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How to overcome writer’s block

What about writer’s block that you hear so much about?  Well if you know what you have to say, you won’t have writer’s block.  Some writers spend more time staring at a blank computer screen than they spend writing.  Others may freeze after a paragraph or two.  What some people call writer’s block is usually a lack of planning.

Studies show that professional writers spend 40% of their time planning, 25% writing, and 35% editing. If you plan – if you know what you want to say before you start – there is less chance that you will have writer’s block.  Start the article in your mind as you go for your morning walk, take a shower or travel to work.  It’s a similar process to rehearsing a speech or a presentation. That’s the advantage of my daily walk to the coffee shop. The article is almost written in my mind by the time I get there.

If you are still afraid of getting writer’s block, there is another technique that you could try. Before you start writing, have an outline of the article in front of you along with the materials you have accumulated for that article. That’s a common procedure for writing a book, so you could just do it on a smaller scale.

Minimize the opportunity for interruptions.  Have all your working tools in place before you start.  Pick a quiet place to work if possible.  Engage the voice mail.  Close the door if you have one.  Turn of your smartphone or put it on airplane mode.  Ignore e-mail.  Tell yourself it’s only for an hour or two.  Then stick to the task at hand.

Don’t stop to proofread or edit until you have finished the article.  Stopping to edit after every sentence or two is a form of procrastination.  Maintain the momentum once you start.  Scheduling shorter sessions of one or two hours usually result in fewer delays.  Few people can retain a high level of concentration without a break for more than an hour or two.  This could change once you are engrossed in your work but most of us have jobs besides writing and cannot afford marathon sessions anyway.

If you come to a standstill, switch to another writing project for ten minutes or so. Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov said he always had a number of projects going at one time. When he could no longer stand what he was doing, he simply switched to something else. He never stopped. In fact he wrote 460 books.

You might take a brief walk around your desk or table to do a few stretches.  If you just can’t get started again, write anything to start the flow as I described earlier.  Once you start writing, the creative juices will flow and you can edit out any superfluous material later.  Don’t wait for creativity to reveal itself.  If you stare at the computer screen, it will simply stare back at you.

When your time is up and you must stop, write one more sentence but don’t finish it, except in your head.  Reading that partial sentence and finishing it at the next session will help pick up your train of thought and build momentum faster than starting from scratch.  The best way to avoid writer’s block is to keep writing.

Note: The above article was excerpted from my eBook, How to write articles for self-promotion, published by Bookboon.com.

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Creativity and organization are not incompatible.

In case you haven’t read my last couple of blog posts, I have been discussing how some books, articles and other literature have been claiming that messiness aids creativity, while others claim the opposite.

Mehmet Oz and Mike Roizen, authors of YOU: On a Diet, claim that visual clutter slows down the brain. 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.

As we read more about the workings of our brain, we also learn even 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. And mental clutter is a suspect in the cause of age-related memory losses. 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.

There is a seemingly opposing view that mess is great for generating ideas, and many people (including a successful TV personality and producer) feel they are successful because of their messy environment.

I take the middle ground, and mentioned in my previous articles how professional organizer Clare Kumar had referred to “process mess,” an acceptable temporary mess, generated by the nature of the work itself. The accompanying photo shows a view of my office before I started work in the morning. (The photo last week showed it during the writing process.) I admitted that I do get ideas during the messier writing process; but when it comes to the large part of my time involving administrative work, an organized environment wins hands down.

I am a confirmed neatnik. (I have an almost irresistible urge to straighten pictures on the walls of someone else’s home when I am an invited guest.) Before I start writing, my materials are organized on and around my desk. Articles on the topic previously ripped from magazines, notes I have written to myself on the topic in the past, seminar notes on the topic, etc. are stored vertically in manila folders to my left. Books on the topic are within reach in an accordion bookcase on to the back of my desk (having been removed from my library of books in advance.) Electronic Kindle books on the topic are readily accessible on both my laptop and iPad, and articles, tweets and other items that I have written in the past are filed in electronic folders on my desktop. Everything is neat and tidy and ready to go – as depicted in both this week’s photo and the one posted two weeks ago.

But once the writing process is underway, the neatness transforms into “organized mess” or “process mess,” which sometimes may slip into the “disorganized mess” category; but not often, since I usually write for only 90 minutes at a time. I described this stage of my writing process last week.

If you want to have a working environment that is always supportive of creativity, try merging it more with nature. Richard Louv, in his book, The nature principle, claims that reconnecting to nature opens new doors to creativity, and that “creative people are often aware of being drawn to the outdoors for refreshment and ideas.” He mentioned that creative people like Albert Einstein and philosopher Kurt Godel used to take walks in the woods every single day at Princeton campus.

Louv also quotes Hilary Mantel, 2009 winner of the Booker Prize, as saying “I always work outside, if I can. It’s important to grab the instant thought.”

Florence Williams, in her 2017 book, The nature fix, adds more examples of creative people who believed in walking outdoors while thinking, such as Aristotle, Darwin, Tesla, Teddy Roosevelt and Beethoven. Williams laments that we’re losing our connection to nature

In choosing your office and decor, you should not overlook indoor plants and greenery, window views of nature, and even paintings of flowers and landscapes. 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 not only creativity, but productivity, performance and learning ability as well. In the case of schools, the presence of plants improved scores in mathematics spelling and science between 10% and 14%.

So it would appear that walking, thinking and working outdoors would be the first choice for generating ideas, and if you can’t do your creating outdoors, bring as much as possible of nature into your work area – even if it is just painting the walls green, the color most associated with creativity.

In my eBook, How work environment impacts productivity, published by Bookboon.com, I relate some personal experiences with working environments. One of my most productive routines is to take a 15 or 20 minute nature walk, ending up at a coffee shop where I write the article dreamed up along the way.

 

 

 

 

 

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Creativity is all in your mind

Most of the articles associating a messy environment with creativity (mentioned in my last blog article) referred to the ping-pong study where participants were asked to write down as many uses as possible for ping-pong balls in a given time frame. Those participants in a messy room came up with the same number of ideas as those in a tidy room; but the ideas were more creative.

I assume this works because in a cluttered environment there are more things to associate with the ping-pong balls. This was mentioned in my e-book, Creativity in action, published by Bookboon.com. In creativity seminars, I have frequently used the old “How many uses can you think of for a toothpick?” exercise. If this question had been asked when I was in my “process mess” mode (see photo), I would probably have come up with uses such as:

  • To use as a spike on which to skewer reminder notes, etc.
  • To use as a writing instrument by splitting the end and dipping it in ink.
  • To use as a shim to sturdy a wobbly printer or desk leg.
  • To chew on – or to break into tiny pieces – when you feel stressed.
  • To separate stacks of papers.
  • To use as bookmarks to allow quick access to pages you want to refer to later.
  • To clean between the keys of your laptop.
  • To stir your coffee.
  • To scratch an itch, and so on.

You can see that the above list of ideas were generated, either consciously or unconsciously, by associating the toothpick with items on my desk or activities I was working on at the time. But if you have a vivid imagination, you could possibly come up with just as many or even more creative ideas while working in an organized environment.

In your mind you can be as messy as you like for as long as you like, and I frequently have brainstorming sessions with myself when my supply of new tweets, time tips, articles etc. start getting low. I don’t want to be writing in a panic at the last minute -although this happens occasionally when life has other plans.

What ideas did I actually get during my first few writing sessions while working on my stress book? Well, for one thing, while looking through the book Performing under pressure, I had the idea for another book on “staying on top of your job,” since getting behind in your work could create a lot of pressure on you.

I also got a few ideas for tweets. For example, the fact that some people are creative in a messy environment and others in an organized one, gave me the idea “Creativity is all in your mind.” I might be able to do something with that one – perhaps even as a title for this article. I was also reminded that I should revise and reissue my old stress resistance quiz.

I’m sure I’ll get more ideas as I continue writing my book. It always happens. And I’ll be sure to jot them down at the time so I don’t forget them – and continue with my writing. I use our Daily Priority Pad (available at our website) to do this. It was actually designed by my son Jason, who found he needed something to use in tandem with his iPhone.

It is ideal for my writing sessions since I can quickly jot down things I need to do, ideas for the future, people to call – and there’s even a “Back Burner” section for future book ideas or future plans. I don’t let ideas, creative or otherwise, distract me from my writing if at all possible. I even put my iPhone on airplane mode while I’m writing.

I’m not sure if you’re really interested; but in my next blog articles I will describe how I collect and store all the reference materials that I use in my writing and perhaps a few ideas on writing that have proven useful – and of course a little more on this creativity debate. When it comes to keeping information,  people may label me a pack rat; but it has helped generate 23 e-books, two paperback books, hundreds of articles, and thousands of tweets in the last six-years, not to mention material used in my newsletters, seminar notes and PowerPoint presentations.

Everyone has their own method of writing. There is no one best way. But I do agree with professional organizer Clare Kumar when she claims that “process mess” is natural occurrence, and not something that should label you as a messy.

Life is good. And full of ideas waiting to be harvested.

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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.

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Tapping energy sources for peak performance.

Managing your energy is as important as managing your time. The next few blog articles will be discussing personal energy management. Most of the information was excerpted from my book, Manage your personal energy, published by Bookboon.com. Consider taking advantage of the following sources.

Sunlight

Norman Doidge, in his 2015 book, The brain’s way of healing, explains how cytochrome in all our cells converts light energy from the sun (originating 93 million miles away) into energy for our cells to use. Our eyes are not just used for sight. Every morning light-sensitive cells send electrical signals on a pathway separate from the one used for sight to cells in the brain that operate our biological clock. It’s difficult to imagine that sunlight not only warms the surfaces of our body, but is actually transported to our brain – where it sets in progress a sort of “human photosynthesis” that supplies us with energy. Not until about 2005 did researchers prove scientifically what Florence Nightingale had already shown – that natural sunlight can reduce pain, accelerate healing, and even cure some depressions. It’s a “wonder drug,” when it comes to energy.

Exercise

Although you might think exercise would consume more energy than it produces, it actually helps you to sleep better, and you feel more alert and energized as a result. A study from Northwestern University, in Chicago, showed that insomniacs who did about 40 minutes of moderate cardio between 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. four times a week got an average of 75 more minutes of sleep a night.

Exercise also helps us to expel negative thoughts, and those who free their mind during exercise have more energy. According to research from California State University at Long Beach, a 10-minute walk can increase your energy for up to two hours.

Nutrition

There is little doubt that the food you eat has a significant bearing on your level of energy. Many years ago eating enough protein was suggested as a key to optimal energy. But according to a lengthy article in Prevention.com magazine, August, 2015, it’s is the good bacteria that aid in digestion and are helping you to retrieve energy from the food you eat. The author of the article, The way to a woman’s energy is through her gut, claims that the bacteria manufacture about 95% of the body’s supply of serotonin, a key hormone for boosting energy – much of which is produced in your gut, not your brain.

Water

To keep yourself energized, drink plenty of water. It will help improve your mood as well as your energy. According to research conducted at the University of East London in the UK, researchers believe that bringing water into an exam room can raise students’ marks. Studies indicated that those who drank water while writing exams out-performed those who didn’t. In one study, the scores averaged 4.8% better. One explanation is that students are in a mild state of dehydration when taking exams, and drinking water corrects this. Perhaps some of us should be drinking less coffee and more water.

Working environment

Your surroundings not only impact your energy level and personal productivity, they can also affect your health, mental attitude and general well-being. For example, studies have shown that the presence of potted plants improves productivity, creativity, performance and learning ability. And 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.

Batching consumes less energy and increases efficiency.

Batching refers to scheduling blocks of time in your planner for tasks that are similar in nature and require similar resources. 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.

Coffee

Coffee is a “good news – bad news” energy source. Although drinking too much coffee has been associated with anxiety and stress, in moderation it seems to give energy and memory a boost. A brief article in the spring, 2014 issue of Health magazine describes a link between caffeine and memory. Michael Yassa of John Hopkins University asked 60 people to view a series of images of different objects. Then, five minutes later, after receiving either a placebo or 200 milligrams of caffeine, were tested the next day on their ability to recognize images from the day before. More people from the caffeine group recognized that an image was similar to rather than identical with one they had viewed earlier. Separate research published in the Journal of Public Health Nutrition also showed that one or two cups of tea a day can boost brain power and athletic performance. This held true for children as well.

Sweets

Consuming glucose when you are given a problem to solve will likely improve your performance. At least that’s what studies indicate. Glucose goes directly to the brain and feeds the neural circuits that are working on the mentally demanding tasks. Unfortunately doing this too often could lead to diabetes and sugar crash – not to mention your waistline. The brain burns glucose like a car burns gasoline, a little extra energy could be useful. But avoid a steady diet of sugary drinks and candy bars. Like most things, moderation is the key.

Building sound relationships

Strong friendships give both your physical and mental health a boost. The February, 2014 issue of Scientific American Mind reported on a quantitative review of numerous studies, concluding that having few friends is the mortality risk equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. People with a close friend at work are more productive and more innovative. Strong social connections are the biggest prediction of happiness in general – and happiness has been linked to do an increase in longevity.

 

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How to say no

A small word like “no” can have a huge negative impact on our mental and physical health, energy level and the accomplishment of meaningful personal goals.

Getting involved in business, community and social projects can be a great way to expand your personal relationships and your areas of competence; but it can also catapult you into a busy, busy life where you are so occupied with other people’s projects that you don’t realize you are neglecting your own ambitions and the needs of those closest to you.

There is a reason people say that if you want to get something done, you should ask a busy person. It’s usually because a busy person hasn’t learned to say no.

It’s so much easier to say yes to other people’s requests. We don’t hurt their feelings, it avoids conflict, it satisfies our need to be liked, and it actually feels good at the time. Every time we say yes, we are momentary heroes. But most often, what we agree to do at the moment torpedoes what we really want to do the most.

Just because someone asks you to or three times doesn’t mean you have to change your answer to a yes. A polite no is a complete sentence; but you might want to add a comment that doesn’t leave the door open for a change of heart later, such as “but I’m flattered that you asked me.”

Definitely don’t say “Let me think about it, and I’ll get back to you later.” They will have false hopes, and you will have an even harder time saying no as they continually press you for your decision. And giving an excuse such as, “I’m too busy right now; perhaps in the future” would leave the door open for negotiation. You may get, “That would work out okay; the project doesn’t start until the spring.” Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Holding a definite “No” in abeyance is both stressful and energy draining.

If you feel you must give a reason for saying no, mention how saying yes would impact other people. Few people would argue against spending adequate time with your family or fulfilling ongoing obligations, for instance.

It’s important to have your personal goals as well as your personal policies in writing and in your mind. Focusing on your goals insures that you have a good reason for refusal always on the tip of your tongue. For example, I can readily respond with sorry, “I’d love to help you out; but I have a commitment to get 10 more e-books to the publisher in the next couple of years and I just don’t have the time to spare.”

Saying no at work tends to be more of a struggle for women than for men, according to studies done by Katherine O’Brien at Baylor School of medicine in 2014. Age is also a factor. Seniors find it easier to say no – probably due to experience and because they have less need. The majority of people are somewhere in between, with the less assertive people being more likely to say yes.

Practice should help everyone. Thinking how you would word a refusal, and actually speaking it out loud a few times, will at least make it more familiar and a little easier. And the more you say no, and discover that people don’t resent it half as much as you had imagined, it won’t be such an ordeal.