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Time management Bulletin #2

A balanced life requires planning.

Regardless of whether we are on a flexible hour system, or we’re a telecommuter or a frequent flyer, the line between work and personal time has become blurred. We can work in the evening, in a car or at a ball park. Work is no longer a place but a state of mind. Vince Poscente, in his book The Age of Speed (Bard Press, 2008) agrees that the boundaries that once dictated how we spend our time have become blurred or non-existent. Instead of three distinct segments of time – work, home and leisure – we have ended up with one large space filled with a mixture of work, home and leisure. You should stop thinking about work as a place you go to spend 8 or 9 hours a day, but as something you do. And much of it could be done anywhere.

It is just as important to schedule time for family, solitude and leisure time as it is to schedule business meetings, appointments and other business activities. We should be continually asking ourselves if the total time we are spending with our family and loved ones is in line with how much we value them. Schedule your work around your life; don’t schedule your life around your work. Otherwise work may spread throughout our entire day and crowd out our personal activities, putting our lives out of balance.

Even sleep and physical exercise might have to be scheduled as they continue to get squeezed by both work-related and family-related activities.

Most people don’t need help knowing their priorities; they need help living their priorities. And the greatest help is offered by a planning calendar, where time can be allocated in advance to work, personal and family priorities. A “To Do” list is not a time management tool; it’s a memory tool. You need a schedule of timed activities, not a wish list.

You need commitments, not just intentions.

 Busy or lazy?

Busyness is a form of laziness inasmuch as you don’t even have to think about priorities; you simply keep doing whatever comes along.

Value vs. volume.

The value of the work you do is far more important than the volume of work you do. According to Florida State researchers, top performers tend to work no more than four and a half hours a day.

Individual productivity.

Your personal productivity aids company productivity only if the work you do helps further company goals and aligns with the company’s mission.

Check e-mail less often

According to Adam Alter, in his 2017 book, Irresistible, 70% of emails are read within 6 seconds of arriving, and by one estimate, it takes up to 25 minutes to become re-immersed in an interrupted task.

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Time Management Bulletin

 How to Decide

Mark McCormack, in his book, What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School (Bantam, 1984), gives some good advice on decision-making.  He claims that many times we actually make a decision without realizing it, even as we are still trying to come to grips with it.

His advice: instead of laboring over the pros and cons, flip a coin.  Heads you do; tails you don’t.  Now how do you feel about the result?  He claims you may be surprised to discover that your emotional reaction settles the issue for you – confirms what you consciously know.

Life Balance

Life balance involves making wise choices, and remembering that people are more important than things.

Notes

  • Stress is added when sleep is subtracted.
  • It’s difficult to cram new information into a sleepy brain.
  • If you bury your mistakes, they will teach you nothing.
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How to keep on top of your work

The more things in your life that you leave undone, the more anxiety and stress you experience. Completed work does not produce stress. People feel great and are energized when they get things done. It’s the uncompleted items that distract them and drain their energy.

If you simply don’t care whether something gets done or not, you’re not under stress either. I’ve never seen a children have anxiety attacks because they hadn’t cleaned their room yet. But in the business world, such an attitude would hardly be conducive to a successful career.

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 you might do is to write down everything that you think you have to do. 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.

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 that they feel should be done drifting in and out of their minds. Capture them and delete them before they delete you. Once you have decided not to do them, they can no longer be a vehicle for stress.

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. And with most of the items off the list, you are able to focus on the ones that are important.

Your list may still not be down to a manageable size. If not, 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 earlier in the week. If they are huge, time-consuming tasks, break them down into chunks. Blocking off two or three hours each week to write a complicated but essential report, for instance, will see it completed within a month or so.

Finally, put the remaining non-priority items on a weekly To Do list, either in a week-at-a-glance paper planner or your electronic handheld device. Be realistic. Don’t cram them all onto a “Things to do today” list. Spread them over the ensuing week or two. 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.

Basically, you are getting the brief, easy-to-do items done, delegated or deleted quickly, and you are blocking off time in your planner to work on those items that are important. Blocking off time in the future to work on specific tasks or projects is referred to as “scheduling.” The balance of the items, those of minor importance, can be added to a “To Do” list, where they will likely die a natural death if you never get the time to work on them.  This happens because scheduled tasks are commitments, while listed tasks are just intentions.

If after all this, a few 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. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Worry or anxiety weakens your immune system as well as your executive skills, and leaves you open to energy loss.

Making choices do consume energy. The frontal lobes of our brain are constantly weighing the pros and cons of every bit of information, trying to determine the best choice. But once the choices have been made, the stress disappears, and it is no longer an energy drain.

 

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Change your habits and you change your life

How much of your life is habit? Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, 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.

More recently, Joe Dispenza, in his book, You are the placebo, 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.

Change isn’t easy. One study found that only one in nine people who underwent heart surgery were able to change their lifestyle, and even these people were motivated by the threat of possible death. According to John Ratey, author of the book Spark, statistics show that about half of those who start up a new exercise routine dropout within six months to a year.

To change your behavior, you have to start by changing your thoughts, according to Joe Dispenza. 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.

You are consciously forming the habits that you really want, and creating a new life in the process. It’s difficult to break firmly entrenched habits or behaviors. To make it easier, you may want to consider the following suggestions:

Make changes gradually.

According to MJ Ryan, author of This year I will …, when we try to make changes that are too aggressive our system tries to maintain the status quo by swinging in the opposite direction. This is the reason that strict diets don’t work. It is the same with the application of time management ideas. Too many changes introduced at once decreases the chance that you will stick to the changes long enough for them to become a habit. So make one change at a time.

Do it together.

Weight Watchers have found that people who use a support group are three times more likely to lose weight than folks on their own. When attempting to break a habit, it helps to have someone to be accountable to. This “buddy system” can be applied to both job and lifestyle changes.

 Replace a bad habit with a good one.

It’s a lot easier to build a new habit than to break an old one. So don’t focus on breaking the old one. Instead, form a new habit to replace it. You will form the behaviors that you reinforce, and the old ones will fade away from disuse.

Piggyback a new habit on a good habit that is already established.

To more easily form a habit, anchor it to an old one that is firmly entrenched. For example, if you are already in the habit of walking first thing every morning, and you want to spend 20 minutes every day learning a new language, you might take your books with you in a backpack when you walk and spend twenty minutes studying in a coffee shop on the way home.

Without doubt it takes determination and effort. But remember, while you are forming the habits, you are also creating a new life in the process.

 

 

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Have you abandoned your New Year’s resolutions yet?

Chances are that you will abandon your resolutions by the second week in February if you haven’t already done so. Yes, most of us will keep procrastinating as the year progresses.

It makes sense, since people who make New Year’s resolutions are usually those who are least motivated to follow through with their plans. They have procrastinated already by saying they will change in the New Year. If they were really committed to lose weight or stop smoking or save money or whatever, they would have started when they made that decision.

After all, there’s nothing magical about New Year’s or any other date for that matter. M.J. Ryan, in her book This Year I Will claimed you really have to want to change. The motivation comes first and then the self-discipline. In her book, she quotes statistics that approximately 45% of us make New Year’s resolutions but only 8% succeed. According to U.S. News, approximately 80% of resolutions fail by the second week of February, so certainly the odds are against you.

There are many reasons, including lack of commitment or passion, the lack of self-discipline, the lack of a plan, no accountability, a vague description of the resolution or goal, and so on.

Most of these can be overcome by replacing New Year’s resolutions with goals, which have well-known requirements to ensure success. I stopped making New Year’s resolutions long ago. In fact, my last New Year’s resolution was “I will stop making New Year’s resolutions – effective immediately.”

Any resolution can be expressed as a goal, which brings with it a set of guidelines such as those expressed by the old “SMART” acronym – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-oriented, and Time-framed. In other words, you don’t say that you are going to lose weight or even that you are going to lose 24 pounds; you write down that starting January 4th you will you are going to lose two pounds per month for 12 consecutive months. You must be confident that this goal is specific (2 lbs. per month) measurable (using a bathroom scale), attainable (by following your plan, which might be a combination of diet and exercise), results-oriented (since others have achieved even greater results than this using similar plans), and time-framed (since you have placed deadlines on achieving the monthly sub-goals.)

I add the acronym “WAYS” to the “SMART,” which refers to putting them in Writing, setting goals in All areas of life, making sure they are Your goal, not what other people want you to do, and Scheduled if they involve specific activities. For example, in this case you would want to block off time in your planner each day (an appointment with yourself) to exercise.

You will still need self-discipline; but structure like this makes it easier to be self-disciplined, and your routines will eventually become habits. For example by forcing myself to go walking before breakfast every morning, within weeks, I developed a habit of walking every morning. A habit requires little effort or discipline on your part. It’s like brushing your teeth, getting dressed or stopping for a coffee. It’s almost automatic.

New Year’s resolutions are like wishes, desires or “To Do” lists; but goals are real commitments. And to make your commitments even stronger, share them with others to add a measure of accountability. Public declarations, sharing with friends or posting your intentions on Facebook are psychological tactics proven to increase the likelihood of sticking to your commitments.

Set and achieve goals throughout the year. Let New Year’s be a time of celebration. The last thing you want to do at the first of the year is burden yourself with New Year’s resolutions.

 

 

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Communicating via e-mail messages.

Email, because of its speed, convenience and low cost, is now one of the most frequently used forms of business communication.

A 2018 statistic revealed that the average office worker receives 121 e-mails per day. The volume of e-mail has increased by 2000 percent between 1998 and 2003 and has been increasing ever since. The average working professional spends roughly 23% of the workday on email, and glances at the inbox about 36 times an hour, according to Mike Byster, in his book, The Power of Forgetting.

The April, 2016 issue of Scientific American Mind described a study of 16 billion emails sent by more than 2 million people that revealed the most likely length of reply is just five words. Also more than 90% of replies are sent within one day, and the younger you are the faster and shorter your reply. The study also revealed that messages sent on weekday mornings got the fastest responses and emails with attachments took twice as long to get a reply.

About 12 percent of executives spend 3 hours or more on e-mail. 41% of small businesses are using email to market to customers, a nearly 25% increase over 2012, according to AT&T Small Business Technology.

According to Debra Black, writing in the Toronto Star, some people are so overwhelmed, they routinely delete everything rather than cope with the growing pile of e-mail and scores of messages left on their voice mail. So if you want your e-mail message to be read, you had better capture the reader’s interest quickly. And keep your email messages brief while still communicating clearly.

Use a heading that reveals the purpose of the message and grabs the reader’s attention. One survey showed that 35 percent of the people open e-mail based on the header or subject line. Yet some people don’t even bother writing a subject line. An e-mail without a subject line could very well be deleted unread. A good idea might be to identify yourself in the subject line as well as indicate the topic of the e-mail. Personalizing a subject line has been shown to increase the open rate by 17%.

Put the most important information in the first paragraph. This is particularly important now that people are receiving so many e-mails. They tend to start reading based on the subject line, and continue only if they find the text of specific interest to them. Managers simply don’t have time to read all their email.

So after grabbing the reader’s attention with the header and quickly telling them the purpose of your e-mail you might take the necessary time to reread your e-mail before sending it. Just because e-mail is less formal than business letters doesn’t mean it should not be written with care.

Sloppy, poorly worded messages filled with typos and spelling mistakes reflect on your organization, as well as on your reputation. Take a minute or two to reread and edit every message you write. You will save time for the reader, clarify the communication, and create a good impression in the process.

 

 

 

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Communication – the glue that holds the teams together

Famous investor Warren Buffett was once asked what advice he would give to new graduates entering the workplace. His answer was to improve their communication skills. He said that honing your communication skills, both written and verbal, would improve your value by at least 50%.

This advice is especially true in this digital age of speed where cryptic messages, frequently reduced to a few words and an acronym or two, leaves a lot of room for misunderstanding. It’s a two-way street – poor communications is the fault of either the sender or the receiver or both. For example, you must be a good writer, a good reader, a good speaker, a good listener, and so on.

Communication is multifaceted. Here are a few suggestions for improvement in the four of the most important areas.

Writing: Make sure your business writing, including e-mail, is clear, concise and credible. Over 90 percent of all meaning can be conveyed with a vocabulary of around 600 words. Keep in mind that one out of four Americans in the workforce are functionally illiterate. Simple writing saves time and makes it easier for the reader. Avoid long, confusing or difficult words, keep sentences and paragraphs short, and make your point quickly. Remember, you are writing to communicate, not to impress.

Reading: The average reading speed is only 230 to 250 words a minute. But you can scan literature at 1,000 to 5,000 words a minute. Don’t simply absorb whatever information hits your eye. Search out the information you require. The title should tell you what the article is about. Turn it into a question and actively search for the answers. For example, if the article is entitled “How to save time at meetings,” change it to read “How can I save time at meetings?” and search for those sentences that provide the information you’re looking for. By reading with a purpose, your mind will not wander and you’ll cover the material more quickly. Even the process of holding the highlighter in your hand as you read will make it easier to concentrate since It makes you a more active participant in the reading and improves recall later.

Speaking: Rid yourself of annoying habits and mannerisms, whether it’s something physical, such as jingling change in your pocket, or the way you speak, such as repeating the same word or ending each sentence with “you know.” Take your time, making eye contact with the listeners. You will gain your customer’s respect faster by speaking more slowly. According to David Niven, author of the book, 100 Simple Secrets of Successful People, people rate speakers who speak more slowly as being 38 percent more knowledgeable than speakers who speak more quickly. When you talk too quickly, you may end up saying something you haven’t thought of yet.

Listening: An important part of the communication process is active listening. There is no greater way of displaying respect than listening attentively to what people have to say. Establish eye contact. Resist the temptation to glance at your watch or smartphone. Devote full attention to the speaker. Don’t interrupt and never make judgmental or negative statements. Focused listening can save time as well as communications and improves interpersonal relationships. Show interest by giving the person your full attention. As you listen, actively seek out the new information, ideas, and the person’s point of view,  and don’t be distracted by the way the ideas are expressed. It will keep your mind from wondering. And above all, have an open mind. When you speak, you only hear again what you already know. But when you listen, you also learn what other people know as well.

 

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Your most important time management tool.

In my last blog article I suggested that the Pareto Principle applied to time management seminars, books and training programs as well. And that 20% of the suggestions actually provide 80% of the value. In this article I will venture to provide one of those high-value suggestions – planning and scheduling.

Scheduling is the part of planning that actually initiates the action, which in turn produces the results. “To do” lists are simply reminders of what you think should be done. Scheduling involves actually blocking off the time to do the high priority items from your “to do” list.

A planning calendar, whether it is paper or electronic, is not simply a tool for scheduling appointments with others. It is also for scheduling appointments with yourself to get those important, goal–related tasks accomplished. It is also for scheduling your personal and family activities as well. What gets into your planner usually gets done. What stays on a “to do” list is usually abandoned.

The “secret” of a successful, happy and productive life is to transform your personal and business goals into accomplishments. You will never write a book by simply putting it on a “to do” list. And you will never spend enough time with your family or take that cruise by doing likewise.

Scheduling is the launching pad for action. “To do” lists are intentions; activities scheduled in your planner are commitments.

Why do most of the priority tasks on a “to do” list remain undone? Because, when given a choice, people have natural tendencies such as those listed below.

  • They tend to do what’s easy before they do what’s difficult.
  • They tend to do what they like to do before they do what is even moderately unpleasant.
  • They tend to work on other people’s priorities before they work on their own priorities.
  • They tend to work on those things that offer an immediate reward rather than those with a more significant but later reward.

When you schedule something in your planner, you have already made your choice. And hopefully you have chosen to do those things that will have the greatest impact on your life.

Fancy electronic gadgets and Smart phones may help keep you busy; but it’s unlikely they will make you effective.

When choosing a planner, select one that is broken into at least half hour segments so you can physically block off time to work on those priority tasks, projects and activities. Preferably it will extend into the evenings and weekends as well so those personal commitments to attend a son or daughter’s sports event or an evening outing with your spouse or best friend do not get overlooked. I prefer a week at a glance planner so you can see how your week is shaping up.

Plan at least a week ahead. It’s much easier to say no to others if you already have a commitment scheduled at that time. Resist the urge to change anything unless the request is even more important or a real crisis.

Schedule blocks of time for any major projects such as writing a book. Overwhelming tasks are no longer overwhelming when you work on them for an hour or so at a time.

And remember that “to do” lists display your intentions while planners display your commitments.

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The 80/20 Rule applies to time management books as well.

Most time management books and training programs explain the 80-20 Rule, at least superficially, emphasizing that 80 percent of your results are obtained from 20 percent of the things you do. Authors and workshop leaders give example after example of this principle. For example,

  • 80% of your advertising results come from 20% of the ads you place.
  • 80% of customer complaints are concerning the same 20% of your products or services.
  • 20% of your networking gives you 80% of your referrals.
  • 20% of the things you do produce 80% of your results.

And so on. One of the points made is that – theoretically at least – you could eliminate 80 percent of the things you do and only sacrifice 20 percent of the results.  If you could to do that, 80 percent of your precious time would be freed up to devote to more results-oriented pursuits.

But what the workshop leaders fail to mention, is that their own books or training programs are not exempt from this principle. 20% of the ideas suggested in time management books or training programs represent 80 percent of the books’ or programs’ value.

Those are the ideas that would make a significant impact on your effectiveness. The other 80 percent are relatively unimportant, impractical, unworkable or undesirable.

They all sound good and most of them make sense. For example, remove the chairs from your office because meetings get over faster when everyone is standing up. Handle each piece of paper only once. Don’t procrastinate. Keep a clean desk and work environment at all times. Use hands-free technology to respond to telephone calls while driving. Ad infinitum. The positive impact of these and hundreds of other suggestions is questionable. Some, like multitasking are downright dangerous.

I have been presenting time management workshops for over thirty-five years. At the end of most workshops I asked people to record three of the best ideas. Then I asked them to return the form to me in four weeks, indicating the results obtained by putting those ideas into practice. Although less than 10 percent of the people returned the forms, it become obvious over the years that many of the ideas that are attractive to them are unworkable in practice. The ideas that actually improved productivity were generally those that addressed how they spent their time as opposed to how to be more efficient at what they were already doing. They are what I consider to be the macro time management ideas as opposed to the micro time management ones.

People who have changed careers, started their own business, turned around a failing company, changed their lifestyle, resolved relationships, balanced their lives or developed life-changing habits are those who have been able to apply the macro time management suggestions.

When reading books or taking courses on the topic of time management, we should focus on those suggestions that will improve our effectiveness rather than our efficiency. Efficiency is doing things in the best possible way, which is important; but not as important as doing the best possible things. Doing the best possible things – those macro time management actions – are the ones that will really make a difference.

In the next blog article I will give a few examples of those ideas. You can probably guess what they are. Most of them are obvious. But although they are easy to recognize they can be difficult to execute since they require behavioral changes rather than just quick fixes.

 

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A little empathy can go a long way.

Feeling empathy for another person is being able to know what the other person is feeling or going through even though you are not sharing the source of those feelings or emotions at that time. For example, when someone suffers a loss or injures their hand, you can understand their feelings and even feel their pain without actually suffering that loss or being injured. You empathize with them.This is possible because of mirror neurons, cells scattered across our brain whose activity reflect their surroundings – including the actions and feelings of others.

Our mirror neurons fire regardless of whether we or someone else is performing a specific action. That enables us to relate to the person to the degree that we even have a fair idea of why they are performing that action. For example, when you are grabbing a cup of coffee, a specific mirror neuron fires to tell your hand to reach out and grip the handle of the cup. And when you watch a friend pick up her own cup of coffee, the same neuron also fires as if you were also picking up her cup of coffee, even if your hand is not moving at all.

This empathy with others includes emotions. So if you cringe at the sight of someone else getting hurt, empathize with your friend who is grieving, and feel uncomfortable when a co-worker is upset and anxious, blame it on these specialized brain cells.

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.

And there is a thin line between being physically hurt and emotionally hurt. In her book, How the body knows its mind, Sian Beilock reports that a daily dose of Tylenol diminishes the hurt feelings that often accompany being socially teased, spurned or rejected – just as it would if the pain were physical.

Never underestimate the importance of empathy. According to an article in the November/December, 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind, research has shown that patients whose doctors pay attention to their feelings and concerns heal faster. Researchers also found that the patients’ immune systems were boosted as well. The article reported on a study by the University of Wisconsin, School of Medicine on the impact of doctors showing sincere concern for their patients.

Patients of doctors who expressed concern had a cold disappear sooner than those whose doctors focused on just the facts. Randomized trials showed that colds lasted an average of just six days for patients with empathetic doctors vs. seven days for patients whose doctors had little empathy. It was shown that the empathy also boosted the patient’s immune system.

But can doctors or any of us actually show empathy on demand? Do we have control over whether we have empathy or not? Well we can certainly give our mirror neurons a fighting chance to do their thing. Just because we are in a rush, for example, doesn’t mean we have to act as if we’re in a rush. University of Kansas researchers studied the effect of doctors standing vs. sitting when visiting their hospital patients. When questioned afterwards, the patients whose doctors sat with them perceived the visit to be a lot longer than those patients whose doctors stood by their bedside.

Whether you are a doctor, a caregiver, a manager or a parent or whoever, even if you have only 10 minutes to talk to a person, you can still sit down—which makes you much more connected to the person than if you’re standing up—and make good eye contact, nod your head, lean in – all the actions that convey that you are present mentally and emotionally as well as physically.

The worst thing you can do is remain standing, walk to the door, put your hand on the door handle, and keep talking, because then the person does know that your mind as well as your body is already on the way out. Instead, you could stay seated and say, “If you have another question, I can answer it now, and if you’d like more time to go over things, we can schedule another visit.” That way, you’re completely with the individual, and not sending the message that you can’t wait to get out of there.

Although environmental factors such as surroundings can have a calming effect on people, they aren’t as important as the human element.

A bad mood is also contagious, according to Gary Lewandowski, Jr., associate professor of psychology at Monmouth University. You unknowingly pick up other people’s nonverbal behaviors and tend to mimic them – similar to yawning. (It is more common when the person yawning is someone close to you.)

Similarly you can pick up their high energy or low energy, positivity or negativity, enthusiasm or lethargy.

And as if having to cope with the hazards of second-hand smoke isn’t bad enough, it’s now found that second-hand stress can be hazardous to our productivity and health as well. The suggestion that stress can be contagious, and that we are influenced by the actions and emotions of others can be accounted for by the research that suggests this class of brain cells called mirror neurons appear to reflect the actions & feelings of others.

Not only does this make sense of the fact that we sometimes get “bad vibes” from people we meet, it also proves that we can have a positive influence on others – whether family, friends or business associates – by being kind, caring, compassionate and cheerful.

And by encouraging those mirror neurons to do their thing.