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A time to be messy

Many years ago a TV personality from Montréal, Canada, interviewed me during a National Association of Professional Organizers conference in the U.S. It was for a TV special he was doing on messiness. Naturally, considering what I do and what I preach, I explained the various benefits of getting organized and working in a tidy office – emphasizing its impact on efficiency and personal productivity.

It turned out he was a messy himself, and proud of it. I soon discovered that he was a creative genius in his field. He spent an equal amount of time telling me the merits of messiness and how it relaxed him, inspired him, gave him pleasure, and of course creativity.

I gave it my best shot, including the average time wasted searching for things, the interruptions, and the lack of focus and so on – to little avail it seemed at the time. He kept returning to the joy he received from his messy environment.

Probably through frustration, I ended up telling him something to the effect that if he found a messy office was pleasurable, relaxing, and inspired his creativity, then he should keep it that way. But once he had dreamed up a new project and was ready to get down to business, he should move to a second office – one that was organized and more work-friendly. There he could complete the project efficiently, effectively and on time.

It was a tongue in cheek suggestion, and I must admit I was a little embarrassed and resentful at the time that I was unable to present my fellow organizers in a more favourable light.

Fast-forward about 20 years, and I recently read several articles on the merits of a messy desk and its relationship to creativity. One of the articles was titled “It’s okay to have a messy desk,” and subtitled “It’s also fine to have a clean one. There are advantages of both,” written by Diane Peters.

In that particular article, a professional organizer who I know and respect, Claire Kumar, was quoted as saying that it’s necessary to have a lot of stuff around when our job requires it. She called it “process mess.”

Now the lightbulb turned on. Claire had hit the nail on the head – “process mess.” I feel I have an organized office – when I’m not working. But once I start the writing process, which consumes about half my time, I have reference books, notes, photos – you name it – strewn about my desk. I try to keep it all visible, and in different areas of my desk; but if you walked in on me, it would appear as clutter.

My eyes dart from one piece of paper or book to another as I write, make notes, and dictate to my computer in any order. I sometimes start to write a blog article, and it ends up being a book. I just keep writing a series of blog articles on that topic and later piece them together to create the book. At the same time, get my supply of tweets from ideas generated by other people’s books or articles as well as ideas for new seminars to deliver locally. I continually make side notes of ideas that come to me during this “writing” process.

I prefer to call it “organized mess”; but it does stimulate creativity. It’s akin to brainstorming, where one idea generates yet another.

Once I have completed the “creative writing” part of the project, however, my desk is once more neat and tidy, and the “administrative” portion begins. The books I write for Bookboon.com require a bibliography, both a long and short description of the book, a “multiple choice” quiz, formatting according to their specs, and so on.

In the same way, when I self-publish a book, I have to go through the various steps to make it print-ready, including the cover, size, paper stock, layout and so on.

A significant percentage of everyone’s time is administrative, not creative. For some people it may approach 100% administrative, depending on their job. In that case their desk and work area should be organized to facilitate efficiency, not creativity.

If you have a job requiring creativity, you don’t need a separate office – as I once blurted out to the interviewer. You just need an organized one, with a guilt-free allowance for what Claire Kumar refers to as “process mess” as the need arises.

I’ve never yet met anyone who has a job that is 100% creative. If there is such a person, I know where he or she can find an office to replicate. It’s somewhere in Montreal.

I snapped the accompanying photo of my desk just before starting to write a book on stress. I snapped another photo at the end of my writing session, which I will include with next week’s blog article. At that time I will provide more detail on my tidy-neat-tidy writing cycles – and how ideas are frequently generated during the process.

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The importance of punctuality

I read an article recently that claimed that people who are late are more successful, and live longer. Don’t believe it. Chronic lateness is stressful, unacceptable in business, and can be detrimental to your success – and even your job.

Most people don’t want to be late. They don’t do it intentionally. And they are more times than not embarrassed, frustrated and stressed – and probably have their longevity threatened, not lengthened, by chronic lateness. People are late for different reasons, including poor time management skills, disorganization, and even due to health problems such as depression, OCD or mild cognitive impairment. And poor time management, organizing skills, and procrastination and poor self-control – all could be a result of, or exacerbated by, weak executive functioning.

Executive functioning refers to those brain based self-regulating skills that we use every day to get things done. They take about twenty years to fully develop, and if weak, can play havoc with our ability to plan ahead, resist distractions, and arrive at our destination on time. At work it becomes most evident in missed deadlines or arriving late at meetings or forgetting appointments.

Lateness in most cases can be overcome with time management training; but different people require more time and effort in applying the recommendations than others. But even weak executive skills can be strengthened through effort. Strengthening these various brain-based skills is covered in detail in my eBook, Strengthening your brain’s executive skills, published by Bookboon.com. But in general you should get adequate sleep, avoid stress, eat properly, and exercise both your body and your brain. This is essential since your brain, which is only 2% of the body weight, consumes up to 25% of the energy nutrients distributed by the blood.

Most of the reasons for being late have little to do with weak executive skills, and can be remedied by common sense, etiquette and the application of sound time management and organizing principles.

  1. Make up your mind that you will be punctual from now on. In many cases lateness is caused by a lack of commitment to arrive on time. Have the right mindset.
  2. Record commitments in your planner, and also record the time you must leave the house or office in order to arrive on time. Plan to arrive 5 to 10 minutes early.
  3. Always allow more time to travel to the meeting or other commitment than you think it will take. This is the same as scheduling more time for a task than you think it will take. It will allow for interruption by people you meet on the way, traffic congestion, parking, and so on.
  4. To determine the time needed in item 3, visualize the trip in your mind, adding time for each segment, such as taking the elevator, walking to your car, driving to the other office building, finding the right room, and so on. Then add your safety factor.
  5. Don’t be trapped by the one last thing If you’re ready to leave and it’s still early, leave anyway. Utilize the time at the other end rather than trying to finish one more task before you leave.
  6. If you have a morning meeting or other commitment, get everything you will need for the event ready the night before. Always plan ahead.
  7. If you use an iPhone or other electronic device, set the alarm for the time you have to stop what you are doing and leave for your meeting.
  8. If something unplanned and unavoidable happens and you think you might be late, make a quick courtesy call so others won’t waste time waiting for you. When you arrive, apologize briefly but skip the excuses.

Punctuality is not just good etiquette, it’s essential. In business, it shows you are professional, respect other people’s time, manage your time well, and are on top of your job. It also lowers your stress level and provides a feeling of being in control. On the other hand, chronically late people are usually not high on the list for promotion.

In your personal life, it shows respect for your friends and acquaintances, an eagerness to participate, and a reputation for being dependable and trustworthy.

Arriving on time has its rewards.

 

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Develop a positive attitude

We can grow old physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually or we can simply continue to mature in all of these areas until the day we die. Yes, sorry about that – we will all die someday regardless. But don’t make this your goal. Don’t make death your destination. Instead, make growing older a journey, and make that journey as enjoyable and meaningful as possible. You can do this regardless of any handicaps or hang-ups you may have picked up along the way.

We could start by reminding ourselves of all the blessings – the good things that have happened to us in the past. As author J. Ellsworth Kales remarked, “One of the gifts of getting older is that we get to keep all the ages we’ve been.”

Never regret growing older. As musician Tom Petty once said, “If you’re not getting older, you’re dead.” (Of course if you were a Jellyfish, you would live forever if it weren’t for disease or predators. But who wants to be a Jellyfish?)

Neurologists tell us that we tend to remember the negative things that happen to us better than the positive things – except when it involves emotional events that really make an impression, such as your wedding day.

June J Pilcher, a psychologist at Clemson University, says the human brain is more attentive to negative events – probably because of a survival mechanism keeping us alert for life-threatening situations. According to the March/April, 2016 issue of Scientific American Mind, this was demonstrated in two studies published in 2015 in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research.

That seems to have held true for me. I vividly remember the day the doctor told me I had cancer. I can easily recall the surgeries throughout my life – gall bladder, appendix, and prostate – even tonsils as a youngster. (Isn’t it amazing what we can live without?) I can recall stepping on a nail as a kid, having stories rejected by magazines, and sitting on the bench most of the time as a high school basketball player, and even those really bad toothaches as a toddler.

When the brain experiences an emotional event, the amygdala releases dopamine, which helps memory and information processing. That’s the principle we use when teaching memory training and overcoming absentmindedness. For more details on specific memory training techniques, see my book, Boost your memory and sharpen your mind, published by Bookboon.com.

We should remind ourselves of those things we take for granted, such as never having to go hungry or having loving parents or healthy children or great friends and so on. This will put us in a more positive frame of mind. As we will see later, a positive attitude helps to promote health, happiness and longevity. So put a positive spin on life. It’s the healthy thing to do.

Dr. Edward Creagan in his book How not to be my patient refers to research indicating that pessimists have a 19 percent shorter lifespan than optimists. Bernie Siegel in his book Love, Medicine and Miracles mentions research that reported a ten-year survival rate of 75 percent among cancer patients who reacted to the diagnosis with a fighting spirit, compared with a 22 percent survival rate among those who saw their situation as hopeless.

A negative attitude can cause stress and lower the body’s immune system. One Harvard study showed that those with the most negative attitudes at 25 suffered the most illnesses in their forties, fifties and sixties. Another study involved 69 women with breast cancer who were asked three months after their surgery how they viewed their disease and how it affected their lives. 5 years later, 75% of those who had responded positively and with a fighting spirit were still alive compared with less than half the other patients. There is little doubt that attitude can have either a negative or positive impact on your health, productivity and well-being.

An agreeable personality may enhance your brain’s built-in pain-killing powers, according to an item in the March April 2013 issue of Scientific American Mind. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that the brains of volunteers with more agreeable personalities released more natural painkillers, thus enhancing the placebo effect.

Exposure to non-stop negativity can disrupt learning, memory, attention and judgment according to Robert Sapolsky, professor of neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University. Researchers have linked negative emotions to increased risk for illness, and positive emotions to health and longevity.

A happier, healthier lifestyle is more important than ever, and along with it, an attitude that tends to stress-proof your life. It’s important to get sufficient sleep, daily exercise and social support. But it’s equally important to be aware of the good things that happen to you – those positives amid negative events.

When things look bleak, humour helps. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Laugher reduces stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, aids immunity, changes mood for the better, helps you think – and improves memory.

Sandra Kornblatt, in her book, A better brain at any age, also gave an account of how humour during instruction led to increased test scores.

For sure humour is an enthusiasm builder, and some health care professionals refer to it as “internal jogging.” Since it’s contagious, it’s also good for the people who are with you. Watch comedies, read jokes and recall humorous things that have happened to you in the past.

A sense of humour may actually increase longevity. There are reasons to think so. I checked the dates of comedians – or at least those I have quoted several time in the past when I needed to add a little humour to a book or article. Over half the people I checked lived into their nineties. Two of them reached 100.

So when it comes to developing a positive attitude, having a sense of humour is no joke.

Note: The above article was excerpted from the book, How to grow older without growing old – available at our website, www.taylorintime.com.

 

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Ways to conserve your personal energy

In previous blog articles I discussed energy sources and activities that deplete your personal energy. In this article I suggest how you might conserve your energy. Much of the information is summarized from my eBook, Manage your personal energy, published by Bookboon.com.

The more you use your brain the more energy you consume. The brain draws fuel, oxygen and glucose, from blood delivered via 400 miles of blood vessels. When certain brain areas work hard at something, more blood flows to those regions to help them refuel. They do this by dilating near spots that need a supply boost. This widening causes blood to reroute. The more active your brain, the more energy is consumed. If more blood is not delivered when neurons needed, those cells might starve and cognition could suffer.

Managing your energy is like increasing gas mileage in your car. If you run the air conditioner with your windows open, exceed the recommended speed limit, drive all night, and periodically drive with your emergency brake engaged, you are going to consume a lot more gas. Similarly, you will burn more energy if you push yourself when you are tired.

You must pace yourself when you work. European experiments have shown that short, three-minute breaks every hour helps rejuvenate people more than two fifteen-minute breaks.

Whenever you use your head, you use energy; but you certainly don’t want to stop thinking. So it’s important to tap into those energy sources mentioned a few blogs ago, and prevent those energy drains referred to in last week’s blog. And if you can conserve energy as you go along, so much the better. Here are a few more tips.

Maintain an active lifestyle.

Tom Rath, in his book Eat Move Sleep, (Missionday, 2013) called sitting “the most underrated health threat of modern times.” He claims that sitting more than six hours a day greatly increases your risk of an early death.

Get up and move around, as we were created to do, rather than lead a sedentary life. Walk around while you talk on the phone, work at a stand-up desk, have stand-up meetings, take the stairs instead of the elevator and walk to the local mall instead of taking the car.

Tom Rath claims that as soon as you sit down, electrical activity in your leg muscles shuts off, the number of calories you burn drops to one per minute, and enzyme production, which helps to break down fat, drops by 90%. And after sitting for two hours your good cholesterol drops by 20%.

Staying physically active, socially connected and mentally stimulated has been shown in studies to help keep brains sharp.

Don’t rush needlessly.

Speed is the enemy of both time and energy management, Life is meant to be savored, not dispensed with as quickly as possible. Slowing down will result in fewer errors, fewer accidents, a healthier lifestyle, improved relationships, and more energy for an enjoyable and memorable life.

According to Matthew Edlund in his book The Body Clock Advantage, those who don’t rush through the day in a panic, but pace themselves & work efficiently, actually survive longer. That’s a greater time management strategy than working more efficiently.

Speed consumes energy. A frantic level of activity can generate busyness without the concomitant results. And there is a difference between working fast because you want to and working fast because you have to. If you want to, it’s more relaxing and consumes less energy. So it is important to have a job that you enjoy.

Don’t skip breakfast.

Sure that cup of coffee will give you a short energy boost; but for sustained energy throughout the day, you can’t beat a good breakfast. Several studies have shown that people who eat breakfast have more energy throughout the day. You can get by just fine on a helping of low-fat yogurt, a slice of whole-grain toast and a banana or handful of nuts. But any energy gained by a coffee or doughnut will quickly dissipate.

Keep on top of your workload.

The more things in your life that you think should be done but that you leave undone, the more anxiety and stress you experience. And stress depletes your energy. Being in control of your work does the opposite. Seldom would a person think of a project they had completed or a meeting they had attended or a phone call they had made and feel stressed as a result. The opposite is true. They would feel good about themselves for having completed those things. Unfortunately that feeling doesn’t last if they think of the dozens or hundreds of things that they have yet to do.

If some things don’t get done, rest assured it’s not your fault. Your job is to do what’s possible, not what’s impossible. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Worry or anxiety weakens your immune system as well as your executive skills, and leaves you open to energy loss.

Develop routines.

Few people balk at the morning routine of taking a shower, getting dressed, brushing their teeth and so on before starting their day. It’s necessary groundwork upon which to launch their significant activities. Neither should they question the validity of developing routines for planning their day, dispensing with email, making calls, and working on their significant projects in chunks of time throughout the day.

Develop the habit of scheduling time for the priorities in advance of the day. Relegate the less important tasks to your To Do list, preferably on the same week-at-a glance planner page.

You must manage your energy in order to gain control of your time. Routines require less energy, leaving plenty for creativity, decision-making, and the mental demands of your significant projects and tasks. And the tendency to procrastinate is reduced to a minimum.

Maintain a healthy attitude.

A happier, healthier lifestyle is more important than ever, and along with it, an attitude that tends to stress-proof your life. It’s important to get sufficient sleep, daily exercise and social support. But it’s equally important to be aware of the good things that happen to you – those positives amid negative events.

Be more conscious of the things that go right in your life, and remember that when things look bleak, humour helps. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Laugher reduces stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, aids immunity, changes mood for the better, helps you think – and improves memory. Exposure to non-stop negativity can disrupt learning, memory, attention and judgment according to Robert Sapolski, professor of neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University. Researchers have linked negative emotions to increased risk for illness, and positive emotions to health and longevity.

It takes less energy to be happy and well than sad and dejected. So if you’re down in the dumps, climb out as quickly as possible and put a smile back on your face.

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Activities that drain your energy

In the last blog article I discussed energy sources, and this article, drawing on information from my eBook, Manage your personal energy, published by Bookboon.com, indicates how our energy is quickly depleted.

Excessive use of technology.

We seem to be obsessed with the need to stay connected, check email every few minutes, respond immediately to every email and text message we receive, interrupt ourselves from important tasks to answer our smartphones, and continually disrupt family plans and scheduled events.

Getting more things done faster is no longer limited by technology, but by our brain. Our brain has a limited capacity for processing information, and this limit is being approached and frequently passed by the ever-increasing rate at which it is being assaulted by new information.

Absorbing new information burns energy. And it takes more energy to multitask, make decisions and work on demanding tasks. To maximize brain efficiency, we must protect our brain from energy- draining activities encouraged, if not caused, by technology.

Technology was meant to speed up the completion of tasks, not the behavior of people. We must continue to use technology and all that it has to offer in order to improve both our performance and lifestyle. But we must do so in a manner that protects our health – including the health of our brain. This involves judicious use of the Internet, control of technology, and the practice of moderation as opposed to excess.

Multitasking.

In studying how the brain uses energy, scientists have learned that it’s virtually impossible to do two things at once with equal amounts of attention. And attempting to do so consumes energy.

Dr. Amir Allen Towfigh, a neurologist with Weill Cornell Medical Center claims that multitasking can jam up your brain processing. He says our frontal lobes are the main engines directing our attention, and they Whether hiring new employees or deciding to go with a new product, executives sometimes go with their gut feeling rather than plow through all the accumulated information and comparing the pros and cons In business there seems to be a preference for the quick over the right; because there are so many decisions to be made.

Daniel J Levinson, in his book The organized mind, claims that multitasking also disrupts the kind of sustained thought usually required for problem solving and creativity. He also indicated the impact of interruptions when he said the awareness of an email waiting to be answered can reduce our IQ by 10 points.

Interruptions.

Interruptions, which are a form of multitasking, also help to use up your daily supply of energy. The average smartphone user checks his or her device about 150 times a day according to the 2014 book, Thrive, by Arianne at Huffington. And according to a study conducted in 2005, it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to a task once interrupted, and people spend only 11 minutes on a project before being pulled away. In addition to self-interruptions are the hundreds of daily distractions resulting from your working environment, including décor, clutter, and other people.

Distractions waste our energy; concentration focuses it. If we have reduced external distractions to a bare minimum by turning off smart phones, engaging voicemail, and working alone in the home office devoid of other people, the bulk of the distractions will still remain. The tendency of our minds to wander or daydream is a function of our reactive brain, which is always on the alert for unusual or sudden motion, sound or sightings.

Disorganization.

One U.S study mentioned in an article by Leah Etchler in The Globe & Mail (April 6, 2013) found that employees lose 76 hours per year as a result of disorganization so you have more than just energy drain to be concerned about if you are disorganized.

Disorganization definitely consumes energy, whether by searching for misplaced materials in your office or scanning dozens of folders left unfiled on your computer desktop. Mehmet Oz and Mike Roizen, authors of YOU: On a Diet, claim that visual clutter slows down the brain. They say that’s why clusters of road signs double the chances of missing the one you’re looking for. It also explains why website designers aim for simplicity. So clearing clutter from your desk, office and home and leaving more wide open spaces also helps to clear your mind so it will be more productive and consume less energy.

Organizing your office and home not only helps you to find things, it helps you to find purpose in life as well. According to recent research reported in the July/August, 2015 issue of Scientific American Mind, an ordered life lays the groundwork for the pursuit of larger goals, purpose, and significance.

Stress.

Fatigue and information overload tend to weaken executive skills, lower your energy level and make you more susceptible to distractions.

Excess cortisol impairs function in the prefrontal cortex – an emotional learning center that helps regulate the “executive skills,” including working memory. The overproduction of cortisol was found in seniors who were experiencing memory loss. And it is believed by many neurologists that memory loss experienced by seniors is largely a factor of stress, not age. Prolonged exposure to cortisol has been shown to shrink the hippocampus by up to 14%.

In stressful situations, your weakest executive skills fail first and become more pronounced. Fatigue and information overload tend to weaken them further. Avoiding, releasing or being able to manage stress is important.

Avoiding, releasing or being able to manage stress is important. You should re-examine your workload. Simplify if possible. Delegate and outsource. Pace yourself.

Decision-making, problem solving & willpower.

They all consume energy. As far as your brain is concerned, less information frequently results in better decisions. Too many choices and too much information taxes the brain and depletes your mental energy. Researchers have found that coming to a decision often involves listening to two parts of the brain – one that relies on taking advice and the other on experience. The brain considers both views, sometimes conflicting, and makes a decision.

Experiments show that there is a finite amount of mental energy available for exerting self-control, willpower, problem solving and decision-making. Making decision after decision eventually leads to poor decisions. Similarly it has been shown that exerting willpower reduces your energy.

Too much mental exertion without breaks taxes the executive skills. 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 eat chocolate or whatever, gave up on problems sooner when presented with them immediately afterwards.

In the next blog article I will suggest some ways to conserve your energy.