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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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An easy way to set goals

GoalsIf you want an easy way to set goals stop thinking of it as some structured process that takes a lot of work. It doesn’t have to be any more structured than keeping a “To Do” list. And you don’t have to be afraid of losing the spontaneity and flexibility of simply “going with the flow.”

All you have to do is formalize something you have been doing all your life without really being aware of it. As a child, had you ever set your mind on getting a new bicycle, for instance? If so, not only did you have a specific goal in mind, you probably had an action plan as well. It may have been to earn the required sum of money by getting a paper route, or saving your allowances or methodically harassing your parents until they finally broke down and bought it for you. You may even have had a deadline date in mind. You wanted it in the summer so you could it show off to Jane down the street.

Buying a car or a house, visiting Disney World, going on a cruise, or simply spending a weekend with friends all require the basics of goal-setting. You decide what you want, when you want it, and establish an action plan in order to get it.

All the other characteristics of goals are self-evident. It stands to reason that they must be specific so you will know how much money you will need in order to buy the bicycle you want, and you also know your goal is realistic since you have already thought of several ways you can get the necessary money.

There’s nothing mysterious, complicated or difficult about setting goals. Yet less than five percent of the population claims they actually have personal goals in writing. Why?

It’s probably because we tend to resist change. We’re a little afraid of anything we don’t fully understand. We crave simplicity. That’s one reason we are feeling the stress of this digital age of speed where everything is changing so quickly

Accept the fact that goal-setting is not something new to be learned and mastered, but something old that should be used more fully. Goal-setting has been in use ever since Eve spotted that juicy fruit on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And for good or evil, goal-setting does get results.

Sure there are time management experts promoting SMART goals – saying they should be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-framed. And that they should be what you want and not what other people want for you, and that you shouldn’t have too many goals, and that they should be compatible with one another, and they should cover all areas of your life and they must be in writing ….. Ignore all that.

Instead, simply decide what you want and when you want it, write that date in your planner (Yes, I said write, because a paper planner works best), and then flip back the pages of your planner to today’s date, and schedule blocks of time each week to work on your goal. You are actually scheduling appointments with yourself to work on those things you want. When you see the deadline date getting close, simply schedule more time each week. Or simply continue past the deadline.

After all, if it takes a few weeks longer than expected, who cares? Jane down the street will still be impressed.

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How to manage email

emailIf you don’t learn how to manage email, you will soon be controlled by it. Be specific and direct in your e-mails. Never simply ask for their “thoughts” or “suggestions.” Indicate what you think about it or are considering or have already been advised to do, and allow them to select the one that they think is best or an alternative solution. Help them to help you.

Leave no doubt as to the purpose of the email, and action to be taken by the recipient. Include it in the first sentence – or if you can include it in the subject line, that’s even better.

When you have several questions to ask, list them one after the other on separate lines so the recipient won’t miss any. Also, when you receive an email message asking several questions, do likewise, recording your answers in red immediately below each question. But avoid strange fonts and colors. And never use a size smaller than 10 point. Keep the reader in mind.

According to Geraldine Markel, PhD, writing in the February, 2012 issue of Speaker magazine, studies show that dealing with interruptions at work consumes over 2 hours a day – 28% of the workday. A large portion of this time for many people is the result of continually checking email.

People tend to immediately click “Reply” to incoming email messages because it’s quick, easy and convenient to do. But if it results in back-and-forth strings of email messages, it would have been more efficient to have picked up the phone and resolved the issue. Don’t forget that there are other ways to communicate.

Don’t check email continuously throughout the day. If you are in the habit of checking email every 5 or 10 minutes, cut back gradually. Once you have adjusted to that decrease in frequency, cut it down to once every 90 minutes, then every two hours. Aim to get it down to 3 times a day. That could be in the morning, noon and late afternoon.

Handling your email in batches every 90 minutes or so will not only give you time to focus on your priority projects throughout the day, but it will also allow you to spot any multiple messages from the same person, allowing a single reply. You can prioritize all the messages, and quickly delete any spam, ezines or messages not requiring a response.

Timothy Ferriss, in his book The 4-Hour Workweek, claims he checks his email no more than once per week. He insists that any lost orders or other problems are overshadowed by his gain in efficiency. Personally, I wouldn’t go to this extreme. But twice per day does not seem unreasonable. The fewer times you check email, the less time you consume.

Manage your email and chances are your interruptions will decrease, your effectiveness will improve, and there will be little if any negative impact on your clients, associates or friends.

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The power of purpose

PurposeI have seen the power of purpose in action where a dying person stayed alive long enough to see a loved one or witness an event. But I’ve yet to hear of one case where a person lived longer because they didn’t want to die. It is not fear that motivates us; it is purpose.

Comedian George Burns for many years claimed he was booked to perform in the Palladian in London when he turned 100. Perhaps that had something to do with his living into his 100th year. Clarify your purpose, set goals that will lead you in that direction, work on those goals each week – and you have a greater chance of leading a long happy, fulfilled life.

Having a sense of purpose in life not only allows us to set goals compatible with our personal values, it also allows us to retain a positive self-image even if we don’t achieve them. Purpose addresses what we are as opposed to what we do.

It is said that the chemicals in our body, on today’s market, would probably amount to about $3.00. Thinking in these terms, we’re not worth much. But based on the number of atoms within each person, the human body could generate enough atomic energy to be valued at $85 billion!

Skip Ross, in his book, Say Yes to Your Potential, asks this question: “Just what are you really worth, not in dollars, but in personal power?” He feels we are all geniuses, created by God and equipped with certain talents and individuality. But most of these abilities lie untapped.

Albert Einstein was quoted as saying the average person uses 2 percent of his intellectual capacity. Using more of our potential, and directing our skills and talents towards a worthy purpose, would not only make an impact on the world, but would do wonders for our self-esteem.

You could fail to achieve a goal; but it’s difficult to fail a purpose. A purpose is a reason for living. As Robert Ringer, author of several books, including Winning through intimidation and Looking out for #1 feels that man’s real purpose is not to achieve goals, but to constantly strive towards them. He provides another benefit of having a purpose in life when he quotes Victor Frankl: “If there is a reason for happiness, happiness ensues. It is a side effect of having a purpose, a meaning to life.”

“A life purpose encompasses all of your goals,” claims writer and seminar leader Sybil Stanton.” And since it’s your purpose that determines your goals, you don’t fall apart when your goals do.”

This makes sense. But where does the purpose come from? How do we develop a purpose in life? Stanton, in her book, The 25-hour woman , suggests you think of a scenario like this. You are celebrating your 80th birthday when you are approached by a publisher who wants to print your autobiography. Right away he needs a title for your life story. What will you suggest? “Naming your autobiography is a start to nailing down your purpose. The title you ascribe to your life has something to say about what you count most important and, therefore, what you are living for.”

Your purpose may be condensed into a brief sentence or take up a whole paragraph; but it will express your aim in life. It could be as simple as the one developed by a psychiatric nurse in one of Sybil Stanton’s seminars: “Learning to love and express love in all aspects of my life.”

Goals can be thwarted by a sudden change in your employment, health, or family situation; but your purpose remains constant. To quote Stanton, “Imagine yourself luxuriating in an exquisite estate, surrounded by a loving family and a host of servants. Then think of living in a refugee camp, subject to squalor and starvation. If you can realize your purpose in both places, you have something worth living for.”

Activities should be derived from your purpose, not the reverse. And yet many people, convinced that happiness and fulfillment depend upon setting and achieving goals within the work environment, become so engrossed in their profession that work becomes their reason for living. Their status, friendships, self-esteem and identity are all connected with their position at work. When that connection is severed their life collapses.

Ironically, the things that most people count as important in their lives are not the things they are remembered for –if they are remembered at all. Bob Shank, author of Total Life Management uses an interesting exercise in his seminars. He asks people to jot down the names of the greatest people in history (e.g., Joan of Arc Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein), then to note the one thing that distinguishes them as great. Seldom do these things relate to their material possessions, incomes, hobbies, travels or recreational preferences. Most of them had a single-minded purpose to which they dedicated their lives.

To quote Shank, “The great men and women of history were not great because of what they owned or earned, but rather for what they gave their lives to accomplish.”

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How to run effective meetings

To run effective meetings, you must control both the length of the meeting and the meeting itself. One executive claims she spends about six hours per day in meetings. Regardless of whether you spend one hour or six hours each day, there is considerable time savings to be realized by running meetings effectively, and keeping them brief. If you want to know how to run effective meetings, here is a summary of the most important things to keep in mind when calling a meeting.

Invite only those who are essential to the success of the meeting. Forget protocol, pecking order or business etiquette. If people are unlikely to contribute to or benefit from the meeting, don’t include them. Try to keep the total number of attendees below 8 people.

Plan the meeting in advance. Go beyond outlining an agenda; actually anticipate which topics will generate the most discussion, disagreement and time loss. Leave the contentious issues until the end – when most people will be anxious to leave. Put the priority items that will generate the least discussion near the start of the meeting. Allocate time limits to each agenda item.

Start on time. Don’t make exceptions. If the boss arrives late, explain to him or her that you are now on item 2 or 3. Don’t apologize for being prompt and efficient. Resist the urge to summarize the progress to date for every late arrival. If they ask, tell them you’ll update them after the meeting.

Make notes at every meeting and encourage others to do likewise. Record decisions reached, actions required, individuals responsible for the various actions and the expected completion dates. Review this information at the end of the meeting to ensure that everyone is clear as to his or her responsibilities.

Don’t waste the group’s time on an individual’s responsibilities. If you have made a group decision and provided input, assign the action to someone and leave it with him or her. If a few people have some strong feelings about how something should be done, ask them to submit the suggestions in writing to the person to whom you have delegated the job.

Always take a few minutes after every meeting to evaluate how it went. Jot down what you will do next time to improve the process. Continually strive to reduce the time loss and increase the value of every meeting you attend.

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How to listen effectively

ListenNot knowing how to listen effectively can waste time, cause stress, and generate costly communication problems. But there’s more to effective listening than meets the ear. It’s hard work. It requires an active participation in the communication process. It takes effort and practice.

It requires that we break habits that have been forming since childhood. One such habit is interrupting the speaker. Many of us are impatient. Some of us can’t even stand pauses. We want to rush in with more words. Even when we’re not speaking, we’re not necessarily listening. We’re rehearsing what we’re going to say, once it’s our turn.

Don’t be a passive listener. Be an active listener. Lean forward to demonstrate your interest in the speaker. Establish eye contact. Resist the temptation to let your eyes wander or glance at your watch. Devote full attention to the speaker. If you’re genuinely interested in people, listening is a lot easier.

We can speak at about 125 words per minute but we can listen at least four times as fast. With all this spare time to kill, our mind wanders, daydreams, goes on little mental excursions, and by the time it returns we have missed something. Reluctant to admit we were not listening, we guess – and frequently misinterpret what was said.

The secret is to stay with the speaker, and use the spare time by reviewing and summarizing what is being said. Listen between the lines, observe those non-verbal gestures, and evaluate the points being made, but stick with the speaker. Resist the urge to interrupt or to start formulating your own reply. Listening is a skill that can be developed through practice. And it can also save time.

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The limits of technology

Limits of techWhat are the limits of technology?  Technology can reduce the time it takes to launch a new product; but it doesn’t tell us whether the new product should be launched. It may help us write a letter faster; but it doesn’t tell us what do say. It can provide unlimited data, statistics and research in a matter of minutes; but it doesn’t deposit it into our memory banks, sort out the material of specific use or apply the information to our particular situation.

In fact, technology can actually work against us since it can speed us up in the wrong direction. If you are poor at decision-making, speed will only aggravate the situation. If you have the wrong goals, technology will only get you to the wrong place faster. If you are disorganized, it will simply speed up your disorganization.

Technology has been a great assist in the quest for increased productivity. But with it comes the necessity to improve our management and people skills. We must fine-tune our decision-making ability, have a clear vision of where we want to go, and set realistic, meaningful goals. Direction is more important than speed.

In some ways, our quest for increased productivity has backfired. Harvard researchers have determined that talking on cell phones while driving causes 6% of the accidents each year, killing an estimated 2600 people at an annual cost of $43 million.

Multitasking, meant to increase efficiency, has had the opposite effect, decreasing efficiency by as much as 50 percent. And the mass of information available on the Internet has caused analysis paralysis, time loss and stress. A U. K. study reported that 42% of respondents attributed their ill health to information overload. Do a simple Google search on the words information overload and you will have enough reading material to last a lifetime.

The information explosion, technology and increasing demands on our time have changed the way mangers must operate in order to remain competitive. Time, more than ever before, is being recognized as an individual’s most valuable, non-renewable resource. And time management is viewed more as an investment strategy than an efficiency tool. The Law of Diminishing Returns, the Pareto Principle and Parkinson’s Law all take on a new importance in an age where “Not To Do” lists are more meaningful than “To Do” lists.

After conducting time management training for over thirty-five years, I have concluded that there should be a shift in emphasis from efficiency to effectiveness. While they are both important, purpose is more important than procedure, a healthy lifestyle is more important than a hundred time-saving tactics, and attitude is more important than solitude when it comes to increasing personal productivity. Workshop topics should include the theory of time investments, the dangers of multitasking, building stress resistance, and controlling electronic communications.

Time management training should also include survival skills to cope with the smaller work areas, less privacy, increased accessibility, longer working hours and increased demands that have all been precipitated by our continuing quest for increased efficiency.

Self-control is more important than ever as the cost of procrastination becomes greater. Perfectionism, once permissible, is now a major deterrent to success. Effective writing also gains in importance, as email and text messaging becomes the most frequently used methods of business communication.

Time management is more than a tidy desk, an organized file system and efficient work habits. It is a continuing process that integrates technology with managerial and interpersonal skills directed toward a pre-determined goal in a way that maximizes the return on invested time.

Technology is simply one ingredient in this effectiveness mix. It should be understood, used, and controlled. But it should never be allowed to replace common sense, logic and sound management practice. And it requires training in holistic time management as well, which includes almost everything that affects body, mind and spirit.

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Getting things done with internal time management

technologyGetting things done with internal time management involves the mind, while external time management is more concerned with procedures and methods, organizing and other external and environmental factors.

When it comes to getting things done, the brain has a mind of its own. Your intentions are real and your “surface commitments” are sincere: but your actions often conflict with your plans.

For centuries people have been attempting to increase personal productivity through environmental changes, improved work methods and technology. But unless technology can also do the thinking – including planning and organizing – and generate the will-power, self-discipline, impulse control and other human characteristics that are essential to actually getting things done, we will make little progress.

Technology, for example, increases efficiency in methods; but decreases the effectiveness in minds. Improper use of digital technology is like walking up a “down” escalator. The faster the escalator moves downward, the faster we have to move upwards just to stay where we are. Progress remains the same.

The new battlefield for personal productivity is not on the shop floor or in the office cubicle; it’s in the brain. In this digital age of speed, our internal assets such as attention span, self-control, focus, creativity and problem-solving skills are under attack. Internal time management is the process of harnessing the benefits of technology while defusing its negative impact on our cognitive skills, and more effectively using our minds to improve our personal productivity.

These newer tactics are discussed in our holistic time management workshops.

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Deadlines increase our productivity

DeadlineDeadlines increase our productivity; but the deadlines must be realistic. And we can be much more productive if we take frequent breaks in addition to longer vacations.

Canadians, with a two-week starting vacation (three in Saskatchewan) spend more time working than our European counterparts. And according to an article by Tanya Finberg in 24 hours Toronto (July 27, 2010), only 24% of us are using up vacation time. This translates to about 36.5 million extra days at work.

In addition, we are working well beyond the normal workday, bringing our office with us in the form of a smart phone or other PDA strapped to our hip – ready for action the moment it beeps.

We seem to have a false belief that more time spent working equates to increased productivity when it is actually the opposite. Productivity refers to the amount of output (results) per unit of input (time and energy). This is accomplished through efficiency – increasing the amount of output per hour.

If we were to work less and get more done, we are increasing productivity through increased efficiency. But this is accomplished, not through working more hours, but by making better use of the hours we work. We tend to do be more productive when we have fewer hours, not more. With fewer hours to accomplish a task, we experience fewer self-interruptions, give less attention to trivia, and tend to say no with more regularity. We wouldn’t have time to surf the Internet or stare out the window or overindulge in coffee during the scheduled work hours. Shorter time frames produce a sense of urgency. Working overtime frequently extends our current efficiency (or inefficiency) over a greater span of time.

Having a deadline does not put us under stress. Only unrealistic deadlines put us under stress. And it counteracts Parkinson’s Law – the tendency to expand our activities to fill the time available. With less time available, we are more apt to be creative, prioritize, delegate, and ignore the trivia that would normally distract us from our goals.

That’s one of the reasons I recommend scheduling 90-minute blocks of time in order to work on your projects. Each work session has a deadline, and is brief enough that ignoring email and allowing calls to go to voice mail would have no appreciable negative effect on your job.

Taking all the vacations allotted to you, including those mini-vacations called lunch hours and coffee breaks, will reduce stress and provide reflective time to activate your creative juices.

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How technology impacts our lifestyle

tech 2Technology impacts our lifestyle for better or worse. Too much TV for children under the age of two, whether it’s educational or not, might be partially to blame for the tenfold increase in ADHD cases, according to a January 10, 2009 article in the Toronto Star. Nine children out of ten under the age of two watch TV, some up to 40% of the day.

Psychiatric investigators in South Korea found that 20% of Internet-addicted children and teens end up with relatively severe ADHD symptoms. Whether parents use TV as a babysitter or because they feel it is good for the brain, the result, according to scientific evidence, is too much too early. It could be rewiring the brain.

A study by psychologists at Iowa State found that kids who exceeded the recommended two hours per day of screen time were one and a half to two times more likely to have attention problems in the classroom (Toronto Star, July 6, 2010.)

On the other hand, according to an article in the October, 2010 issue of Psychology Today, babies raised among books obtained an average of three years and more schooling than book-free kids, notes an Australian national University study. Study author Joanna Sikora suspects that the offspring of literature-loving parents develop rich vocabularies, which aided cognitive development.

Are we over-dosing on technology? A study of over 200 students at the University of Rhode Island found they were losing an average of 45 minutes of sleep each week because of their cell phones. The average American spends 75 hours per year playing video games, according to David Pink in his book, A Whole New Mind.

Mike Byster, in his 2014 book The Power of Forgetting, says the average working professional spends roughly 23% of the workday on email, and glances at the inbox about 36 times an hour. And figures quoted in the book, In Search of Balance by Richard A Swenson, the typical corporate users send and receive about 167 messages daily and will spend 30% of their day creating, organizing, reading and responding to email.

Social networking is now the fourth most popular online activity, ahead of email and behind search engines, general Internet portals such as Yahoo & AOL, and software downloads. The amount of time spent using social networking sites is growing three times the rate of overall Internet usage, according to the February, 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind.

70 million Facebook members in the U.S. spent 233 million hours on the site in April, 2009 – up 28 million hours and 23 million members the previous April. This is a 175% increase in per capita usage. On an individual basis, the most avid users are spending two hours a day on the site while they are at work.

Technology can be a great time-saver, communicator, educator and entertainer; but we must ask ourselves if we are having too much of a good thing. The time at our disposal is limited. And we must be careful not to rob Peter to pay Paul.