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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.

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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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The power of positive thinking

The power of positive thinking

The power of positive thinking was illustrated in one study where cynical women who harbored hostile thoughts and mistrusted others were 23% more likely to suffer a cancer-related death, and 16% more likely to die from any cause as compared to women who were most trusting. An earlier study found that cancer patients’ mental attitude was a better predictor of survival than the size of the tumor, its severity, or the patient’s age

The December, 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind referred to studies done at 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. Never underestimate the power of the mind. Empathy on the part of doctors can heal.

Alan Loy McGinnis reported an interesting study in his book, The Power of Optimism. He tells of Christopher Paterson, a University of Michigan psychologist, who measured the amount of optimism and pessimism in 172 people. One year later, the pessimists reported twice as many illnesses and doctor’s visits as the optimists.

We have come a long way since Norman Vincent Peale wrote his popular book, The power of positive thinking, in 1952. Joe Dispenza’s book, You are the placebo: making your mind matter, published in 2014, explains how, through self-directed neuroplacticity, we can actually form new neural pathways in our brain and heal ourselves – and even create a new life for ourselves.

Most people know, and many have experienced, the impact that positive thinking can have on their lives. New knowledge about how our brains work, and books such as You are the placebo, now explain how it works, and makes it possible to achieve, through the power of our mind, what we once considered impossible.

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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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The difference between organizing and time management

OrganizationWhat is the difference between organizing and time management? Organizing is the act of rearranging items that are in a disorganized, cluttered state so that everything can be retrieved quickly with less effort, maximizing both their utility and visual appeal.

Time management refers to increasing both the efficiency and the effectiveness of individuals and organizations through the organization of tasks and events by using tools such as planners and computers, and techniques and processes such as goal-setting, planning and scheduling.

The two activities are interrelated since disorganization normally wastes time. The major difference between organizing and time management is that, in general, organizing deals with things and time management deals with activities that have a time dimension. Both are important.

Time management in any environment, electronic or otherwise, involves working both efficiently and effectively. You are working efficiently when you complete tasks in the best possible way. You are working effectively when you concentrate your efforts on the best possible tasks. What you do is considered more important than how you do it. But when you get organized and work both efficiently and effectively, you are approaching excellence.

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To Do lists don’t get things done

To DOTo Do lists don’t get things done; people do. I have always maintained that To Do lists are unreliable if you’re expecting them to get things done. They are reminders, but little else.

There is a LinkedIn survey of over 6000 global professionals that found that only 11% actually accomplished all the tasks on their “To Do” lists. Mentioned in the June 15, 2012 edition of the Toronto Globe and Mail, the survey cited e-mail, impromptu meetings and phone calls as major distractions that prevented people from working on their To Do lists.

The real issue here is the fact that 40% of the respondents admitted that they are easily distracted. This has always been the case to some extent; but with technology allowing uninterrupted interruptions and 24/7 connectivity coupled with an expanding workday, the problem has been magnified a hundredfold.

Our brains are being required to accept interruptions as they occur, and my usual recommendations of scheduling important items from your To Do list into your planner, scheduling times for e-mail, adopting focus hours, and working in 90-minute segments, although providing more commitment, are no longer sufficient to ensure maximum effectiveness in the use of time.

We must accept the fact that the battlefield has changed from our workstations to our minds. We must understand how our brain reacts to the new stimulants received from the digital environment, how neuroplasticity effects our reactions, and how we can regain control of our time by regaining control of our brain.

Our greatest asset in getting things done consists of our executive skills, those brain-based skills that help us to focus, sustain attention, ignore distractions, and stick to the task at hand. Ways of strengthening these skills are included in my new publication, A brain’s-eye view of time management, available soon.

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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.