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Reduce those self-interruptions

download (1)Stefan Klein, in his book The Secret Pulse of Time, reports that psychologist Leonard Giambre has documented our mind’s tendency to wander. He asked people to solve a puzzle. At random times he would remind them of their task with a beep. If they were daydreaming or thinking of something else other than the task at the time of the beep, they were to push a button. In the course of the half-hour experiment, they pressed the button an average of over 40 times.

A similar experiment had the subjects read Tolstoy’s War and Peace with similar results. Their eyes followed the text and the words were sounding in their heads, but their thoughts were miles away. When they were given a comprehension test, it was found they had retained next to nothing of the plot.

When the brain is underutilized, its activity turns to daydreams or internal monologues or anxiety. We are incapable of complete idleness.

Our brains are programmed to keep alert for danger, which is not conducive to concentrating on one task for any length of time. If you’re engaged in a conversation at a party, and your name is mentioned by someone in a nearby group, your mind immediately picks up on it – and then turns its attention to that conversation. So when it comes to interruptions, even your own mind works against you.

Traditional suggestions from the past, such as a closed door, screened calls, departmental quiet hours, and office layout simply don’t apply since the office environment has changed considerably. Two things that are still important are the times you choose to work on priority tasks, and the length of time you spend on that task or project.

The longer you work on a specific task, the more chance you have of interrupting yourself. So schedule priority tasks in chunks of two hours or less – preferably less. Your energy and ability to concentrate rises and falls in 90 minute cycles. This is the continuation of the sleep cycle and I recommend 90-minute works sessions mainly for this reason.

The most productive time of the day is 10:30 AM for most people so mornings should be reserved for priority work. Early birds should start their major products even earlier. And of course if you have any influence on your work location, take advantage of it. Some people work at home in the mornings; others work at a coffee shop. Choose a location where you can best concentrate on the task at hand.

Regardless of where you work, it is important that you control the technology. Turn off your cell phone or smartphone, engage the voice mail and ignore email while you work on your scheduled project. And maintain focus on the task, jotting down ideas that pop into your mind without being detoured by them.

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Make time to think

Thinking Do you find that you are so busy that you have little or no time to even think about goals and priorities and where you are heading? Many of us used to have plenty of thinking time while we were waiting in a doctor’s office or going for our morning walk or sitting on a bench in the shopping mall while our spouse went shopping or whatever. Now our smartphones and iPads have taken over any such spare moments. I think it’s essential that we allocate time each week for planning and creativity by actually scheduling blocks of time in our planners – perhaps an hour or two every week – so we can review our goals and plans for that week and think about the future.

Thinking time allows us to prioritize and decide what to do and what not to do. You should simplify your life. That means getting rid of the trivia. Time management is not doing more things in less time, which technology encourages. It is doing fewer things – things of greater importance, in the time that we have. It’s not doing more things; it’s doing more important things. And this involves looking at the stuff in your life – possessions, activities, and “To Do” items with a view to eliminating or reducing those that have little meaning to you or to the significant people in your life.

For the “thinking” process, I recommend:

1. That you schedule time to think and plan. Probably 1 to 2 hours each week -perhaps a half hour each day – and also a full day or more each year.
2. Control technology; don’t let it control you. Turn off your BlackBerry or smart phone when you are in meetings, driving, or working on scheduled priority tasks.
3. Don’t feel you have to toss out your paper planner, index cards or scratch pad. High-tech and high-touch go hand in hand, and many a great idea has emerged while doodling on a napkin.
4. Keep all the ideas jotted down during the thinking process. Ideas rejected may suddenly take on a life of their own.
5. Keep reading in areas of interest far afield from your own. Ideas tend to cross-pollinate, and you could come up with a novel idea that you would not have thought of otherwise.
6. Look at thinking time as fun time. Put your left brain in idle and go with the flow. There is no such thing as a bad idea – only unworkable ones. Evaluation can come later.

Keep an idea book, or a place where you can jot down ideas at any time, not just during your scheduled thinking time. I have a `Back Burner ‘page at the back of my Taylor Planner for this purpose – for spontaneous thoughts and ideas that could be explored later. This could serve as your starting agenda for your next creative thinking session.

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Brain health

Brain healthWe hear a lot about diet when it involves weight control or diabetes or blood pressure or cancer or dozens of other possible afflictions. But we don’t hear nearly as much about maintaining brain health through proper nutrition. And yet nutrition as well as mental and physical exercise, adequate sleep and stress reduction programs are all important for brain health.

The mass of nerve cells and supporting tissues that we call the brain is so complicated with its 100 billion neurons, or active brain cells, that it is still not fully understood. But it is known that brain health is linked to proper diet as well as the other things such as a physically active lifestyle, stress management and adequate sleep.

Your brain only weighs about a kilogram and a half (3.3 lbs.), but it uses up 25% of your overall glucose consumption and blood circulation. Exercise is essential not only to promote circulation but to help make new brain cells and improve cognitive skills, such as memory. So buying a family member a new TV remote and fingertip controls is not really doing them a favor; nor is having an extra TV in the bedroom.

You can read about diet or visit a naturopath for recommended supplements. It’s reported that EPA, Omega-3 fish oil helps keep cell membranes in the brain flexible. There’s an excellent book called Fantastic Voyage: The Science Behind Radical Life Extension, by Ray Kurzwell & Terry Grossman, published by Plume Books (2005) that devotes a chapter or two to brain health. Also I have written several other blog articles on brain health.

Until now, the Importance of the brain seems to have been overlooked. The brain is where time is measured and memories are stored. It is estimated that 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. It is predicted that a half-million new cases will develop every year. In Canada over 500,000 Canadians have Alzheimer’s disease, and within another generation this figure will more than double.

There are now gyms for the brain. People pay $60 per month to work out on computers loaded with “mental fitness” software. There are classes in brain nutrition and cognitive training. In the past 3 years, more than 700 retirement communities have added computerized brain fitness centers. People spent 80 million dollars in 2008 on mental fitness. The industry is based on a relatively new scientific discovery – neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to rewire itself by creating neural connections in response to mental activity. (Wall Street Journal)

I predict there will be more emphasis on brain health in the future because it is obvious that we are now outliving our minds. In Sackville, NB, there is a senior’s college operating out of a church that offers courses for seniors at low cost.

More and more courses are being tailored to the needs of seniors. The important thing is to maintain an active lifestyle and when you think of maintaining a healthy body, think in terms of a healthy mind as well.

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Make time for creativity

Creativity timeIt’s difficult to make time for creativity in this digital age of speed. The latest books on creativity, such as Your Creative Brain (2010) and Imagine: How creativity works (2012) agree that we are all creative and every day we perform hundreds of creative acts. And everyone is able to train their creative brain.

If that’s true, why do so many people struggle with coming up with novel ways to market, write, promote, produce and so on? I would suggest that one of the reasons is that we don’t have time to be creative. You don’t get your most creative ideas while rushing to a meeting or racing to get to the grocery store before it closes. Ideas come when you’re relaxing in a hot tub, lying on the beach or strolling in a park.

One indication that you are not getting enough time to be creative is an affliction called thinksomnia. Because you’re so busy and preoccupied all day, the only time you get to think about anything is at night just before you fall asleep. That’s when the ideas pop into your head and you end up thinking about them – to the point that you can’t get to sleep. That’s thinksomnia.

Our success and the success of our companies depend on creativity. It seems as though everything except creativity is being outsourced to other countries. For example, many U.S. tax returns are done in India. There’s very little creative work needed for a tax return. (The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman). In some hospitals, radiologists are outsourcing reading of CAT scans to doctors in India and Australia. Also call centers, customer service, and tech assistance – even tracing lost luggage or hotel reservations or customer service or taking your order at a fast-food drive-through. We can’t afford to short-change our creativity, which we’re doing in this age of speed.
Dan Miller, author of No More Dreaded Mondays, says “In today’s arena, creativity may be more of an asset than competence.”

I recommend that at least ten percent of your work-day should be left free for thinking. That’s difficult because when you’re being creative, it doesn’t look like you’re busy. In fact busy work looks more like real work than real work – which involves such things as thinking, planning and innovating.

BlackBerrys, smart phones and other PDAs are efficient beyond imagination. Unfortunately it’s the imagination that is the key to successful ventures. And smart phones are just plain stupid when it comes to creativity. I sometimes think we would be better off with more doodle pads and fewer keypads.

When a NY Times reporter interviewed several winners of the MacArthur “genius” grants, most said they kept cell phones and iPods turned off when in transit so they could use the downtime for thinking. That’s what most people are lacking. Research shows that people think more creatively when they are calm, unhurried, and free from stress. Time pressures lead to tunnel vision.

I’m not knocking technology. It has been the greatest time saver of all time, and they make our earlier efforts at managing time pathetic. But we have to control it. Don’t be afraid to turn off your smartphone, ignore email and engage voice mail for an hour or more during the day. History has proven that we can survive for at least 60 seconds without the use of technology.

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Focus gets results

InterruptionsWe know that focus gets results; but it is hard to focus when your attention span is under attack. It has been estimated that about 13 million adults in the US have ADHD, and I would guess that almost everyone has an attention problem. With the amount of information doubling every few years, and along with it the communication devices such as iPhone’s, iPads, smart phones and laptops, it is no wonder.

Technology isn’t necessarily responsible for the increasing inability to focus on a task and sustain attention, but it certainly exasperates the problem.

Our brain has a built-in radar system that alerts us to any imminent danger so we can react accordingly. This might have been useful 1000 years ago (and still is, on occasion) when predators could be lurking behind every bush. But in modern times it causes the constant interruptions and fragments our day — decreasing both our efficiency and effectiveness.

We may not be able to disable the radar; but we can certainly control the environment so our alarm system isn’t activated as frequently.

In the “old days” we simply scheduled quiet hours throughout the day — times when we could work on our important projects undisturbed. It was relatively simple to engage the voicemail on a landline, close the office door, and tell a secretary or staff member that you didn’t want to be disturbed. And there was always the solitude of after-hours.

With the advancement of technology and the streamlining of offices, we no longer have “after-hours” because the office follows us home — disguised as a smart phone that we dare not turn off for fear of missing something important. And private offices are rare, there are no doors to close, and no secretary or staff member to serve as gatekeeper.

Add e-mail, text messages, the Internet, social media, and the escalating number of distractions, and no wonder our working hours have increased and our priorities are delayed.

It’s time to develop some personal policies, add structure to our days, and regain control of our time. The policies might include not checking e-mail until 10 AM, putting your cell phone on mute when working on priority tasks, engaging social media on only two days per week, turning off your laptop at 8 PM, reserving Monday mornings for creativity and planning, scheduling appointments with yourself to work on goal related activities, and so on.

Policies are guidelines, not hard and fast rules, and as such might sometimes have to be broken. But it’s the first step in not only improving your performance, but in recognizing that technology is for your use — and not the other way around.

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How much of your life is habit?

How much of your life is habit? Well, Charles Duhigg, in his book The power of habit (Doubleday, 2012), quotes a Duke University researcher who in 2006 found that more than 40% of the actions of people performed each day were not actually decisions, but habits.

Hard to believe? Then read Joe Dispenza’s book, You are the placebo (Hay House, 2014.) He maintains that by age thirty-five, 95% of who you are is a set of memorized behaviors, skills, emotional reactions, beliefs, perceptions, and attitudes that function like a subconscious automatic computer program.

Your brain is a great time manager; it is always looking for ways to increase efficiency and free up resources for other activities. So repeat any activity often enough, and it will become a subconscious behavior.

You don’t even have to think about the hundreds of activities that you do on a regular basis — from morning routines to driving to work in the morning.

The problem is not so much forming habits, as it is breaking them. We are today what we have done, believed and thought in years gone by. As Joe Dispenza puts it, “you are living in the past…and the past is your future.”
You may not like your current situation, but change is difficult. What you do, how you think, your attitude are all comfortable, effortless and automatic.

No wonder so many thought leaders are now promoting mindfulness. You have to shake yourself from habit long enough to focus on who you have become — your feelings, thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, and physical sensations — and decide to change those things you’re not happy about.

To change, you have to start by changing your thoughts. It’s your thoughts that determine your choices, which in turn determine your behaviors, and ultimately how you experience life.

It takes effort to change since you have only 5% of the conscious you to chip away at the 95% that is already set in its ways. But you are the master of your brain, and when you repeat a thought or an experience often enough, your brain cells are making stronger connections in the direction you want to go.

And you are consciously forming the habits that you really want, and creating a new life in the process. I would recommend the two books mentioned above to accompany you on your journey.

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What to feed your brain

Brain foodIf you want to know what to feed your brain you might be interested in knowing which foods in particular have been found to be good for the brain. Proper nutrition can help prevent cognitive decline. For example, blueberries are believed to reduce the risk of age-related diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Janet Maccaro, in her book, Brain boosting foods, mentions supplements such as gingko biloba, known for its ability to improve memory and concentration. It is used in Europe to treat dementia.

Avocados are thought to be good for the brain because of their monounsaturated fat, which increases blood flow through the brain and lowers blood pressure, and organ meats because they are high in brain-healthy nutrients such as vitamins A, D, E, K, B12, as well as folic acid.

Egg yolks are rich in choline. A shortage of choline has been linked to insomnia, memory problems, and fatigue. Egg yolks also contain ant-inflammatory omega-3s, as do salmon, herring and sardines. Most nuts are also a source of vitamin E, which protects the brain’s iron from exposure to oxygen. According to a special issue of Newsweek published in October, 2014, 90 percent of Americans overlook vitamin E in their diet.

Any food that reduces high blood pressure or helps the cardiovascular system in any way is good for the brain, since the brain’s blood supply is critical. This includes such foods as oatmeal, brown rice and grain breads.

EPA omega-3 fish oil is also recommended since it keeps the cell membranes in the brain flexible. There is evidence that omega-3 fatty acids – the ones found in many types of fish such as salmon and rainbow trout – slow up cognitive decline and reduces the risk of Alzheimer`s disease.

Researcher Rodney W. Johnson, PhD, claims that chamomile tea, rich in luteolin, is not only relaxing, but also guards you against forgetfulness. He says it works by preventing brain inflammation that contributes to age-related memory lapses. Luteolin is also present in carrots, celery and green peppers.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, RealAge expert and host of a national TV show, recommends five important foods to give your brain a boost:

  • Blueberries, to help shield against harmful processes tied to Alzheimer`s disease and premature aging.
  • Eggs, since they are loaded with selenium, a mineral that could help make your brain years younger.
  • Mustard, because it contains turmeric. He claims that getting just 17 milligrams of it a day (about a teaspoon of mustard) can help genes control the clean-up of cellular waste in the brain.
  • Salmon, since it is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, including the type thought to have the most anti-aging effects on the brain.
  • Kale, since getting at least three servings a day of these leafy greens high in carotenoids and flavonoids can slow mental decline associated with aging.

Drinking water may also sharpen your recall skills according to research conducted at University of East London. The UK researchers believe that bringing water into an exam room can raise students’ marks. Studies indicated that those who drank water while writing exams outperformed those who didn’t. In one study the scores averaged 4.8% better. One explanation is that students are in a mild state of dehydration when taking exams and it is corrected by drinking water.

Skipping breakfast is a not a good idea. Studies have shown that children and adults who skip breakfast do not perform well on tests at school or tasks at work.

Obesity leads to high blood pressure, which lowers cognitive function so watch your weight as well. A study published in the journal Neurology showed that people who are obese in middle age have almost 4 times the risk of developing dementia later in life than those of normal weight.

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Exercise your brain

Brain exerciseYou can exercise your brain and keep your brain active as well as strengthen neural connections by learning new skills. You might start by doing everyday tasks differently. Use your left hand to control the computer mouse (if you’re right-handed), or to brush your teeth.

Exercising your brain – even without moving from your chair – could reap physical benefits. Cleveland Clinic Foundation research has indicated that just thinking about exercising a muscle will strengthen that muscle.

In stressful situations, your weakest skills fail first and become more pronounced. Fatigue and information overload tend to weaken them further. Avoiding, releasing or being able to manage stress is important. Also you should re-examine your workload. Keep organized, plan, and allocate your time to things of importance. Simplify if possible. Delegate and outsource. Pace yourself. Too much exertion without breaks taxes the executive skills. In fact studies have shown that people who exert themselves mentally, such as resisting the temptation to eat chocolate or whatever, gave up on problems sooner when presented with them immediately afterwards. (Scientific American Mind, May/June, 2011)

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

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

There are exceptions, however. Physical exercise, for instance, stimulates the creation of new neurons not confined to the region of the hippocampus that stores new memories. Art Kramer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that a year of exercise can give a seventy-year-old the connectivity of a thirty-year old. Harvard researchers have linked aerobic exercise with improvements in food choices and the ability to resist temptation. They feel it may inspire healthier choices by altering structures in our brains that deal with regulation and impulse control while also making us happier and calmer. This could account for weight loss in addition to the calories you burn through exercise.

Other activities such as meditation and certain video games can change brain structure so that brain processes are more efficient. Meditation has been shown to have a positive effect on the immune system and cardiovascular function as well as the brain. In one study, those who meditated showed less activity in the brain area associated with negative emotions such as anger and anxiety and more activity those areas associated with optimism and confidence.

And learning a second language can sharpen many of the executive skills. Ellen Bialystok of York University in Canada found that the workout the brain gets in bilingualism carries over to improve such skills as problem solving and attention switching.

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How to have a healthier brain

Healthier brainThe good news, according to statistics, is that we’re living longer. The bad news is that our bodies frequently outlive our brains. Dementia is on the increase. To gain time by living longer and healthier, we must look after our brain as well as our body.

How to have a healthier brain

Physical exercise keeps the blood circulating throughout the brain where we need it most. It also helps to build new brain cells and improves learning and memory. John Ratey and Richard Manning in their 2014 book, Go wild: Free yourself from the afflictions of civilization, concluded “Sedentary behavior causes brain impairment.” An active lifestyle, both physically and mentally, is good for your overall health, including the health of your brain. So keep up a physically active lifestyle.

Lifelong learning, and the constant mental stimulation that it provides, will offset some of the cognitive decline we experience with aging. Avoiding stress where possible, and being able to cope effectively with it when it does occur, will prevent brain cells from being killed. Minimize the hassles in your life.

Social activities of any kind, where you are interacting with others, force you to practice cognitive activities as you carry on conversations.

Diet can help. For example, older people, who get omega-3 fatty acids by eating fish such as salmon and sardines, or take DHA and EPA supplements, are able to slow cognitive decline as well.

The most effective time management strategy I know is to live longer and healthier.