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Adult coloring books: stress relievers or waste of time?

In the United States in 2016, adult coloring book sales topped $14 million compared to $10 million in 2015. Recently, sales have slowed down, possibly because the books have reached the saturation point. But that’s a lot of people who still believe the books are beneficial.

Last week there were still over 200 different adult coloring books listed at the Amazon website alone – ranging in price from a few dollars to over $20 each. Although using your children’s books may be just as relaxing, adult coloring books sport higher quality paper, more intricate designs, and a wider selection of themes.

I snapped the accompanying photo of a magazine section in my local supermarket, showing the extent that adult coloring books are encroaching on valuable rack space.

Are people regressing to childhood activities in an attempt to escape work and/or responsibility? Will executive sandboxes be making a comeback soon? Or are people finding it difficult to find an adult hobby? Is it an example of the “cocoon” lifestyle where we avoid interacting with other people? Or can people not find more productive ways to use their time?

No, these aren’t the reasons why so many people are taking to coloring within the lines of sketches, designs and geometric shapes.

Although adult coloring books are mostly marketed to harried adults looking to relieve stress, they are also claimed to expel negative thoughts, help you achieve mindfulness, distract you from the daily pressures of life, release your creativity and allow you to experience relief by altering your meditative state. There are even reports of lowering blood pressure and reducing heart rates.

There is some disagreement over the therapeutic benefit of coloring books, and they are not a replacement for art therapy, meditation, yoga or prayer; but the books have been known to help switch off your brain and elicit a relaxation mindset. So this does make them stress relievers.

Focusing on anything, whether it’s a coloring book or not, does consume less energy, and giving the brain’s amygdala a rest has to be a good thing. It’s definitely more difficult to worry or obsess over problems and still color mandala patterns at the same time. And engaging in a childish pastime made accessible and acceptable to adults should be a welcome diversion for many hard-working executives.

But isn’t it a waste of time?

Not really. It has already been proven that working in chunks of time, such as 90 minutes, separated by relaxing breaks – or at least a change of pace – aids personal productivity. Perhaps coffee breaks should be replaced by coloring breaks. Or it might at least be a good transitioning activity as you transfer your mind and body from work to home.

Coffee breaks are usually not free of interruptions. In fact the amygdala part of our brain is constantly on the lookout for interruptions. Interruptions involve multitasking, which in turn causes stress and consumes more energy. Focusing, on the other hand, consumes less energy and puts the amygdala in an idle mode.

I have actually never heard of “color breaks.” But literature on the topic of coloring books includes a mention of their use by students in classrooms. They can more effectively concentrate on the lecture while coloring. But isn’t that multitasking? Not really, since the coloring becomes a habitual, mindless activity that allows greater focus than if the student were fidgeting and unable to stay still.

This makes even more sense to me when I realize that the inability to focus is often a symptom of anxiety and stress. And I must apologize to my lady friend who insists on knitting when we are visiting with other people. She is actually increasing her focus on the conversations.

I still resent the time it takes to color; and I prefer physical exercise as a way to focus while enhancing cognitive health. But certain neurologists and neuropsychologists have convinced me of its therapeutic properties, and I plan to look into it further. In fact I wonder if the colors used would have an impact – as they do in office design. For instance, as I mentioned in my eBook on the impact of the environment on personal productivity (published by Bookboon.com), blue and green have been found to be the most effective in stimulating personal productivity, and green has also been associated with calm and well-being.

Health is even more important than time since without it, time is stripped of much, if not all, of its effectiveness. And there is little doubt of the negative impact of excessive stress on our health and well-being. Today there is no shortage of negative stressors – from workload, deadlines and difficult people – to constant interruptions from calls, email and text messages.

Few people will disagree that the digital age of speed can be physically, mentally and emotionally draining. Merging high-tech with high touch provides a way of unwinding and recharging so you can replenish depleted energy.

Coloring can be viewed as self-care, and a way of maintaining balance in an otherwise go-go-go environment. You have no doubt heard the expression, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Well, perhaps adding some bright colors to the situation might prevent that from happening.

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You deserve a break today

According to one study, a 17-minute break every hour is ideal; but most of us spend most of the day setting at a desk squinting at a computer screen, putting both our productivity and health at risk.

People who take breaks in the morning feel more refreshed and less emotionally exhausted than those only taking breaks in the afternoon. This could be a result of using up more energy on priority tasks and facing more challenges, interruptions and communications in the morning. The more you focus and the more decisions you make, the more important it is to take a break.

You also tend to be more creative after taking a break – especially when combining it with exercise. It is thought that your mind it could be chewing away at the problem in the background, according to an item in Time’s 2017 special edition on Mindfulness.

When you take a break with other office workers, keep the conversation unrelated to work in order to get the full productivity and wellness benefits. Ideally, physically getting away from work during your break is better than a trip to the company cafeteria or boardroom. A minimum walk of 10 minutes is best – especially if it relates to nature in some way – such as a stroll among trees or in a field or garden. The longer you walk, the greater the benefit, and it has been shown that a 40 minute walk in a forest results in lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol then an equivalent walk in the laboratory.

If it is impossible to leave your workstation, at least have a stand-up break. Simply standing increases your energy, and walking increases energy levels by more than 200%. Sitting for more than half the day doubles the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular problems. According to James Levine, co-director of Obesity Solutions, a program of the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, research indicated that those sitting for over four hours a day had a 46% increase in deaths from any cause than those sitting less than two hours a day.

Standing up while working can improve performance. Studies have shown that people can make quicker decisions and absorb information faster when standing. (One study referred to in the August 27, 2016 issue of the Toronto Star mentioned that standing desks in schools improves behaviour and helps kids burn off more calories.) Standing desks in call centres have been known to boost productivity up to 46%.

Exercise breaks are probably the most effective, but the most difficult to work into a busy day. So at least walk around when you talk on the phone, stretch, hold stand-up meetings, use standing desks periodically, and take the stairs instead of the elevator when possible.

And forget about trying to impress the boss by working through breaks and working overtime. At least one study showed that as long as your work gets done, working longer hours doesn’t make you a better worker in the eyes of your boss. Another study revealed that if people think they should be reachable after work, they feel less in control – and more stressed.

How often you take a break is important, and you should take a brief break every one hour and 90 minutes, depending on your energy cycle. Our brain tends to function in rhythms of high energy followed by briefer periods of low energy. This energy cycle is discussed in more detail in my ebook, Managing your energy, published by Bookboon.com.

Did you take a break today? Reading this article doesn’t count – because it relates to work.

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Can colors actually improve your performance?

office-colors

In my last blog article I mentioned that the presence of potted plants in offices improves productivity, creativity, performance and learning ability. One of the reasons given was that plants and trees act as vacuum cleaners, absorbing the indoor pollutants that have been linked to anxiety, depression, irritability, fatigue and cognitive decline.

But that’s not the whole answer. If it were, why is it that that people with windows facing the outside world are more productive, healthier, and maintain a higher level of concentration than people with windowless offices? And why did researchers find that the more green space that residents can see out their windows, the less aggression and violence they reported at home? And why did researchers find that university students with mostly natural views from their dormitory windows score better on tests of working memory and concentration than college students who lived in the same dorm but with views of other buildings?

We have a definite link with nature, and the human brain is influenced by our environment – what we see, smell, hear and feel. The book, How the body knows its mind, by Sion Beilock reported that city dwellers are at a 20% increase risk for developing anxiety disorders and a 40% increased risk for mood disorders compared with people who live in less populated areas. And in the book, Your brain on nature, by Selhub and Logan, the authors state that research has shown that emotions of pleasure and happiness are elevated with an increase of tree density – even in urban settings.

It’s more than simply pollution at play. Japanese researchers have noted increases in the number of natural killer cells and increases in the amount of intracellular anticancer proteins after spending time in a forest. And natural chemicals secreted by evergreen trees have been associated with improvements in the activity of the frontline immune defenders.

And what about the impact of the various colors on our mood and performance? Is it a coincidence that blue and green – the colors most frequently found in nature – have also been found to be the most effective in stimulating personal productivity? Selhub and Logan point out in their book that recent studies show that the blue portion of the light spectrum stimulates the areas of the brain that involve attention and memory. Blue enriched light has been shown to improve mood, performance, alertness, irritability and evening fatigue. Blue is known as an excellent color for productivity as well as having a calming effect on employees. It stimulates the mind and increases productivity. Ravi Mehta, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, believes that a blue background screen on your computer also improves performance when working on a creative tasks, while a red background is better with more detailed oriented tasks.

Green has also been associated with calm and well-being. One study found that 95% of the university students questioned associated the colour with positive emotions. Deep greens can excite and motivate staff. Melanie Feltham, social media community manager at Upwork, claims we feel at ease in blue and green rooms because of their relationship to nature.

You may want to experiment with colors. A national survey of 1000 office workers found blue to be their preferred hue. One researcher suggested a mixture of blue-green with accents of motivating soft red. Some workers are more productive in rooms painted in bright colors while others find it overwhelming.

It has been suggested that you use a lighter color on your desk since reducing the amount of contrast between your computer screen and desk will reduce eyestrain. Alternatively, you could use a large blotter or desk calendar.

Avoid beige or white. A University of Texas study found that grey, beige or white offices induced feelings of sadness and depression – especially in women. Yellow can give you a burst of energy; but it can cause irritability and induce fatigue faster. Red tends to increase heart rate and blood pressure and should probably be used only to draw attention to something – like stop signs, fire hydrants or fire engines.

It would appear that sticking to the colors found in nature – blue skies, blue water, green trees, green grass and fields – is the best choice for efficiency, focus and a lower stress level.

It’s hard to improve on nature.

 

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Positivity at work

 

POSITIVE

Positively eliminate the negative

Emotional well-being is when a person consistently reports more positive than negative feelings. And according to research reported in the November/December, 2015 issue of Scientific American Mind, we become more positive and happier the older we get. In spite of hardships and failing health, something about old age keeps people in good spirits – particularly those passing the 100 mark.

It could be from failing minds, but more likely this positive attitude is from a changing outlook as we grow older and wiser and more able to control our brains. Certainly studies suggest that the positivity and happiness changes over time and is not something that we always possessed or acquired suddenly as we aged.

Also, it was found that seniors who are the most positive also have the sharpest minds – so if you’re young, keep it healthy with both physical and mental exercise. And if you’re old, do likewise. Everyone, regardless of age, should give their positivity a boost whenever possible.

A positive attitude tends to stress-proof your life. It’s important to get sufficient sleep, daily exercise and social support. And 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. Also, volunteer on a regular basis; by helping others you are also helping yourself.

Use the “stop” method whenever you find yourself having negative thoughts about a future event that may or may not happen. Negativity thinking is more common than you may think. Robert Leahy in his book, The Worry Cure, (Harmony, 2005) claims that 38% of people say they worry every day, and more than 19 million Americans are chronic worriers. Instead of dwelling on negative thoughts, immediately say “Stop that!” either aloud or silently to yourself. And then get on with the next item on your “To Do” list.

Action will dissipate worry every time.

You will become more positive and happier the older you get. But why wait when you can enjoy life more right now by accentuating the positive and doing everything you can to eliminate the negative.

If that last line is familiar to you, and the research showing that positivity increases with age is accurate, you are already more positive than most people because it’s based on a song written over 70 years ago.

 

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We need good old-fashioned rest and renewal

Rest & renewal

Time to sharpen ourselves

Time management experts for the last 100 years or so have been using the analogy of a woodsman chopping down trees who worked harder and harder to get more work done in a day. In competition with another woodsman who consistently outperformed him, even though the stranger didn’t seem to work as hard or as fast, he finally asked how he did it.

The other woodsman replied, “I pause to sharpen my axe.”

In more recent times, Stephen Covey used a similar analogy when he recommended a time management strategy of “sharpening the saw.”

Normally that has been referred to as pausing for routine maintenance – oiling your equipment, keeping your machines in good working order as well as pausing for rest and renewal, and taking your regular breaks and periodic vacations.

It is this latter reference that is becoming more and more critical in this digital age of speed. We have unlimited things to do, a plethora of choices, and unending supply of information – to the point that not only do we not get sufficient rest, we endanger our health and well-being by getting less sleep, inadequate exercise, improper diet and fewer personal  relationships.

For example, the average person today gets 90 minutes less sleep than a person 100 years ago. A sedentary lifestyle and obesity are becoming the norm. People are frequently skipping breakfast eating on the run. And according to one survey, the most frequently quoted number of really close friends with whom people felt they could discuss important personal matters dropped from three in 1985 to zero in 2004.

We must sharpen the saw. The saw refers to you and to me. We must increase our sleep time, exercise our body and our brain, make regular breaks a daily habit, build more personal relationships, and take all of our vacation time.

This all consumes time. But the net result will not diminish our productivity. To the contrary, it will increase our personal productivity by increasing the energy at our disposal, making us more mentally alert and creative, providing us with more stamina, and improving our health and well-being – even to the point of prolonging our lives.

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The stressful cocoon

cocoonThe “cocooning” trend has been with us for many years – the tendency to hole up in our homes and send out for pizza, watch home videos, shop via phone or TV and even work from home. BrainReserve describes it as “the impulse to go inside when it just gets too tough and scary outside.”

Although The Popcorn Report is a book about trends and the marketing opportunities arising from these trends, it also provides a glimpse of the time-obsessed world in which we live. Technology brings us facts faster than we can handle them. Texting seems to have become a national pastime. We email or text our messages and letters and seldom have to visit a post office, We shop online, have groceries delivered, scan and email contracts, invoices, and proposals, send electronic greeting cards, and order take-out from our laptops or smartphones. We don’t even have to visit people; we now have social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and can even save time on relationships.

Time itself seems to move faster and stress increases as we lose even those brief respites provided by obsolete comments such as “it’s in the mail” or “I’ll get back to you.”

The amount of available information is now doubling every few years. By 1987 the microwave oven had already topped the dishwasher as the most commonly owned kitchen appliance. By 1989 people were spending $900 million dollars in the U. S. on microwaveable foods. Faith Popcorn suggests that speed-eating has been elevated to a fine art. About half of the 86% of Americans who eat dinners at home during the week are eating pre-packaged or take-out food that they pick up or have delivered.

A new trend is continuing to develop. Originally described by Faith Popcorn in her book, The Popcorn Report (Doubleday, 1991) as the “wandering cocoon”, the trend involves making our cocoons mobile. So when we do get out of our home cocoons, we can live and work in our cars. Thus we are decking our cars with iPods, plug-in TV’s, a GPS, and literally having our meals on wheels. Cars are being made more “livable” and drive time becomes a protected escape. There’s even talk of a microwave in the glove compartment and dashboards that serve as tables to eat from. Some people use their cars as offices on wheels.

How ironic if cocooning is an attempt to escape the stress of a fast¬ paced world, and yet finds itself invaded by smartphones, texting, electronic mail and electronic faxes. And as personal one-on-one relationship time decreases, stress increases.

Let’s not relinquish that final bastion of peace and tranquility of a home life and friends. It may mean sacrificing the efficiency of working in transit for the sanity of quiet reflection or trading a pizza ¬on-the-run for an old-fashioned home-cooked meal or playing cards with our kids at the kitchen table. It might even require that we turn off our cell phone while we visit a friend or, heaven forbid, actually leave our handheld device at home the odd time. Whatever it takes to regain balance in our lives is a small price to pay for the concomitant rewards: self-renewal, creativity, wellness, and the opportunity to touch base with ourselves.

Time management is great as far as it goes — until it goes too far. To quote Peter Drucker, “Time has a way of changing your assets into liabilities.”

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Things left undone cause stress

TTM for seniorshe more things in your life that you think should be done but leave undone, the more anxiety and stress you experience. Seldom would a person think of a project they had completed or a meeting they had attended or a phone call they had made and feel stressed as a result. The opposite is true. They would feel good about themselves for having completed those things. Unfortunately that feeling doesn’t last when they think of the dozens or hundreds of things that they have yet to do.

According to the statement made in a Fast Company article, it’s no wonder people are stressed. “The typical businessperson experiences 170 interactions per day (phone calls, hallway conversations, e-mails) and has a backlog of 200 to 300 hours of uncompleted work.” It’s doubtful the average backlog has reduced any during the last 15 years.

If you don’t think something should be done and therefore don’t do it, you’re usually not under stress as a result. If you simply don’t care whether something gets done or not, you’re not under stress either. I’ve never seen a child have an anxiety attack because they hadn’t cleaned their room yet.

Being a responsible adult does have its disadvantages. We do care about the multitude of things that should be done. And if we have more to do than we have time for, how do we get out of this Catch 22?

The first thing we should do is to write them all down. When items are reduced to writing we don’t think of them so often. They no longer pop into our minds unexpectedly, causing incessant anxiety. And even If we are going to be anxious about them, we might as well be anxious about them all at the same time.

The next step is to decide which ones can be eliminated without having a significant effect on our business results or our career or personal or family well-being. Most people have a multitude of things drifting in and out of their minds that they feel should be done. Capture them and delete them before they delete you.

Of the remaining items, quickly do those that will take less than five minutes to complete. This does not follow the recommended time management principle of doing the most important things first, but it will sure make you feel good to see all those crossed-off items. It’s the greatest antidote for this type of anxiety that I know.

Your list may still not be down to a manageable size. See which items can be delegated or outsourced. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Then prioritize the remaining items. Schedule time to work on the high priority tasks – those that will have significant impact on your personal and organizational goals. The more urgent ones should be scheduled this week. If they are huge, time-consuming tasks, break them down into chunks. Scheduling two or three hours each week to write a lengthy and complicated procedure for instance, will complete it within a few months

Finally, put the remaining items on weekly To Do lists, either in a week-at-one-glance paper planner, your software planner or a handheld computer. Be realistic. Don’t cram them all onto a “Things To Do Today” list. Spread them over the ensuing weeks. If they don’t all get done, it’s no big deal. You have already blocked out the time to work on the ones that are really important.

If, after all this, some things still don’t get done, rest assured it’s not your fault. Your job is to do what’s possible, not what’s impossible.

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How to stop worrying

WorrierIf you learn how to stop worrying, you will brighten your days, reduce stress and anxiety, increase your personal productivity, and improve your relationships with others.

By worry, I mean having negative thoughts about a future event that may or may not happen. This negativity is more common than you may think. Robert Leahy in his book, The Worry Cure, (Harmony, 2005) claims that 38% of people say they worry every day, and more than 19 million Americans are chronic worriers.

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. Strengthening your executive skills, outlined in my brief book, A brains-eye view of time management, (as well as in previous blog articles) will help you control your tendency to think negatively.

A positive attitude tends to stress-proof your life. It’s important to get sufficient sleep, daily exercise and social support. And 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. Also, volunteer on a regular basis; by helping others you are also helping yourself.

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.”

Trying to put a negative thought out of your mind only tends to make it hang on that much longer. It’s like trying to ignore a song that replays repeatedly in your mind. It makes more sense to spend a few minutes accepting the fact that you are worried, mulling it over, assuring yourself that you would be able to survive even if the worst were to happen, and then get on with the next item on your “To Do” list.

Action dissipates worry.

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Stress is contagious

StressIt’s bad enough having to cope with the hazards of secondhand smoke; but now it’s found that secondhand stress can be hazardous to our productivity and health as well.
The suggestion that stress is contagious is based on research that suggests a class of brain cells called mirror neurons that appear to reflect the actions & feelings of others.

So if you cringe at the sight of someone else getting hurt, empathize with your friend who is grieving and feel uncomfortable when a coworker is upset and anxious, blame it on these specialized brain cells. No wonder our mothers warned us to stay away from obnoxious people, surround ourselves with positive friends, and be polite to people. (After all, we don’t want to spread our bad feelings to others.)

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

Not only does this make sense of the fact that we sometimes get “bad vibes” from people we meet, it also emphasizes the importance of being able to manage stress effectively – even secondhand stress. Stress can affect our productivity as well as our mood and state of health

We can have a positive influence on others – whether family, friends or business associates – by being kind, caring, compassionate and cheerful. Who knows? We could be part of a domino effect that could impact the well-being of the world.

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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.