working time” before “make-ready” time becomes a factor and starts having a negative impact on your efficiency. If you select too brief a period of time, you spend as much time getting your materials and your mind ready as you spend working on the project.

I recommend you actually schedule these 90-minute “appointments with yourself” in ink if you use a paper planner – since you have every intention of keeping those appointments.

When we react to something, a different part of the brain is being activated than if we plan to do something. Writing down what we intend to do switches us to a more rational mode of thinking. When an interruption does occur, either something you think of or a remark someone else makes, jot it down so you can deal with it later. But continue with your planned activity.

Use “batching” for shorter tasks.

For brief tasks, batch together those tasks that are similar in nature and require the same resources and mental acuity. For example, I might have a 90 minute block of time scheduled for writing articles for both my newsletter and blog, material for my teleseminars, courses or website – all requiring writing, creativity, voice activated software, reference books, notes, my journal and so on.

A batching session could also involve contacting various people by phone, text or email or reading magazines, blogs, websites, books and other resources in search of information on a specific topic.

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.

There is fourth strategy that could be called the “90-second rule.” When interrupted from your train of thought by a drop-in visitor or other incident, if it takes 90 seconds or less to handle it, do it right then before continuing with your work. Otherwise agree on a future time to discuss the matter. Also, when checking email, text messages or voice mail, if you can reply in 90 seconds or less, do it right away. Otherwise just add it to your “To do” list or schedule a time in your planner to do it later. Do everything you can to maintain focus.

Next blog article: 7 ways to maintain focus at the office.