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A little empathy can go a long way.

Feeling empathy for another person is being able to know what the other person is feeling or going through even though you are not sharing the source of those feelings or emotions at that time. For example, when someone suffers a loss or injures their hand, you can understand their feelings and even feel their pain without actually suffering that loss or being injured. You empathize with them.This is possible because of mirror neurons, cells scattered across our brain whose activity reflect their surroundings – including the actions and feelings of others.

Our mirror neurons fire regardless of whether we or someone else is performing a specific action. That enables us to relate to the person to the degree that we even have a fair idea of why they are performing that action. For example, when you are grabbing a cup of coffee, a specific mirror neuron fires to tell your hand to reach out and grip the handle of the cup. And when you watch a friend pick up her own cup of coffee, the same neuron also fires as if you were also picking up her cup of coffee, even if your hand is not moving at all.

This empathy with others includes emotions. So if you cringe at the sight of someone else getting hurt, empathize with your friend who is grieving, and feel uncomfortable when a co-worker is upset and anxious, blame it on these specialized brain cells.

When mother said, “This hurts me as much as it hurts you,” she wasn’t fibbing. Studies show that the pain we feel when others get hurt activates the same regions of the brain that are activated when we actually get hurt ourselves.

And there is a thin line between being physically hurt and emotionally hurt. In her book, How the body knows its mind, Sian Beilock reports that a daily dose of Tylenol diminishes the hurt feelings that often accompany being socially teased, spurned or rejected – just as it would if the pain were physical.

Never underestimate the importance of empathy. According to an article in the November/December, 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind, research has shown that patients whose doctors pay attention to their feelings and concerns heal faster. Researchers also found that the patients’ immune systems were boosted as well. The article reported on a study by the University of Wisconsin, School of Medicine on the impact of doctors showing sincere concern for their patients.

Patients of doctors who expressed concern had a cold disappear sooner than those whose doctors focused on just the facts. Randomized trials showed that colds lasted an average of just six days for patients with empathetic doctors vs. seven days for patients whose doctors had little empathy. It was shown that the empathy also boosted the patient’s immune system.

But can doctors or any of us actually show empathy on demand? Do we have control over whether we have empathy or not? Well we can certainly give our mirror neurons a fighting chance to do their thing. Just because we are in a rush, for example, doesn’t mean we have to act as if we’re in a rush. University of Kansas researchers studied the effect of doctors standing vs. sitting when visiting their hospital patients. When questioned afterwards, the patients whose doctors sat with them perceived the visit to be a lot longer than those patients whose doctors stood by their bedside.

Whether you are a doctor, a caregiver, a manager or a parent or whoever, even if you have only 10 minutes to talk to a person, you can still sit down—which makes you much more connected to the person than if you’re standing up—and make good eye contact, nod your head, lean in – all the actions that convey that you are present mentally and emotionally as well as physically.

The worst thing you can do is remain standing, walk to the door, put your hand on the door handle, and keep talking, because then the person does know that your mind as well as your body is already on the way out. Instead, you could stay seated and say, “If you have another question, I can answer it now, and if you’d like more time to go over things, we can schedule another visit.” That way, you’re completely with the individual, and not sending the message that you can’t wait to get out of there.

Although environmental factors such as surroundings can have a calming effect on people, they aren’t as important as the human element.

A bad mood is also contagious, according to Gary Lewandowski, Jr., associate professor of psychology at Monmouth University. You unknowingly pick up other people’s nonverbal behaviors and tend to mimic them – similar to yawning. (It is more common when the person yawning is someone close to you.)

Similarly you can pick up their high energy or low energy, positivity or negativity, enthusiasm or lethargy.

And as if having to cope with the hazards of second-hand smoke isn’t bad enough, it’s now found that second-hand stress can be hazardous to our productivity and health as well. The suggestion that stress can be contagious, and that we are influenced by the actions and emotions of others can be accounted for by the research that suggests this class of brain cells called mirror neurons appear to reflect the actions & feelings of others.

Not only does this make sense of the fact that we sometimes get “bad vibes” from people we meet, it also proves that we can have a positive influence on others – whether family, friends or business associates – by being kind, caring, compassionate and cheerful.

And by encouraging those mirror neurons to do their thing.

 

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How do you get started in the mornings?

Do you dive into the day like some people dive into a swimming pool without even testing the water temperature? Or do you start by dipping a toe into the shallow end and inching your way gradually into deeper water where you can start your serious swimming?

Different strokes for different folks. There’s no right or wrong way. The important thing is what happens once you’re in the pool. If you simply stand in the water, caressing the surface of the water with your hands, it is not very productive in terms of physical fitness.

Similarly with work, some people prefer to follow most time management experts’ advice to start with priorities – ignoring email, inbox, voicemail and “To do” notes from the evening before – until you get your most important tasks completed.

Others like to warm up first by organizing their desk, getting rid of those pesky emails that came during the night, and making quick replies to text messages and voicemail requests. They then feel energized and ready to tackle the team’s priorities.

Which approach is best?

Well until about a year ago, I would’ve told you the first scenario – starting with the priorities and ignoring email and other time gobblers until later in the morning. In fact, I have written articles in the past advocating this approach. After all, it makes good sense. Checking email could sidetrack us from our plans for the day. And spending time on the trivial tasks keeps us from productive work, saps are energy, and doesn’t fully utilize our prime time – that early part of the day when most people are more mentally alert and at their peak energy level.

I have discovered, however, that we are unable to work at peak performance as long as we are constantly wondering what awaits us in our inbox or what calls we missed on our iPhone or the reason for that flashing red light on our landline telephone.

But if we were to spend the first half hour of our work day satisfying are concern that something urgent is awaiting us – and dashing off the odd email and making it a quick note or two of things that need tending to later, our minds would be free to focus on the priorities of the day. Mental distractions can frequently be more disruptive than physical distractions.

I still insist on getting up early and using my prime time; but the first, slightly hazy, half hour or so is used to dispense with any distracting thoughts and fears of missing something critical.

That’s why the first 90-minute block of time to work on a goal-related activity is not scheduled in my planner until 9 AM or so. Prior to that I am simply getting my feet wet, warming up to the day and building up a head of steam.

After all, each workday is more a marathon than a quick sprint. And productivity in the office is not as often caused by a slow start as it is by a slow, haltering pace throughout the day.

Planning each day – even to the extent of blocking off specific times to work on specific projects and tasks – will more than make up for any slow start.

And you may find, like I have, that it’s actually slower to start working on priorities while your mind is dwelling on the unknown.

 

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Knowledge without application is like a book never read.

If you multiplied the number of books that I have purchased in the past six months (both electronic and printed) by the number of hours that it would take to read them, it would probably amount to over 400 hours.  How could anyone free up 400 hours or more from a busy schedule to do the necessary reading? It would take more than a year. And by then I would have already purchased twice as many more books than I had just read.

It would be an impossible task.

In the past 5 years, I have probably read less than five or six non-fiction books from cover to cover. These are the books that I have not only read and highlighted, but also have made notes in the margins. These books would be what I would suggest are classics in the field of time management, such as “Do it tomorrow” by Mark Forster, “The art of time” by Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber or “How to get control of your time and your life” by Alan Lakein.

Probably 5% of the books in my current library have yet to be opened. (I say “current” since my library changes over the years as newer topics start to influence my approach to time management or peak my interest. And I tend to get rid of the ones of limited value to avoid being overwhelmed.) About 20% of my books have been skimmed only, with fewer highlights in most of the chapters and fewer marginal notes. About 30% have had less than half the chapters skimmed and highlighted, and the balance only a chapter or two visited – those that seemed of interest when I first viewed the book.

In all of my books, with only a few exceptions, you can find highlighted portions and notes of my own – cryptic comments, question marks, and ideas that grabbed me as I read.

I have always considered it profitable if I could get an average of one new idea from every book I purchased. Ideas are invaluable. And this doesn’t take into consideration the spin-off value of those ideas. An idea, phrase or even a single word from a book could jump-start a completely different idea – that in turn could end up being the title of a book or the topic of a new article or a tweet.

The age of the book doesn’t matter. Some of my best ideas were generated by books from the 1980s, 1950s and even earlier. Books do not have “best before” dates.

The key, in my opinion at least, is to get the idea out of the book and onto a “launching pad” of some sort – a Journal, To Do list, Priority Pad or whatever. Never leave an idea or your written notation buried in the pages of a book. If you do, most it will be lost forever – negating any value you received by buying and skimming or reading the book in the first place.

And knowledge without application is like a book that was never read.

Books are expensive. But you have to read a lot if you want to write a lot. And there are ways you can reduce costs. eBooks are less expensive to start with and you can cut costs further by signing up with Bookbub.com. They send daily emails listing two or three books that are on special at Amazon.com – complete with links so you can check them out. You can also indicate your area(s) on interest. The specials are usually 99 cents or $1.99, and others either free or $2.99. They are for the most part, not inferior books, with many best-sellers that have had their day on the bookshelves.

Hardcopy print books are expensive; but sometimes the paperback version is printed and available at the same time. Or you can wait. Bookstores frequently have new releases with a “25% OFF” sticker. I’m fortunate because my sons usually give me Amazon gift cards for Christmas and birthdays as well.

And don’t forget that non-fiction books bought for business purposes are tax deductible. I charge them to “Research.” And even at full price, I can say that books are an essential expense, on a par with educational courses, seminars and conferences.

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What’s in your life’s suitcase?

You have probably heard or read the admonition by Benjamin Franklin, “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time for that is the stuff that life is made of.” Time may not actually make up life as we experience it, but certainly it is the stuff that we trade for the activities that do make up our lives.

I visualize life as a suitcase initially filled with time – a commodity that we trade for the things that we need or desire (mostly in the form of activities) during our life’s journey. Although we may have no control over the amount of time we originally have in our suitcase, the same amount of time is released for our use each day until it has been exhausted.

And use it we must. If we fail to use the full 24 hours allocated each day, it disappears regardless.

24 hours a day is more than enough for a successful journey. But we must use it wisely. Trading most of it for activities and stuff related to work, for instance, could cause our suitcase to bulge at the seams and cost us dearly. Not in terms of dollars, as it might when travelling with a real suitcase; but in terms of our health and well-being.

Our journey through life could also be cut short by the unwise use of time. Inadequate amounts of time traded for such things as sleep, exercise, renewal and relationships could actually shorten our lifespans.

The key to a long, successful and happy life is in how you use the time given to you. As you approach your destination, you don’t want to wish you had chosen differently when preparing for the journey. Some people may regret the lack of time devoted to planning for their senior years – or even their choice of travelling companions. In their haste to get on with life, they may not have used adequate time to prepare.

You wouldn’t attempt to fly any great distance without first obtaining your pilot’s license or taking extensive courses and learning the ins and outs of flying. Nor should you fly solo through life without first getting sufficient grounding in the basics of living a purposeful, fulfilling life.

Even a meaningful trip to a foreign country requires some knowledge of the people, the terrain, and the best places to visit. Most people realize that to pack for a long journey requires at least a basic knowledge of packing so that you can easily fit into your suitcase everything you acquire enroute. Therefore a knowledge of organizing is important, as is time management, since you want to trade your time for the right activities and be able to fit those things into your suitcase of life without causing stress and hardship.

Although you can’t get more time, you can get more out of the time you have by investing it in time-saving activities such as training, delegation and planning, and in time-lengthening activities such as healthy living.

If you manage your time well, you will soon have a suitcase filled with meaningful and life-enhancing activities, which eventually will be transformed into the memories of a life well-lived, and a legacy of examples that can help your offspring and others you have mentored prepare for their journey through life.