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The power – and hazards, of repetition

There are many advantages of repetition – whether it is committing a body of knowledge to memory or developing skills such as baseball or golf. In fact a highly touted book is termed the process “the 10,000 hour rule,” explaining that 10,000 hours of practice can make you an expert at almost anything. That’s how you can develop into a computer whiz or star basketball player.

But repetition can also develop you into an inflexible single-minded person who refuses to listen to reason or ignores any research that does not fit his or her belief system. So whether it’s politics, religion, or your relationship with money, repetition also has its disadvantages

Your brain likes to take the path of least resistance, so you should be careful what habits you allow it to develop. For instance, if you repetitively say “yes” to others’ requests because you don’t want to disappoint them or feel bad by saying “no,” you could eventually build a habit of saying “yes” without really thinking through the impact of doing so. This could disrupt your own schedule, delay an important project or even force you to abandon a personal activity.

Repetition of thought and/or action could be beneficial depending on its use. I can hardly see any disadvantage in memorizing people’s names or in strengthening a skill through repetition. But in other areas it might be wise to keep an open mind, follow research as well as reason, and be willing to change when the situation calls for it.

Sometimes referred to as” habits of the mind”, a person’s “executive skills” are those brain-based skills required to execute tasks – that is, getting organized, planning, initiating work, staying on task, controlling impulses, regulating emotions, and being adaptable and resilient. These skills primarily reside in the prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain that helps you manage complex problems, goals and self-control. We are all born with executive skills; but they take about twenty years to fully develop. The particular skill that you would probably need most in order to determine which activities would lend themselves to productive habits as opposed to harmful ones would be metacognition. It is one of twelve executive skills identified in the book, Work Your Strengths, by Richard Guare, Peg Dawson and Chuck Martin.

Metacognition is the ability to observe yourself in a situation and make changes so you’re better able to solve problems, build relationships and succeed in life. If you can see a situation objectively and evaluate how things are going, you are strong in this skill.

But if you don’t think through the possible results of your decisions, tend to make quick decisions, often repeat the same mistakes, and don’t think through long-term consequences, you are weak in this skill.

Metacognition is not an easy skill to develop because we have to step outside of ourselves — and our subjective thoughts, habits and biases — to look at each situation objectively. As David DiSalvo says in his book, Brain change, we have to “think about our thinking,” Although the prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher-order thinking and reasoning, multiple brain areas are involved in metacognition as well as in other executive skills.

We all have memories from the past – many unconscious ones — that influence how we think, feel, and react to different situations and behaviors. With a strong metacognition skill you are able to actively examine each situation on its own merit while resisting the impulse to react involuntarily. By doing so you can more easily adapt to change, make better decisions and become more creative and successful.

Since our brain is malleable, we can train ourselves to improve our metacognition; but it takes a conscious effort to reject unconscious and false beliefs and reasoning. The brain is more flexible than most people realize. Through practice you can strengthen any skill, and maintain conscious control of your thinking. You can’t stop thoughts and feelings from popping into your mind; but you can question their validity.

I choose to view the mind as a separate entity that can control the brain. The brain is a computer that will never be duplicated in its complexity and amazing functionality. But the mind is who you are, and the brain is at your disposal. But it doesn’t come with a user’s manual, except for the findings of the neuroscientists, and you must learn how to operate it yourself. And just as we can be controlled by technology instead of the other way around, we can be controlled by our brain if we don’t take charge.

You must do your own programming and updates. You must service your brain regularly with proper diet, exercise and mental challenges to keep it in good working order. Have a questioning attitude. Read. Continue with lifelong learning. Maintain an active social life. Never compromise on sleep. Manage stress. And question your own thinking so you don’t feed it faulty information. Remember the old GIGO acronym – garbage in, garbage out.

Keeping our brains sharp will make sure we neither become creatures of habit nor unduly influenced by others. We maintain our uniqueness.

Strengthening all twelve of our executive skills is discussed in my eBook, A brain’s eye view of time management: Strengthening your executive skills, published by Bookboon.com.

 

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Managing your brain, part 11

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It’s becoming more difficult to focus.

Sustained attention is the capacity to focus on a task despite fatigue or boredom. If this brain-based executive skill is strong, you are able to maintain attention and are not easily distracted or side tracked. You are able to screen out distractions and complete a task even if it is boring and you’re tired. With a weakness in this skill, you are easily distracted and have trouble completing tasks. You probably interrupt yourself frequently to deal with e-mail and often jump from task to task.

Attention spans seem to be getting smaller for everyone. Research shows that the Internet and digital technology can have a negative impact on our ability to learn, focus, pay attention, memorize and relate to others on a personal basis. It also gobbles up our time, encourages busyness and multitasking and stifles creativity. Nicholas Carr, in his 2010 book, Shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains, claims he has noticed changes in his own reading. He loses concentration after a page or two, becomes fidgety, loses track of the storyline and looks for something else to do.

The ability to focus is one of the most critical brain functions according to Barbara Strauch, author of The secret life of the grown-up brain. And this ability depends on the strength of our executive skills, which are currently under attack by the unrelenting impact of technology. The ever-increasing desire to work faster also exacerbates the problem. For example, in his book Deep work (2016), Carl Newport mentions that IBM staff send 2.5 million instant messages each day to speed up communication.

It’s doubtful that we can avoid our escalating reliance on technology other than to manage it wisely. But we can offset our brain’s decreasing ability to focus by making it easier to do the right thing. You should visualize it as a battle going on in your mind, and you want to help the “good guys” as much as possible.

For example, you could get more immediate results by working on lengthy projects in shorter periods of time – since the longer you work without a break, the more you tend to interrupt yourself. Here are a few suggestions that might lessen the impact of weakened focus and attention:

  • Schedule larger tasks as smaller, 90 minute or less chunks of time in your planner so you can both make a commitment and maintain focus and keep your mind from wandering.
  • Turn off your cell phone, engage voice mail on the landline, ignore e-mail, and close your office door if you have one. It’s only for 90 minutes at the most – and most people can survive without you for 90 minutes.
  • If you are interrupted by some crisis that requires your immediate attention, quickly jot down what you plan to do or write next so you can resume where you left off once the crisis is over.
  • When you call it a day, clear your work area and leave only one thing on your desk – the folder containing your next priority project. It will serve as a reminder of the next day’s priority.

In the long term, you should attempt to strengthen any weakness by developing your executive skills – especially those related to focus and attention. Reacting to a distraction is an automatic reflex; but the reflex can be overridden by the prefrontal cortex area of your brain – the executive center or manager. Using self-control, and being mindful that distractions are likely to occur, you can consciously resist the impulse to go with the distraction when it appears. The more times you resist, the easier it becomes. The habit of self-interruption can be replaced with one of sustained attention to the task at hand.

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

Other suggestions for strengthening executive skills

In stressful situations, your weakest skills fail first and become more pronounced. Fatigue and information overload tend to weaken them further. Avoiding or being able to manage stress is important. Also you should re-examine your workload. Simplify if possible. Delegate and outsource. Pace yourself. Too much exertion without breaks taxes the executive skills. In fact studies 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. (Scientific American Mind, May/June, 2011)

You should also get plenty of sleep. Sleep deprivation definitely impairs functioning of the executive skills. For example, a student scoring in the top 10% in grades dropped to the bottom 9% after only seven hours per sleep per night and seven hours 40 minutes on weekends.

Dr. Mike Dow, in his book, The brain fog fix, also suggests that we eat brain-healthy foods. For example, use cinnamon in coffee instead of sugar for anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Eat raw or slightly cooked vegetables for high fiber. Drink unsweetened black tea to reduce blood-sugar spikes. And frequently replace pasta with salad (with vinegar and olive oil dressing) – or substitute spaghetti squash. He also recommends a glass of red wine with dinner to lessen intestinal glucose absorption. And of course, plenty of water.

The healthier your brain and the stronger your brain’s executive skills, the more productive you will be, and the more effective you will become at resisting the tempting distractions.

 

 

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Managing your brain, part 9

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Creativity in action.

My habit over the past twenty years or more was to go for a walk in the morning with my writing tools tucked inside a computer bag, thinking along the way about the article I was to write that morning. When I reached my destination – a coffee shop about twenty minutes from my home, I would take out my pad and pen, and amazingly I would complete the article without difficulty in the span of 30 minutes or so. It had almost written itself in my mind as I had been walking.

I originally thought it was the fresh air, relaxed state of mind, and the free time available to think about the topic that made the ideas and thoughts flow so easily.

But it was actually the body movement. Our creative ability is enhanced by walking, exercise or even simply gesturing. As expressed by Sean Beilock in her book, How the body knows the mind, (Atria Books, 2015) “moving the body can alter the mind by unconsciously putting ideas in our head before we are able to consciously contemplate them on our own.”

Movement can help us to solve problems and even increase productivity. And it’s one of the keys to remembering long lists of information in workshops through the storytelling, thinking and association techniques that we teach. (See my ebook, Boost your memory and strengthen your mind, published by Bookboon.com.

Moving your body can actually change how you think. Whether you are an actor rehearsing lines, a speaker memorizing a speech or a student recalling facts, when you include motion either physically or in your mind during the memorizing process, it makes memory and recall easier.

You have no doubt heard the expression “thinking outside the box” when talking about creativity. Well, researchers at Cornell University actually had volunteers sit inside a huge box while solving problems. They were outperformed by others walking freely outside the box. So resist the impulse to sit at your desk when solving a problem. And don’t sit around a boardroom table when brainstorming new ideas in your company. Research appears to substantiate the wisdom of stand-up meetings from more than simply a time management perspective.

The neurotransmitter, dopamine, which declines with age, plays a role in creativity, and exercise helps to slow or prevent this decline. So keep active your entire life; because if you’re idle, your mind may be idle as well. By managing your body, you are helping to manage your brain as well; because the body and the brain work in tandem.

This doesn’t mean you won’t get ideas while working at your desk as well. Ideas could flash through your mind and then disappear while you are busy working on a project. It’s a good idea to capture those thoughts immediately – either in a journal, smart phone or booklet – something more substantial than a scrap of paper that could itself disappear.

For example, we have a “Back Burner” page at the back of our Taylor Planner where we can quickly jot down those fleeting thoughts before continuing with the task at hand. The Daily Priority Pad also has a section for these ideas.  Creativity frequently happens when you’re busy doing something else. You can see both of these items at our website, taylorintime.com.

By the way, I still take that walk – sometimes varying the route and coffee shop. I still write the article, or book chapter or whatever longhand, in cursive writing – perhaps from habit – but I do believe it is also good exercise for the brain. Then I dictate it to my computer when I get home – using voice-activated software.

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Managing your brain, part 8

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Develop goal-directed persistence.

The brain develops gradually, and continues to build neural connections throughout our lifetime. A person’s “executive skills” take from 18 to 20 years to develop. The executive skills are mainly located in the prefrontal cortex, and are the last areas of the brain to develop in late adolescence or early adulthood.  Among other skills that the executive skills control is the ability to think before you act, plan, and focus – skills that are essential to personal organization and time management.

This week’s blog discusses goal-directed persistence, the ability to have a goal and follow through until its completion. If you are strong in this skill, you have a good record of achieving goals that you set. You are steady, persistent and reliable, and seldom let setbacks or obstacles prevent you from completing a project on time.

Many people struggle with the ability to set, pursue and achieve goals since it involves self-discipline and focus. An intentional act such as this does take willpower, focus and attention. But studies in neuroscience show that you can do this – literally change your brain – by thinking about what you have decided to do.

Joe Dispenza, author of the book, Evolve your brain, claims that what we think about and where we focus our attention is what we neurologically become.

For example, if you decide to make it a goal of yours to write a book or build a tree house or complete a course in social media – and then think about it, including how you will start, the time you will need, and so on, you are building the brain power needed to achieve that goal. The more time you spend on that goal, both thinking about it and acting on it, the easier it becomes for you.

The default setting on our brain seems to be goal-oriented. But if we stop learning, stop changing our habits, stop being creative and stop seeking new experiences, our brain can become hardwired to maintain the status quo. This does not change its neuroplasticity; we can change it at any time. But we must consciously want to change and start thinking about the changes that we want in our lives.

Although setting, pursing and achieving goals consumes energy by making decisions and practicing self-discipline and focus, you can make it easier on your brain by applying the following suggestions:

  • Don’t overwhelm yourself with too large a goal. Our short-term memory, discussed in an earlier blog, allows us to hold only a limited amount of any project in our mind at any one time. So it is important to break a large goal into smaller segments and work at these segments step by step.
  • Build the habit of spending a certain amount of time each day working on a specific goal-related task. You can then apply this habit to any goal, no matter how large, whether it is writing a book one chapter at a time, completing a self-study course one lesson at a time or becoming a super salesperson one sale at a time.
  • Keep motivation high. Be clear on both the benefits of achieving the goal and the steps you must take in order to get there. Motivation requires both a strong desire to possess what the goal promises, and a belief that the action they are taking will achieve the goal. According to a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and reported in the October, 2014 issue of Psychology Today, lessening the gap between expectations and outcome increases our satisfaction.
  • Maintain brain health. You will also encounter both internal and external distractions that could impede your progress. That’s why the other executive skills discussed in this blog series are important as well – such as response inhibition, sustained attention and emotional control. Internal distractions could include such things as stress and tiredness as well as self-interruptions. So it’s important to get adequate sleep, a healthy diet and plenty of exercise. These are especially important to strengthen your goal-directed persistence and other executive skills since we are more easily side-tracked and lack energy when we are tired, stressed or ill.
  • Schedule time, not tasks. If you schedule a goal-related task to be achieved in a specific time frame, you could feel stressed and out of control if you still don’t get the task completed. To prevent this, change your mindset. Schedule time to work on a task rather than the task itself. The expectation then becomes to spend one hour or 90 minutes each day (or week) until the task is finished. This way you can’t fail.
  • Choose a high performance zone. Your working environment has a lot to do with how effective you are. Find your “high performance zone” – the place where you have the most energy and seem to be the most creative, and spent a couple of hours each day working there. This could be a coffee shop, a room at home or a library, not necessarily your office. Another suggestion is to have plants in your office or a view of nature. Sian Beilock, in her book, How the body knows its mind, gave the example of university students with mostly natural views from their dormitory rooms scoring higher in tests of working memory and concentration than students who lived in the same dormitory but with views of other buildings.
  • Organize your work area to increase focus. As we read more about the workings of our brain, we learn more about the importance of getting organized. For example, according to neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg, author of The overflowing brain, the more items on your desk, the greater the demand on your attention. So keep your workplace clear.
  • Overcome mental blocks. If you find yourself staring at the computer screen with no idea how to start, start typing anyway. As you write nothing of consequence, something of consequence will start spilling out of your brain. In a similar way, if you have ideas or notes scribbled on a napkin or piece of paper, type them. Your brain is activated once the task is started.

 

 

 

 

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Managing your brain, part 4

Biological clock

Tell your brain what you want.

How do you develop a positive attitude? Feed your brain positive information. Studies in neuroscience prove that we can change our brains just by thinking. One example is the placebo effect. It’s not the sugar pill or saline solution that does the healing; it your belief that it will cure you that actually prompts the healing.

According to Joe Dispenza, in his book, Evolve your brain, “what we think about, and where we focus our attention is what we neurologically become.”

Your brain already has fixed beliefs and habits formed over a lifetime of experiences and environmental influences. If the result is negativity, you can change this by managing your brain. If “you” were your brain, this would be impossible since you would already have your “mind” made up.

But as mentioned in a previous article, you are not your brain. You are “the mind within the brain,” as the title of A. David Redish’s book suggests. “You,” (including your consciousness) are your mind. It resides within the prefrontal cortex of the brain according to Joe Dispenza, and whether it is without substance (perhaps being energy) is yet to be determined.

But one thing is certain. You are able, through focused thought, to change the neurological make up of your brain and make physiological changes to your body.

The key is focused thinking. That’s why meditation helps. Joe Dispenza, in in his book, You are the placebo, mentions that the most difficult part of mentally healing his six broken vertebrae was a continual loss of attention. He believes we spend too much attention and energy thinking about what we don’t want, instead of what we do want.

So when you feed your brain with those positive thoughts mentioned in my last blog article (part 3 of this series) accept the fact that it may be difficult concentrating on what you want; but you will become more focused with practice.

Not only can your mind influence your brain and your brain influence your body, your body can influence your brain as well. Sian Beilock, in her book, How the body knows it’s mind, explains how Botox injected into frown wrinkles can help cure depression. It not only eliminates the frown lines, but also the ability to frown. Botox contains a neurotoxin that paralyzes muscles in which it is injected. Physicians believe that not being able to express negative emotions reduces negative feelings.

We have probably all experienced a situation where our mood was changed when forced to laugh. It’s hard to be angry when you’re smiling. And it has been shown that smiling while immersing your hand in ice water reduces the stress and lessens the pain.

There is a definite connection between body and brain that we can use to alter our mood, attitude and behaviour. This will in turn impact our time, our health, and our lives.

Note: books referenced in this article include:

Beilock, Sian. How the Body Knows Its Mind: The Surprising Power of the Physical Environment to Influence How You Think and Feel. New York: Atria, 2015. Print.

Dispenza, Joe. You Are the Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2014. Print.

Dispenza, Joe. Evolve Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind. Dearfield, FL: Health Communications, 2007. Print.

Redish, A. David. The Mind within the Brain: How We Make Decisions and How Those Decisions Go Wrong. New York: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.

 

 

 

 

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To be productive, outsmart your brain.

Brain network

Do first things first; but not always priorities.

Conventional wisdom tells us that we should not check email first thing in the morning. Instead we should start working on our priority tasks and ignore distractions as much as possible. I have passed this wisdom onto my clients for decades. The problem is, it hasn’t worked very well. Now, based on more recent brain research, I suggest the exact opposite.

It’s the little things that distract you and prevent you from focusing fully on the important things. For example, according to Daniel Levinson, author of The organized mind, the awareness of an email waiting to be answered can reduce your IQ by 10 points. A part of your brain is constantly alert for something unusual, which it perceives as a threat – so it’s natural that you are susceptible to these distractions.

It makes sense therefore to get rid of those distractions before attempting to concentrate on the priorities of the day. So spend the first 45 minutes or so of the day dealing with your email, voicemail, and text messages etc. – things that would otherwise be preying on your mind throughout the day. Record any requests not answered, promises not delivered or “To do’s” not done.

When you start the first productive part of your day, make sure it remains productive. Ignore email, turn off your cell phone, and jot down ideas that occur to you rather than act on them right away, and work uninterrupted for up to 90 minutes before taking a full break. At the break you can check and if necessary respond quickly to email and other messages before launching your next productive 90 minute period.

The planning or executive centre of your brain likes to work in controllable chunks with well-defined beginnings and endings. Five or 10-minute works sessions amid continuing interruptions are counterproductive and exhausting. It takes less energy to focus then to multitask. Focus more and you will get more done. So organize your day in a way that maximizes your brain’s efficiency.

The more we learn about how our brain operates, the more we realize that in some cases we been approaching our work the wrong way. Those people who believed in getting the trivial things out of the way first so they could focus on the important things were not entirely wrong after all. Things left undone not only cause stress, they also prevent us from working efficiently on the important things as well.

The caveat, however, is to limit this initial daily “clean-up period” to a scheduled 45 minutes or less. Treat it as a necessity, not as a way of procrastinating on the really important stuff.

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Disorganized? Don’t blame it on your brain.

Xray image of a human head brain
Xray image of a human head brain

You are not your brain

You were going to clean out that cupboard today, but a TV program came on that you didn’t want to miss. And after all, if you miss this program it may never air again – and you can always clean the cupboard tomorrow.

In the old days we used to call this procrastination – doing what you would rather do now and putting off the more important things until later. But with all of the brain research going on today, it’s now evident that it’s your brain that’s at fault. The brain’s default setting is “to tap the least tiring cognitive process,” according to an article in the December, 2015 issue of Scientific American Mind.

We now have legitimate reasons for shirking our responsibilities, rationalizing our errors, and making snap decisions without examining the facts.

With the advent of functional MRIs, and locating the regions of the brain responsible for everything from lack of willpower to angry outbursts, we can pinpoint the blame even further. “It’s the insula or the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex,” we might claim.

We even have attorneys arguing in court rooms that their clients were not responsible for their crimes since it was some malfunction of a certain region of their brain.

I have over 50 books on the brain in my library – everything from Brain rules to A better brain at any age. What I have concluded personally is that the mind is separate from the brain. You are not your brain; you are your mind. Your brain is simply part of the body – your personal computer, which does your bidding. You can control your brain – unless this most complicated computer in the universe actually breaks down – so get ready to accept responsibility for at least most of your behaviours.

Most of brain books will confirm the neuroplasticity of the brain, and that you are able to reprogram it to develop willpower, resist impulses, overcome procrastination, and strengthen your planning and organizing skills, and so on.

Although most scientists believe the mind itself is simply a part of the brain, my own unscientific mind tells me otherwise. It is the only way that consciousness and immortality make sense to me. It may be linked with or even be another name for soul and/or spirit; but if it is energy, it cannot be destroyed, only changed in form.

My intention here is not to get you to believe in life after death, but merely to warn you not to blame your brain for every lapse in focus or any urge to take the path of least resistance. You may not be your brain; but you are able to control it. As one of those brain books urges, change your brain; change your life.

As an example, there are many ways you can strengthen your executive skills – those brain-based skills that allow you to focus, persist, plan, resist impulses and maintain self-control, among other behaviors. I suggest ways of doing that in one of my latest eBooks, Strengthen your brain’s executive skills, to be published in January, 2016 by Bookboon.com.

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Can’t say no? Practice the pause

Saying no

Don’t be so quick to say yes. 

People who claim they can’t say no are actually saying no when they say yes; because they can’t do everything. There’s only so much time available. And every time they say yes to something, they’re saying no to something else. And that something else might be time to spend on their family, friends or themselves.

In most cases we don’t say no because it is easier and more rewarding at the moment to say yes. It’s called the “Pleasure Principle”. We tend to avoid pain and seek immediate gratification. When we say yes, we get immediate rewards – we feel good, we make people happy, we are liked, and so on.

It’s the same thing with procrastination. We tend to do what’s pleasant and avoid anything that’s unimportant. When we procrastinate, we put off what we want most in order to do what we want at the moment.

Brain research now offers another reason for our tendency to say yes so quickly. Saying yes is in most cases a knee-jerk reaction. It is an automatic response initiated by the same part of the brain the reacts so readily to interruptions and distractions. But our executive function – located in the reasoning part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex – can override this initial impulse if allowed to do so. And you can allow it by simply making up your mind right now that you will pause whenever asked to do something. It may be appropriate in many cases to respond during the pause with “Let me think about it” or “Leave it with me.” Or you may decide to say yes fairly quickly due to the nature of the request. The important thing is the pause that gives your executive function a chance to do its job.

We have known for many years that giving of your time, money or talents is healthy for the giver. It has been linked to lower stress levels, increased physical and emotional health, an enriched sense of purpose and even longevity. But according to research referred to in an article appearing in the November 15, 2015 issue of Tampa Bay Times, even the thought of helping someone helps the giver fight off disease, among other benefits.

A study at Harvard actually showed that such thoughts increased protective antibodies in the people who were considering helping someone. That’s what you are doing during the pause – thinking about helping someone. But the reaction is not reversed if you decide not to.

Practice the pause.

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Negative Effects of Stress – and how to reduce them

Negative effects of stress

Although stress can help us in times where extra strength or speed is needed we now live in a society where we are confronted with too much stress. Because of this we also now see the negative effects of stress on both our emotional and physical lives.

Stress can induce the release of cortisol, and 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 also been shown to shrink the hippocampus by up to 14 percent.

An article in the September, 2014 issue of the Reader’s Digest (A new way of thinking by Philip Preille) reported that a few years ago a major U.S. study confirmed previous findings that high levels of cortisol, when produced for too long, impair mental retention. The alleviating factor is face-to-face contact with others. All evidence reports to social activities – anything from bridge clubs to evening classes, particularly volunteerism – to relieving stress and improving memory. Seniors who double up on their volunteering activities live up to 44% longer than non-volunteers.

Chronic stress kills brain cells and effects memory, so a hassle-free life is a healthier life. 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. You should re-examine your workload. Simplify if possible. Delegate and outsource. Pace yourself. Too much exertion without breaks taxes the executive skills, including working memory. In fact studies 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. (Scientific American Mind, May/June, 2011)

Available for Kindle

Although drinking too much coffee has been associated with stress, in moderation it seems to give 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.

Finally, don’t take yourself too seriously. Laughter 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 humor during instruction led to increased test scores.

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General Suggestions for Strengthening Executive Function Skills

strengthening executive function skillsThis is the last article in the series on strengthening your executive function skills, those brain-based skills required to execute tasks – that is, such things as getting organized, planning, initiating work, staying on task, controlling impulses, regulating emotions, being adaptable and resilient and having a strong working memory. Following are some general suggestions for strengthening executive skills.

In stressful situations, your weakest 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. Also you should re-examine your workload. Keep organized, plan, and allocate your time to things of importance. Simplify if possible. Delegate and outsource. Pace yourself. Too much exertion without breaks taxes the executive skills. In fact studies 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. (Scientific American Mind, May/June, 2011)

You should also get plenty of sleep. Sleep deprivation definitely impairs functioning of the executive skills. For example, a student scoring in the top 10% in grades dropped to the bottom 9% after only seven hours per sleep per night and seven hours 40 min. on weekends

Many of these skills have to do with self-discipline and that definitely can be improved through practice. For example turn down desert once in a while, or second cup of coffee. Give up your favorite TV program or sporting event and so on. You could have a glass of water instead of a milkshake and resist that chocolate bar after golf.

Neuroscience has proven that the more you use a circuit in the brain, the stronger it becomes. The reverse is also true, so don’t relinquish all your tasks to a computer. Training your memory, creative writing or any skill can be strengthened through practice. But variety seems to be the key. Improving one executive skill does not necessarily improve all the others. Doing crossword puzzles only increases your ability to do crossword puzzles. And this is true for most computer games as well.

There are exceptions, however. Exercise, for instance, stimulates the creation of new neurons not confined to the region of the hippocampus that stores new memories. Art Kramer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that a year of exercise can give a seventy-year-old the connectivity of a thirty-year old. Other activities such as meditation and certain video games can change brain structure so brain processes are more efficient. And learning a second language can sharpen many of the executive skills.

The important thing to remember is that your brain needs exercise just as much as your body – and you won’t remember that if you don’t give it enough exercise.