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Feeling a little scattered? Time for a “work break.”

 

Decades ago, we used to take coffee breaks to escape, if only momentarily, from the stress of continually focusing on one task after another – with few distractions or variety in tasks to provide any mental relief. Today, we need “work breaks” to escape the incessant and cognitively demanding interruptions exacerbated by handheld electronic devices that make sufficient concentration and contemplation impossible.

Cal Newport used the term “deep work” to describe “the activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”

It’s true that we can develop our power of concentration by strengthening our brain-based executive skills, particularly those relating to sustained attention, task initiation and goal-directed persistence. In fact, I have already written an e-book titled “Strengthen your brain’s executive skills“, published by Bookboon.com, that suggests ways of doing this. But in most cases our working environment is anything but distraction-free. And few people can ignore the chiming of their handheld device or even the brief bleep that indicates a retweeted tweet or the arrival of an instant message.

In today’s typical work environment it is obvious that technology, our greatest asset, is also our greatest distractor – or at least aids and abets distractions from others. Cal Newport, in his book “Deep work: rules for focused success in a distracted world“, mentions a 2012 study that found the average knowledge worker spends more than 60% of the work week engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching. About 30% of this is simply reading and answering email. So unless you work in the wilderness where Internet or cellular access is impossible, the place to start is with your use of handheld electronic devices.

Assuming that people were continually connected, in a few of my articles and books I suggested that people take “work breaks” to get the significant things done. I suppose this could be called “deep work“. A “work break” is a scheduled block of time during the day when you put your iPhone or whatever on airplane mode and concentrate for about 90 minutes on a priority task or project.

The assumption is that the world and everybody in it can survive for 90 minutes without communicating with others in some way or another. In fact there have been no reported deaths, bankruptcies or even major setbacks reported when people have actually done this.

It is known as planning and scheduling. You simply block off 90 minutes of time in your planner two or more times a day as appointments with yourself to get specific priorities accomplished. (Either electronic or paper planners are acceptable.) What you are doing is treating yourself with the same degree of respect that you would afford to others, including clients and employees, when you schedule an appointment to discuss something specific – whether it is to decide on purchasing an item or to appraise someone’s performance. Seldom would you cancel an appointment at the last minute or not show up if another person were involved.

In 90 minutes you could accomplish much when interruptions are minimal. With electronics silenced, it is much easier to do this. You may have to move to a boardroom or close your office door or work from home; but it is not impossible. And as you increase your ability to focus (since you are alone and very capable of daydreaming) you will find that your productivity will increase as well.

I know it works for some people – including me. I usually write my books, articles, newsletters, tweets, etc. in 90-minute work sessions – perhaps two or three such sessions in a normal workday. The rest of the time is not completely wasted; but personal productivity is minimal.

Even 90 minutes of focused working a day is frequently enough to succeed at what you do.

 

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Who says money can’t buy happiness?

Money certainly can buy happiness – if you are willing to part with the money! In fact a recent study reported in the July 25, 2017 issue of Science & Environment revealed that using money to free up time is linked to increased happiness.

According to the news item by Helen Briggs, BBC News, psychologists in the U.S., Canada and the Netherlands asked over 6000 adults, including 800 millionaires, how much money they spent on buying time. (Buying time could refer to such things as outsourcing time-consuming jobs you dislike.) Less than a third of the individuals spent money each month to buy themselves some time. Yet those who did, reported greater life satisfaction than the others.

This was followed up with a 2- week experiment among 60 working adults in Vancouver, Canada. They gave them about $40 to spend on a purchase that would save them time, such as cleaning services or paying others to run errands for them. On a different weekend, the participants were asked to spend money on material goods including wine, clothes and books. The researchers found that saving time rather than making material purchases increased happiness by reducing feelings of time stress.

Yet older research has indicated that when asked to choose between money or more free time, people chose money. It could be because those people really needed the money in order to survive. But more likely it was a knee-jerk decision based on their relationship with money since childhood. Who has not learned the value of money as a child – and yet has not been taught the importance of time?

Money has always been one of the biggest short-term motivators – one that keeps us at the slot machines or working overtime or staying late for that one last sale. We even get a shot of dopamine (the reward neurotransmitter) every time we spot a quarter on the ground or win two dollars playing bingo.

Left to itself, your brain will make decisions based on emotion. Knee-jerk reaction is a function of the primitive brain, influenced by past decisions, and taking the path of least resistance by choosing money as the priority. But your executive function, located primarily in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, has the ability to override routine and habits, and make decisions that take long-term consequences into consideration. We need to pause to allow this to happen.

And when you pause, think of ways you could buy time, whether it be farming out personal chores such as housekeeping, car washes or errands – or buying time-saving equipment, hiring taxis instead of driving or shopping online. There are many ways to trade money for time.

It’s important that you don’t let your reactive brain run your life. Run it through your brain’s “executive centre” first. You may decide to buy a little happiness.

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Adult coloring books: stress relievers or waste of time?

In the United States in 2016, adult coloring book sales topped $14 million compared to $10 million in 2015. Recently, sales have slowed down, possibly because the books have reached the saturation point. But that’s a lot of people who still believe the books are beneficial.

Last week there were still over 200 different adult coloring books listed at the Amazon website alone – ranging in price from a few dollars to over $20 each. Although using your children’s books may be just as relaxing, adult coloring books sport higher quality paper, more intricate designs, and a wider selection of themes.

I snapped the accompanying photo of a magazine section in my local supermarket, showing the extent that adult coloring books are encroaching on valuable rack space.

Are people regressing to childhood activities in an attempt to escape work and/or responsibility? Will executive sandboxes be making a comeback soon? Or are people finding it difficult to find an adult hobby? Is it an example of the “cocoon” lifestyle where we avoid interacting with other people? Or can people not find more productive ways to use their time?

No, these aren’t the reasons why so many people are taking to coloring within the lines of sketches, designs and geometric shapes.

Although adult coloring books are mostly marketed to harried adults looking to relieve stress, they are also claimed to expel negative thoughts, help you achieve mindfulness, distract you from the daily pressures of life, release your creativity and allow you to experience relief by altering your meditative state. There are even reports of lowering blood pressure and reducing heart rates.

There is some disagreement over the therapeutic benefit of coloring books, and they are not a replacement for art therapy, meditation, yoga or prayer; but the books have been known to help switch off your brain and elicit a relaxation mindset. So this does make them stress relievers.

Focusing on anything, whether it’s a coloring book or not, does consume less energy, and giving the brain’s amygdala a rest has to be a good thing. It’s definitely more difficult to worry or obsess over problems and still color mandala patterns at the same time. And engaging in a childish pastime made accessible and acceptable to adults should be a welcome diversion for many hard-working executives.

But isn’t it a waste of time?

Not really. It has already been proven that working in chunks of time, such as 90 minutes, separated by relaxing breaks – or at least a change of pace – aids personal productivity. Perhaps coffee breaks should be replaced by coloring breaks. Or it might at least be a good transitioning activity as you transfer your mind and body from work to home.

Coffee breaks are usually not free of interruptions. In fact the amygdala part of our brain is constantly on the lookout for interruptions. Interruptions involve multitasking, which in turn causes stress and consumes more energy. Focusing, on the other hand, consumes less energy and puts the amygdala in an idle mode.

I have actually never heard of “color breaks.” But literature on the topic of coloring books includes a mention of their use by students in classrooms. They can more effectively concentrate on the lecture while coloring. But isn’t that multitasking? Not really, since the coloring becomes a habitual, mindless activity that allows greater focus than if the student were fidgeting and unable to stay still.

This makes even more sense to me when I realize that the inability to focus is often a symptom of anxiety and stress. And I must apologize to my lady friend who insists on knitting when we are visiting with other people. She is actually increasing her focus on the conversations.

I still resent the time it takes to color; and I prefer physical exercise as a way to focus while enhancing cognitive health. But certain neurologists and neuropsychologists have convinced me of its therapeutic properties, and I plan to look into it further. In fact I wonder if the colors used would have an impact – as they do in office design. For instance, as I mentioned in my eBook on the impact of the environment on personal productivity (published by Bookboon.com), blue and green have been found to be the most effective in stimulating personal productivity, and green has also been associated with calm and well-being.

Health is even more important than time since without it, time is stripped of much, if not all, of its effectiveness. And there is little doubt of the negative impact of excessive stress on our health and well-being. Today there is no shortage of negative stressors – from workload, deadlines and difficult people – to constant interruptions from calls, email and text messages.

Few people will disagree that the digital age of speed can be physically, mentally and emotionally draining. Merging high-tech with high touch provides a way of unwinding and recharging so you can replenish depleted energy.

Coloring can be viewed as self-care, and a way of maintaining balance in an otherwise go-go-go environment. You have no doubt heard the expression, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Well, perhaps adding some bright colors to the situation might prevent that from happening.

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Time management training: communicating your worldview.

“Worldview” is a term that Seth Godin uses in his book, “All marketers tell stories,” to refer to a consumer’s rules, values, beliefs and biases. Something is true in the mind of an individual because the person believes it’s true.

That is the basis of a placebo. It works because you really believe it will work. It could also be the reason why some people insist on buying expensive notebooks instead of Dollar Store scratch pads. Or insist on using an electronic device for everything possible – even though it might be easier and more effective in some cases to simply write things down.

That’s why you can’t please everyone. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to change a person’s worldview. The truth can’t do it. Facts can’t do it. They will simply rationalize anything that doesn’t appear to support their worldview.

If you are attempting to help someone get organized or manage their time or buy a car or whatever, you may stand a better chance of succeeding by approaching it on an emotional level rather than a logical one. How many people actually use logic, facts and common sense when purchasing a car?

Seth Godin, a successful author, blogger and marketer, suggests you can influence a person by telling a story – one that fits their worldview. Dr. Joe Dispenza, author and neuroscientist, in his book, “You are the placebo,” explains how emotions can act as a catalyst that enhances the process of healing through believing.

I attribute my success as a novice time management speaker and trainer some 40 years ago to telling stories, laced with self-deprecating humor, about how my disorganization hindered my career, caused friction in my marriage, and eventually sent me to the hospital with bleeding ulcers. Most people could relate to some of my experiences. It fit their worldview. It communicated at an emotional level.

But not everyone. You have to accept the fact that people all have their own worldviews. I made it a point in all my training programs to admit that my suggestions may not work for them. They did work for me. But the only time management system that will work for them is a system that they develop themselves or adapt to their own needs.

Don’t be discouraged if your ideas are rejected or even ridiculed. It is only necessary that what you say or recommend does not conflict with your own worldview – the truth as you know it.

If you try to please everyone, you will please no one.