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Building stress resistance

building stress resistenceChuck Martin, Richard Guare and Peggy Dawson, in their book Work Your Strengths, include stress tolerance as an executive skill. I would think that being strong in many of the other executive skills would help you to tolerate stressful situations, including emotional stress such as that caused by illness. But being able to manage stress is critical since it can weaken the immune system, raise cholesterol levels, accelerate hardening of the arteries, disrupt the digestive system, and lead to overeating and obesity. And according to Tiffany Chow, in her book, The memory clinic, it can also increase the risk of developing dementia. So we will include stress tolerance as one of the executive skills.

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Stress tolerance is the ability to thrive in stressful situations. With strong stress tolerance, you are able to take things in stride, and work well under stress. If you don’t handle stress well, panic during crisis, and feel uncomfortable when things don’t go smoothly, you are weak in this skill.

Working memory, as discussed previously, allows you to hang on to memories long enough for them to be consolidated as long-term memories in the hippocampus area of the brain. And if we don’t protect the hippocampus from excessive stress, we may lose the ability to file these new memories, putting us at risk for Alzheimer’s.

Things we should not do to relieve stress is turn to drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. Tiffany Chow, in her book, The memory clinic, claims that smoking is a risk factor for heart disease, heart attacks, and high blood pressure and she mentioned that one study reported that it doubles the risk for dementia.

It’s usually impossible to relax, do deep breathing, meditate or go jogging when you’re in a stressful situation. But you’re not supposed to relax. The “flight or fight” response that you experience under stress is not something that you can avoid. It’s a product of your automatic nervous system, which regulates the release of adrenaline, blood pressure, heart rate, hand temperature and other physiological changes. It’s an automatic response to perceived danger. If it were someone threatening you with a knife, the response could save your life. Your increased strength and heightened awareness could get you out of danger. And the adrenaline would be used up as you take action.

But with an unrealistic deadline or an overload of projects, you’re not engaged in physical activity. The excess adrenaline causes you to feel terrible. You experience palpitations, dry throat, trembling. You’re nervous and upset. You weren’t meant to feel the adrenaline; you were supposed to be too busy to feel anything.

Relaxing is not what you should be trying to do. Relaxation is something you acquire when you’re not under stress. It’s preventative medicine, so to speak. It makes stress easier to handle. What you need at the moment is stress management. You need to take control of the situation, change your attitude, be assertive and accept life’s challenge.

Combine healthy attitudes with action and you have stress management. When you are faced with a stressful situation, look at it as a challenge. Take a positive approach and look at the bright side. You can’t do the impossible. The important thing is to be active, take control and be assertive. Activity dissipates the adrenaline, and along with it, the worry and ravages of stress. A Yale University study revealed that those who changed their outlook on stress after watching a video urging them to rise up to whatever challenge faced them showed improved psychological symptoms and better work performance.

To build stress tolerance, make sure you schedule adequate leisure time, build quality relationships with others, laugh often, keep healthy and physically fit, participate in relaxation exercises and massages, get plenty of sleep, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Meditation or mindfulness can also help you change the way you perceive potentially stressful situations. A Newsweek special issue, Your Body (October, 2014) suggested that taking 15 minutes a day for silent meditation can help lower stress levels and prevent it from increasing in the first place. Studies showed that even taking a few deep breaths can lower cortisol levels.

You might also maintain a positive attitude, turn off your cell phone, and drink black tea to help develop a resistance to stress. According to the Newsweek article referenced above, studies show that taking three or four hours each day away from the Internet and digital communication is not only a healthy distraction, but also a partial antidote to stress. It also referred to a study by University College London that found that those who drank four cups of black tea a day for four weeks had a lower cortisol level in their blood when facing a stressful situation.

And believe it or not, orderliness seems to help as well. UCLA researchers discovered that the sight of clutter can induce the production of stress hormones. So get organized.

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Metacognition – what it is and how to improve it

MetacognitionMetacognition 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 plastic, we can train ourselves to improve our metacognition; but it takes a conscious effort to reject unconscious and false beliefs and reasoning. As mentioned in a previous article, 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.

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Flexibility – An Important Executive Function Skill

Flexibility - executive function skillsFlexibility is the ability to revise plans in the face of obstacles and setbacks. If you are strong in this skill, you’re adaptable and can easily adjust to a change in plans. You are good at coming up with alternative courses of action if conditions change.

But if you have trouble adapting to change, and are reluctant to change plans, and don’t handle crises well, you are weak in this executive skill. It’s easy to get stuck on one way to solve a problem or complete a task. By focusing on a detail you might miss the big picture.
Being able to roll with changes and take what you know and apply it to a new situation not only requires flexibility, but is a component of creativity as well. And participating in creativity exercises is one way to strengthen these skills.

Neurobics is a word popularized by Lawrence Katz and Manning Rubin in their 2014 book, Keep your brain alive. Neurobics is a takeoff on aerobics, and refers to exercises for the brain. The authors describe Neurobics as helping you to maintain a continuing level of mental fitness, strength and flexibility as you age. The exercise is described in the book uses the five senses (vision, smell, touch, taste and hearing) in novel ways to increase the brain’s ability to form associations among the different pieces of information that you encounter.

An example would be to get dressed, brush your teeth and find your way around your home wearing ear plugs and a blindfold. By doing this you are stimulating rarely used pathways in the brain and increasing your range of mental flexibility, touch and flexibility.
As mentioned in previous blogs, what’s good for the brain is good for all the executive skills, including flexibility.
The brain itself was created to be flexible, and all you have to do is nurture this innate ability. To give you an example of how our brains can be rewired, in the year 2000, a study of London taxi drivers revealed that they had a much larger posterior hippocampus than men with a similar profile, but who did not drive for a living. That part of the hippocampus is responsible for a person’s navigational skills.

As far as our brain is concerned, it seems to hold true that if we don’t use it, we lose it. Another example appeared in the December 12, 2009 issue of the Toronto Star. It was an article on handwriting, which seems to have been replaced by the keyboard – at least by the younger generation. It concludes, based on research, that handwriting works the brain differently and builds distinct cognitive skills. It reinforces reading and spelling, develops motor memory as it becomes automatic, teaches students to focus, and may help them remember what they learn. So as keyboards replace handwriting, new neural pathways are created and new cognitive skills replace the old.

To maintain flexibility and continue exercising the brain, it is a good idea to get away from a task for a short period of time, and then return to it mentally refreshed. The brain thrives on variety. Also, don’t schedule too tightly, introduce change gradually, take other people’s agenda into account when making plans, recognize that you always have choices, and get in the habit of developing alternative plans.

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Goal-Directed Persistence

Goal-directed PersistenceGoal-directed persistence is another important executive function skill. It is 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.
But if you are controlled by your environment, and others, and have trouble focusing beyond the present moment, you are weak in this skill.
Setting goals, recording them in your planner, using the chunk method of taking small steps at a time, working towards deadlines, having plenty of breaks, will both help you to be productive in spite of this weak skill – as well as help you to strengthen it.

It’s important not to 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.

For example if you want to organize your office, you would select one area, say a filing cabinet, and focus entirely on that, one drawer at a time. Setting a deadline of one drawer a day, and picking a specific time, say 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., will allow you to schedule each task as though it were a business meeting. When scheduling the time for each session, be sure to allow more time than you think it will take. And if it takes two or more sessions to finish the first drawer, don’t let that bother you. You can adjust the time allowance for the other drawers.

The important thing is to 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.

Usually, people who quit before reaching their goal either do not have sufficient motivation to continue or do not have a clear plan to follow. So you must 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.

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.

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Do You Have Time for Time Management?

Harold Taylor - time management expert

No time for time managementTime management and organization are usually treated as two separate skills, but they are so closely related I will discuss them both together.

Organization is the ability to arrange according to a system. If you are neat, detailed and orderly, generally have a place for everything, and have no trouble keeping track of everything, you have organization skills. But if you’re messy, continually lose or misplace things and have no system for filing or handling e-mail or organizing other information, you are likely weak in this skill.

Time management is the ability to estimate and allocate time effectively. You are good in the skills if you have little trouble meeting deadlines, have a good sense of time passage, and know the importance of time. You’re seldom late for meetings or appointments, set target dates, schedule your time and meet commitments. But if you’re always running late can’t account for where half your time went, have trouble estimating how long things will take, and fail to meet target dates, you are weak in this skill.

If a person is weak in these skills — or in any of the executive skills being discussed in this blog — they can actually strengthen the skills by adopting systems that partially compensate for these weaknesses.

In the case of time management and organization, I recommend the use of hardcopy planners and reverting to the old habit of writing things down and doing one thing at a time. This does not mean that you should abandon the use of technology, including the Internet, e-mail, iPhone’s or texting. But forgetfulness, lack of focus, distractions, impulsivity, procrastination and other time wasters are reduced considerably when you build structure into your day that is both visible and actionable.

With the average Canadian spending over 45 hours online each month, there’s not much time left to focus on what’s important. And research suggests that Internet use is having a negative impact on how we think and behave, affecting our ability to focus, store memory, and interact with others.

Over 30 years ago I developed the Taylor Planner as an ADD-friendly planner since it compensates for many of the weak executive skills identified by individuals diagnosed with ADD or ADHD.

The planner displays an entire week at a glance (7 days) in 15-minute increments from early morning until late evening. It contains a weekly “Action List” of things to be done and space each day to block off time to work on the important tasks. Working in chunks of time rather than marathon work sessions makes it easier to maintain focus and avoid distractions. You can see a copy of the planner at

Writing everything down, including things to do, appointments, morning, evening and weekend commitments, follow-ups and reminders makes it difficult to forget anything. There are sections for goals, important contacts, and assignments and due dates as well as plenty of space for personal notes, and other information.

Blocking off time to work on specific projects a little at a time avoids procrastination. Marking down the time you have to leave for an appointment prevents lateness. Notes in the daily “Follow-up” section remind you to check up on things asked for previously. You also have a permanent record of what you have accomplished.

There are daily follow-up sections for recording important dates and events you want to remember, such as birthdays, and reminders such as when to look in your follow-up file and where you put those theatre tickets.

The suggestions at the front of the planner include using colored self-adhesive labels to flag birthdays and other special events as well as yellow sticky notes for those urgent items you can’t afford to overlook.

Other suggestions include organizing your work area before you call it a day, placing the top priority (or a reminder of it) on your desk before you leave work, and always preparing for the next day, whether that includes putting out the clothes you have to wear or leaving your computer bag, ready to go, at the front door. Also, set alarms on your smartphone to signal when it’s time to stop working on a task or when it’s time to leave for an appointment.

The more you are reminded of things you have to do or times you have to leave or places you have to visit or errands you have run, the less you will have to be reminded – since new neural connections are being strengthened in the brain.

You could attend a time management course for assistance or hire a professional organizer initially to organize your home, work area desk, file system, and set up procedures or systems for e-mail, handling paperwork and so on. The important thing is to develop systems that will work for you and stick to them until they become second nature.

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How to Get the Important Things Done

If you’re trying to figure out how to get the important things done you may have to look at the brain. The Planning/prioritization executive function skill is the ability to determine what is important and what is not, and to create a road map or step by step plan to complete the chosen tasks. This involves making decisions as to where your focus should be directed and the best way to do the tasks or reach your goals. You must think clearly about each project, think through the various steps, and set target dates.

If you have trouble prioritizing and don’t know where to start or how to proceed, you are weak in this skill.

In the last blog I mentioned the importance of creating an environment that makes it easier to develop the executive skill of task initiation. This is true with all the skills, but especially so with the skill of planning prioritization.

You must decide what has to be done and record these things so you don’t forget to do them, determine which ones are more important, and then decide how, when and in what order they should be done. Actually doing them requires a skill of task initiation, which was discussed in last week’s blog.

You could start by making a “To do” list or checklist of tasks, activities and projects to be completed. Checklists are normally used for repetitive activities such as packing for trips, preparing for meetings or shopping for supplies. These become standing plans since they are used over and over again. To do lists change daily and are best recorded directly into your daily planner, either hard copy or electronic. The problem with separate single-sheet “To do” lists is that they are easily misplaced or overlooked — especially if you have a weak organization skills, which is next week’s topic.

When you see all your tasks listed you are more easily able to compare them and select those of greater importance. Ask yourself which ones would have the greatest impact on your personal and business goals, and ultimately your success in life. At this stage you could put check marks on those of greater importance. Then take the more important ones and actually schedule them into your planner as though they were school classes. Example, “9 AM-10:30 AM, write article.” These become blocks of time in your planner – commitments to meet with yourself at specific times to get the work done.

Those items of lesser importance can be left on your “To do” list and you can do them later if you still have time after completing the priorities.

Don’t be fooled by items that are urgent, but not important. If not getting them done will have little impact on your job or life, leave them on a “To do” list to die a natural death.

As you practice this technique, your planning/prioritization skills will strengthen, as well as many of the other executive skills such as time management and organization.

You can make planning and prioritization a habit if you schedule planning time in your planner every day. For example, set aside a half-hour or more every afternoon or evening to compare the priority of those tasks that you have already scheduled for the balance of the week to those that you have added to your “To do” list in the meantime. Make any necessary adjustments. Priorities do change; but if you are constantly reviewing them, you will be certain to get the important things done.

And habits require less energy and forethought.

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A new way of looking at procrastination

A new way of looking at procrastination is from the perspective of an executive function skill – task initiation. Task initiation is the ability to begin tasks without undo procrastination. If you have no problem digging right into a task at the scheduled time, seldom put things off, and have no trouble getting started with priorities at the beginning of each work day, you have string task initiation skills. But if you tend to procrastinate, are slow getting started, do a lot of preliminary stuff like read the paper, have a coffee, straighten your desk etc. then you are weak on task initiation.

Most people procrastinate occasionally. Weak task initiation skills are one of the major causes of poor time management. Piers Steel, a University of Calgary psychologist, after analyzing psychological literature, concluded that 95% of people admit that they sometimes procrastinate.

Telling other people about your goals and making commitments rather than simply intentions have been known to help. Also recording starting times – including blocks of time in which to do your priority tasks – is a good idea. Having all materials ready before you start so there’s no excuse to interrupt yourself and doing unpleasant tasks first are good ways to partially compensate for weak initiation skills.

Forming a habit of starting for early in the morning, having policies as to when you work on the various tasks and choosing a quiet location all might help.
But we tend to avoid unpleasant things and gravitate towards pleasant things. This tendency is so common that it has even been given a label, the Pleasure Principle, which has been defined as: “an organism avoids pain and seeks immediate gratification.”

In a way, the marshmallow experiment is an example of this principle. It was originally conducted at Stanford University back in the sixties. A group of four-year olds were given a marshmallow and promised another if they could wait 20 minutes before eating the first one. Some children could wait and others could not. The researchers then followed the progress of each child into adolescence, and demonstrated that those with the ability to wait were better adjusted and more dependable and scored an average of 210 points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Those who gave into temptation early on were more likely to be lonely, easily frustrated and stubborn. They didn’t cope well with stress and stayed clear of challenges. Yale University later conducted research on adults and found the similar results.

The executive skills needed to wait for the greater reward include task initiation and response inhibition. It may explain why we tend to procrastinate on distasteful or overwhelming tasks and work instead on those brief and pleasant tasks, even though they may be less important. When we procrastinate, we are frequently putting off what we want most in order to get what we want at the moment.

But how were the few four-year-olds, who also had very weak executive skills (since these skills take almost twenty years to fully develop) able to resist temptation and wait for the second marshmallow? Well, in examining the tapes many years later, researchers noticed that those children used strategies that allowed them to resist temptation – strategies that we could use ourselves in order to manage ourselves more effectively. They all changed their environment in some way to offset their natural inclination to devour the marshmallow right away. Some put the marshmallow out of sight by sitting under the table or by facing away from the marshmallow. Others sang a song or hummed a tune, focusing their attention on something other than the marshmallow. They did something to avoid having to face the temptation.

Translating these strategies to the business environment, you could turn off your cellphone, engage voicemail, turn off email alerts and close your office door at specific times while you work on your priority projects. You could remove all clutter and other potential distractions from your immediate work area – including any in-baskets. Don’t have family photos or memorabilia in your line of sight. Face a blank wall, not a window or open doorway. Work on projects for 60 or 90 minutes at a time – maximum. If you find that’s too long to postpone urges to interrupt yourself, shorten the work sessions even more. You can always increase them gradually later. Between sessions you can check email, return phone calls and grab a coffee. Work in short sprints rather than attempt marathons. Research shows that willpower consumes a lot of energy so you must pace yourself.

Through environmental and procedural changes it will be easier to resist the temptation to put things off. And the more you practice self-discipline, the stronger the neural connections in the brain, and the stronger those task initiation skills will become.


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Is your attention span decreasing?

Sustained attention is the capacity to focus on a task despite fatigue or boredom – to be able to maintain attention and not be easily distracted or side tracked. You are strong in this executive skill if you are able to screen out distractions and complete a task without your mind drifting to other thoughts. But if you’re easily distracted, have trouble completing tasks, frequently interrupt yourself to deal with e-mail, text messages etc., then you have weak sustained attention skills.

There was an experiment conducted about 12 years ago that involved subjects watching a video of a basketball game. The psychologists showed the same video to everyone. A person dressed in a gorilla suit walked across the playing court during the game. Half the viewers never noticed. They coined the phrase “illusion of attention” to describe the fact that we are unaware of how much we are really missing in our visual world.

When you are focusing on a task, whether it is watching TV or working on an article or thesis, the mind tends to filter out distractions so that “intentional blindness” is a side effect of your power of concentration. If you’re not looking for it, chances are you may not see it. As a case in point, 75% of the cases where DNA evidence frees someone previously convicted of a crime, they had originally been convicted by the testimony of eye witnesses.

You can use this fact to work more efficiently by focusing on a task even in a noisy environment or one in which people are forever walking past your field of vision. If you are interested and focused on what you are doing, you will be less susceptible to self-interruptions.
Unfortunately, focusing for any length of time is difficult, and in this digital age of speed, where we are continually being bombarded and interrupted by electronic media, attention spans are becoming even shorter.

Most people seem to be able to pay attention to things that they do well, whether it is texting, drawing or working on jig saw puzzles. But they may have problems with common tasks that bring no sense of pleasure or sustained interest. These could include writing weekly reports, attending lengthy meetings or organizing their home or office. So it’s not that they are unable to pay attention for any length of time, but they may find it more boring than other people to stick to tasks that have no interest to them.

Focusing on something that is of little interest or more difficult for them consumes more of their energy. It has even been shown that making decisions consumes energy – to the extent that decisions made later in the day are not as sound as those made earlier in the day.
Also, the brain is goal-oriented, and if the expectation of achieving a goal is strong, and the rewards are great, attention is strong for longer periods of time. Therefore it would help if the tasks were reasonably easy, took shorter periods of time, were connected to a definite plan of action or schedule, and offered benefits that were clearly evident.

That’s one reason why I recommend using the 90-minute rule of scheduling. This refers to the practice of breaking projects and larger tasks into 90-minute work sessions separated by breaks, either physical or mental.

Ninety minutes is a reasonable length of time to be unavailable to other people. It also minimizes self-interruptions & fatigue, allows you to capitalize on your “prime time” each day, avoids the inefficiency of marathon work sessions, and makes it easier to build a consistent habit of working productively each day.

Those who think they are good at multitasking are usually the worst at it. Although researchers have identified a few “supertaskers,” who can focus fully on two or more things at the same time, chances are we’re not one of them. Stick to one task for 90 minutes – less if you find you can’t focus that long. If you are able to get two of these work sessions into each day, you will be head and shoulders above most people when it comes to personal productivity.

And you will be strengthening your attention skill in the process.


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 People who can’t control their anger really make me mad.

Emotional control, the next executive skill that we’ll discuss, is the ability to manage emotions in order to achieve goals. If you are strong in this skill you are relatively unemotional and cool under pressure. You’re not easily sidetracked, resist temptation, don’t get overly emotional if criticized, and are not easily discouraged – in short, you have emotional control.

But if you react when criticized, have difficulty controlling your anger, and are easily frustrated, you have a low emotional control.

This is a difficult one to control since so many people seem to anger easily and take comments personally. And a negative attitude and emotional state 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.

And 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 reacted positively and with a fighting spirit were still alive compared with less than half the others. There is little doubt that attitude can have either a negative or positive impact on your health.

If you let it, your brain will take any thought about financial problems or job insecurity or a disagreement with your spouse and create worse case scenarios to worry about. According to an article in the December 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind, research showed that “the more we dwell on negative thoughts, the more the threats feel real, and the more they will repeat in our skulls, sometimes uncontrollable.

If you use the same suggestions as under impulsiveness and you don’t answer contentious e-mail until next day or at least count to ten before answering, you might avoid the emotional impact. And if you view your mind as separate from your brain and use the “thought-stopping technique whenever you find yourself slipping into anger mode or negativity or worry, you can gain control of your brain. You have to learn to press the “delete” button when non-productive thoughts start surfacing, and you might do this by actually saying, “Stop that!” and start thinking happy thoughts instead.

Researchers find that worriers show an increased activity in the area of the brain associated with executive functions such as planning, reasoning and impulse control. Most of the suggestions in strengthening the other executive skills will help with the emotional skill as well.

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, humor helps. And volunteer on a regular basis. By helping others you are also helping yourself.

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How Memory Effects Our Ability to be Effective

Working memory is the ability to hold information in memory while performing complex tasks such as language comprehension, learning and reasoning. In the middle of a hectic day when you’re going from one crisis to another and you still remember that you were supposed to phone someone at a specific time, you have a strong working memory. Or you’re interrupted by a phone call and you don’t forget where you left off.

Computers with greater RAM yield better performance and so it is with working memory in humans. Dr. Zach Hambrick, a Michigan State researcher found that those with greater working memory capacity outperformed others. Studies of pilot errors in fatal airline crashes indicate that problems are rarely due to the pilot not knowing what to do or when do it, but more often due to failures in resuming a task after being interrupted.

The most important aid for coping with this weakness is to write down things and make lists. If you have to leave a project, write the next step before you leave. Before you answer the phone, or greet a drop-in visitor, jot down the first few words of your planned next sentence.

Recall is better at the beginning and end of events. For example, if you are trying to remember a nine digit number, you would easily recall the first few numbers and the last few numbers but you would find that it is more difficult to recall the ones in between. This is referred to as the “primacy effect” and “recency effect.” You tend to remember more of the information at the start and at the finish than in the middle. Working on a project or reading or studying for shorter periods of time provides more beginnings and endings. This is one of the reasons I recommend working on a project in shorter sprints rather than longer marathons.

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Some researchers feel that working memory is critical, that there is a link between working memory and ability and general cognitive performance. An article in the May 5, 2011 Toronto Globe and Mail titled “The brain can juggle only so much” by Mark Fenske, co-author of The winner’s brain, claims that practice can improve working memory. He illustrated this by using a computer-based task that requires information to be held in mind while updating it. Simply memorizing things will help. And you can become quite good at it. I used to facilitate memory training workshops, and on occasion I still do for seniors at our local church. People are amazed at what they are capable of remembering once they apply themselves.

It’s evident that if we don’t use our executive skills they will weaken. It’s similar to the impact of a sedentary lifestyle on our muscles. But not only are we outsourcing our memories to computers, and doing it willingly, some people seem to be advocating it. The personal technology columnist for the New York Times in the August, 2013 issue of Scientific American, asks “why should we mourn the loss of memorization skills any more than we pine for hot type technology, Morse code abilities or a knack for operating elevators?” Yet by letting computers do all our memorizing and dozens of other mental activities, we are weakening our brains.

I’m not against progress. Computers in the classroom? By all means. Let them take over the routine work? Absolutely. Programming them to do those time wasting jobs, including calculations? Of course. But not to the extent that they eliminate the need, ability or desire to memorize, calculate, problem solve, create, think and otherwise exercise our brains. Heaven forbid if some quirk of nature should short-circuit the world’s computers. We would all be as helpless as newborn babies.

The best thing for strengthening your memory, both working memory and long-term memory, is to exercise both your body and your brain. Do crossword puzzles, read articles and books, take educational courses, practice creativity exercises, and continually challenge yourself. If you retire physically, don’t retire mentally. Studies suggest that maintaining intellectual activity throughout life can preserve memory in later years. The Victoria Longitudinal Study in Western Canada revealed that middle-aged or older individuals who participate in intellectually challenging activities and projects, including reading, are less likely to suffer declines in cognitive functioning.

Physical exercise is even more important. You need to keep the blood flowing to the brain with the oxygen and glucose that it needs to operate at its peak. Physical exercise and other important factors such as sleep, stress reduction and brain-boosting foods will be discussed in later blogs once I have covered actions you can take to strengthen all the executive skills that we mentioned previously.