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Think before you act

It would be great if we were all strong in the executive skills listed in last week’s blog; but unfortunately few of us are. I have never met anyone who didn’t struggle at times with self-control, patience, focus, time management or other issues relevant to the executive skills described previously. Those of us who struggle excessively would probably be diagnosed as having ADHD. According to Jesse Payne, in his 2014 book Change your brain change your life before 25, in the US alone, 5.2 million children do struggle with ADHD. Then there are the adults.

The skill I will discuss here, which has a major impact on our ability to manage time, is response inhibition – the ability to think before you act. If you weigh the pros and cons before you act, work on tasks in accordance with their priority, and take a methodical approach to things, you’re probably strong in response inhibition. Weakness in this skill would give rise to impulsiveness. So if you tend to say the first thing that pops into your mind, do things without thinking about the long-term impact of such actions, and are easily distracted by urgent, unimportant or trivial matters, you are relatively weak in this skill.

According to researcher Angelina Sutin, who tracked 200 people for more than 50 years, people who score in the top 10% on impulsiveness weigh 22 pounds more than those in the bottom 10% on average. Perhaps they intend to go to the gym and something else pops up and they follow that impulse instead or they see that tempting Big Mac hamburger and go for it.

To strengthen this and any other executive skill, you must buy into the fact that you are not your brain. You can control these impulses and actually rewire your brain with sufficient effort. Besides the actions I will describe, you must also create an environment that does not support the weakness that you want to eliminate.

For example, don’t go shopping on an empty stomach, don’t have email open when you’re working on a project, and don’t have your cell phone turned on when you’re in a meeting. Studying the tapes of the marshmallow experiments, described in a previous blog, researchers detected that some kids were able to resist eating the single marshmallow by putting it out of sight or turning away from it so they couldn’t see it. That’s why you shouldn’t keep your “fat clothes” once you lose weight or keep cigarettes in the house if you’re giving up smoking.

In the same way, you shouldn’t face an uncovered window when you’re working on an important project or have personal photos and memorabilia on your desk that could encourage distractions. If your workstation is not conducive to concentration, try changing the location by having work sessions at a local coffee shop or spare boardroom.

Other things you can do are: work for shorter periods of time, structure your day by scheduling appointments with yourself to get specific things done, have specific times to check e-mail and text messages, and work with your natural body rhythms of high and low energy.

You can practice willpower. For example, break your favorite chocolate bar into 7 pieces and have only one piece a day. Grab water when you have an urge for a coke. Give up dessert for a week. Decline invitations you don’t enjoy. Don’t respond to an emotional email until the following morning. Use the stairs instead of the elevator, and so on. The more you practice self-discipline, the more your inner strength grows, just like exercising at a gym increases your physical strength. Your brain will be rewired through the repetition of good habits so keep at it until it becomes a habit.

It’s important that you have goals and objectives and plans to achieve them. Then you have a reason to resist the temptation to go wherever your impulses take you. The more you resist temptation, the easier it becomes. Self-discipline is the rejection of instant gratification in favor of something better – a higher and more rewarding goal.

There are many things, such as exercise, that you can do to strengthen all your cognitive skills, including the executive skills, but these will be covered after briefly discussing each executive skill in turn. But I should mention here that it’s believed that exercise may inspire healthier choices by altering structure in the brain that deal with self-regulation and impulse control.

In the next blog will discuss working memory and what you can do to improve it.

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Brain-based skills that impact how you manage time


A 2010 book, where the same authors of Smart but Scattered , Peggy Dawson and Richard Guare, team up with Chuck Martin, who has also been researching this area, is called Work Your Strengths: a Scientific Approach to Identify your Skills and Match Them to the Best Career for You, published by AMACOM, New York. It doesn’t focus on strengthening these skills, but rather, matching your stronger skills with jobs that require those skills in order to excel. Chuck Martin has found that most people have two or three strong skills and two or three weak skills with the rest falling somewhere in between. You could partner with someone who has strengths where you have weaknesses, or move into a job that matches your skills, but why not strengthen these skills? We can change our brains as surely as the younger generation’s brains are being changed at this very moment. Except that their brains are being changed with no effort on their part – they are simply living in a different technological environment.

In the next few blogs we will take a look at these skills in more detail – describe them them more fully, see how they impact our ability to get organized and manage our time, and discuss how we can improve or strengthen these skills.

But first, here are brief descriptions of the various executive skills described in the book, Work Your Strengths, by Richard Guare, Peg Dawson and Chuck Martin.

Response inhibition: the ability to think before you act.

Working memory: the ability to hold information in memory while performing complex tasks.

Emotional control: the ability to manage emotions in order to achieve goals.

Sustained attention: the capacity to focus on a task despite fatigue or boredom.

Task initiation: the ability to begin tasks without undo procrastination.

Planning/prioritization: the capacity to develop a road map to arrive at a predetermined goal.

Organization: the ability to arrange according to a system.

Time management: the ability to estimate and allocate time effectively.

Goal-directed persistence: the ability to have a goal and follow through until its completion.

Flexibility: the ability to revise plans in the face of obstacles and setbacks.

Metacognition: the ability to observe yourself in a situation and make changes so you’re better able to solve problems.

Stress tolerance: the ability to thrive in stressful situations.

According to the book just mentioned, the executive skill that is the most significant in high performance is planning/prioritization. The top strength in the most high-performing males is metacognition. The top strength in most high-performing females is organization. And the most common weakness is task initiation.

All these skills are important to children coping with life, students attempting to learn and adults wanting to make the best use of their time. In the next few blogs we will explain these executive skills more thoroughly and offer some suggestions on how you can strengthen them, and cope with any weak ones until you do.


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Strengthening your executive skills is a lifelong process


Executive skills are critical in today’s world because life is getting more and more complicated with increasing numbers of choices and decisions to make and less time in which to make them. The ability to set goals, plan and prioritize, and stay on course is vital if we are to remain effective in this digital age of speed.

In fact the executive skills I’m describing seem close to what we used to teach managers or executives in workshops and business students in college. The functions of a manager are planning, organizing, staffing, directing and controlling – and includes innovating, decision-making and representing.

When we trained managers we tried to show them how they should plan, organize, staff and so on in order to become better managers. In retrospect, it would appear that some students were already good in those areas because of some highly developed brain skills. In fact the prefrontal cortex is sometimes referred to as the CEO of the brain, drawing on the feedback from other areas of the brain and making the decision whether to take one course of action or another.

Although there are similarities between the management functions that we teach and executive brain skills, the executive skills, as we are describing them here, relate to brain skills acquired through normal development. They are located in the prefrontal cortex and are the last areas of the brain to develop in late adolescence or early adulthood. The frontal lobes themselves, thought to be the main areas where the executive skills reside, require 18 to 20 years to develop. Some of the skills are developing at 5 to 6 months of age. By age 24, they are thought to be fully developed – or hardwired – some stronger than others.

But like math and reading, these skills can be taught and learned as children grow older. They are not genetic. When a baby is born she has no ability to control the undeveloped and primitive emotional circuits. The baby must learn from the fully-developed brain of the parents or others through one-on-one interactions with them.

As many as half of North American children have poor self-regulating skills by the time they get to school. It shows up in high rates of attention deficit disorder or ADHD among other problems. It is also claimed that some of this is traced to the increase in neurotoxins, such as mercury, air pollution and PCBs passing through the umbilical cords.

Executive skills can still be strengthened when we are adults, and I’ll talk more about that later. But it’s easier to strengthen them in childhood if the parents role model appropriate behavior. Our brains are malleable or plastic, and are capable of changing throughout life. But there are two main growth periods, one in pre-adolescence, say up to 5 years old, and another during their teens. (100 billion cells by 5 years old followed by pruning, then more growth.)

A parent can design games and tasks that help develop the various executive skills that the child is weak in. It’s a lot easier when the child is young than it is when they’re twenty and fully developed. Change can still take place as we age, and we will discuss this in future blogs. In the meantime, if you want to read up on executive skills and their impact on learning, I would recommend Smart but Scattered by Peggy Dawson and Richard Guare. It is directed primarily at parents and takes one skill at a time and discusses ways of working with your child to strengthen that skill.

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Strengthening your “Executive Skills”

Sometimes referred to as” habits of the mind”, a person’s “executive skills” are those Brainbrain-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.

People with weak executive skills, then, are those who have trouble getting organized, managing time, planning ahead and staying focused. They tend to be impulsive, procrastinate, and get easily sidetracked.

If a child had these characteristics they would probably diagnosed as having ADHD. Many researchers believe that ADD and ADHD are disorders of executive skills. All agree that if the child has ADHD at least some executive skills will be impaired, such as the ability to pay attention and stay focused, manage their time, and stick to one task for any length of time.

Strong executive skills are critical in today’s digital age of speed because life is getting more and more complicated with increasing numbers of choices and decisions to make and less time in which to make them. For this reason, I believe that time management strategies must focus less on environmental control and more on internal control. We cannot control how the world is changing, neither the pace of life nor the 24/7 connectivity and constant bombardment of information. But we can change how we react to this change. And although some of that may still be physical, success in the future will depend more on what’s going on in your mind, body and spirit than what’s going on in your office.

The exact number of executive skills has yet to be determined. Smart but Scattered by Peggy Dawson and Richard Guare (The Guilford Press, 2009) identify 11 executive functions. Work Your Strengths by Chuck Martin, Peggy Dawson and Richard Guare (AMACOM, New York in 2010) describe 12 executive functions. A New Understanding of ADHD in Children & Adults:Executive Function Impairments by Thomas E. Brown (Routledge, May, 2013)  proposes 6 separate clusters of executive functions. This makes more sense since several of the executive functions are similar, and the more detailed you are, the more open to error you are as research in this area continues.

Regardless of the number of skills, they are generally those essential to effective self-management or time management, and they can be strengthened. In next week’s blog I will pass along some information on how you can use your mind to strengthen weak executive skills in order to manage your time more effectively. The battle in the mind has begun.



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When you leave the office, the interruptions follow

imagesWe are ill-equipped to deal with the onslaught of interruptions introduced by technology. Our brain’s natural inclination is to react to them. We coped with this in the old days by isolating ourselves from interruptions by closing our office door, having our calls screened or intercepted or by going to a coffee shop where no one could contact us.

With the advent of the cell phone, e-mail, texting and portable devices, interruptions now follow us wherever we go. We are at the mercy of our own ability or inability to resist the urge to answer our smart phones, check incoming e-mail or respond to text messages.
The battlefield, where it is determined whether we will lose the quest for personal productivity, has shifted from our office to our brain.

Although technology is evolving exponentially, our brains are not. The allure of e-mail, according to one techno-psychologist, is similar to that of the slot machine: You have intermittent, variable reinforcement. You don’t know when you will be next rewarded so you keep pulling the handle.

There are different theories on willpower. Originally it was thought that willpower was like a muscle that was easily depleted. And research backed this up. But newer research also suggests we have as much willpower as we expect we have. If you believe you have the willpower to resist interruptions, you will have it. Sort of like the placebo effect.

This latter theory also seems to be backed up by research conducted at the University of Rochester as a follow-up to the marshmallow experiments of the 1960s. In the experiments of the 1960s, children were given a marshmallow and told that if they could resist eating it for a few minutes they would get two marshmallows. Those who resisted the longest, showing the greatest self-control, were more successful later in life.

The Rochester experiments involved giving one group of children old used crayons and telling them if they resisted playing with them, they would be given new ones. But they never received the new ones. Another group was told the same thing but the researchers made good on their promise of new crayons. When they all took the marshmallow test afterwards, the group with a good experience behind them resisted eating the marshmallow for 12 minutes. The other group, who obviously had lower expectations, lasted only 2 minutes.

Although our brain hasn’t evolved recently, perhaps it doesn’t have to. We already have a brain capable of resisting temptation – although it may need strengthening – and we can still do a lot to remove the source of the temptation.

Removing the source of temptation could involve turning off your handheld devices while you work on priority projects, keeping the paperwork, to do lists and other distractions out of sight while working on a specific task, and leaving your cell phone at home if you decide to work in a coffee shop. You could also do all your priority work in the same place — one devoid of distracting scenery, pictures or paraphernalia so your brain gets to associate that space with work.

Resisting temptation might involve not going online or checking e-mail before 10 AM, ignoring a ringing telephone when you’re talking with family and friends, and resisting any urge to buy electronic devices that you really don’t need. (After all, who really needs a smart watch when they already have a smart phone? It’s much more important to have a smart brain.)

Self-discipline or self-control, focus, attention, prioritizing and planning are essential if we are to remain effective in this digital age of speed. These are functions of our executive center in the prefrontal cortex area of our brain. That’s why I claim that the battlefield has shifted from the office to the brain. In the next few blogs I will be discussing how we can strengthen our cognitive skills, and in particular, these executive skills that are so critical to the effective use of our time.

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Is technology changing the way we think – and live?

brainmachineOne thought stands out from the writings of Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s –“The medium is the message.” Step ahead 50 years and that statement now seems prophetic. The medium is the electronic technology such as e-mail, and as we remain focused on the messages we receive, the medium takes over — impacting how we manage our time and our lives.

There is an expression I used for over 30 years: “We are so busy doing things that we don’t realize we’re not getting anywhere.” I’m sure I didn’t come up with this originally since it’s doubtful I’ve ever had an original thought in my life. But combined with McLuhan’s statement, it warns us that we should not be so focused on the beauty of the trees that we are unaware of the dangers of the forest.

Technology is a beautiful and wondrous thing. We can shop online, do online banking, send electronic greetings to our family and friends, download music, watch movies on our laptops, dictate to our computers using voice-activated software, and read electronic books on portable handheld devices — among hundreds of other things unavailable in Marshall McLuhan’s lifetime.

I see nothing wrong with reading e-books or performing any of the above activities with the aid of technology. But I do question what’s happening to us if we stop reading altogether, remain cocooned in our homes, infrequently meet personally with friends and relatives, and spend more time watching movies than interacting with our children.

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.

Multitasking taxes the brain, and gets progressively worse as we age. Have you ever been distracted by a telephone call only to forget what you were going to do before the distraction? The other morning I found myself brushing my teeth with after shave lotion! (But others might attribute this to senility.) Research indicates you can have several motor programs running simultaneously, such as steering a car, chewing gum and reaching for a cell phone; but you can only focus your conscious attention on one thing according to Shelley Carson, author of Your creative brain, because your brain thinks sequentially.

Our lifestyle seems to be changing to one of constant rushing to get more things done, and researchers studying people’s behavior at traffic lights have spotted people combing their hair, applying makeup, eating, reading newspapers, talking on cell phones and even using laptops. To quote Barton Sparagon of the Meyer Friedman Institute in San Francisco, “Hurrying is a struggle against time — and that’s unhealthy.” And Faith popcorn, author of The popcorn report, claims “Speedeating has developed into a fine art.”

Cramming more activities into a day causes stress, and stress causes sleeplessness, and lack of sleep causes impatience and the ability to concentrate. It’s a vicious circle. Is technology to blame? No, we are to blame. Because we failed to heed Marshall McLuhan’s warning that the medium is the message.

In my next blog I will describe how this is affecting our time, our health and our personal productivity, and what we can do about it.