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A new way of looking at procrastination

A new way of looking at procrastination is from the perspective of an executive function skill – task initiation. Task initiation is the ability to begin tasks without undo procrastination. If you have no problem digging right into a task at the scheduled time, seldom put things off, and have no trouble getting started with priorities at the beginning of each work day, you have string task initiation skills. But if you tend to procrastinate, are slow getting started, do a lot of preliminary stuff like read the paper, have a coffee, straighten your desk etc. then you are weak on task initiation.

Most people procrastinate occasionally. Weak task initiation skills are one of the major causes of poor time management. Piers Steel, a University of Calgary psychologist, after analyzing psychological literature, concluded that 95% of people admit that they sometimes procrastinate.

Telling other people about your goals and making commitments rather than simply intentions have been known to help. Also recording starting times – including blocks of time in which to do your priority tasks – is a good idea. Having all materials ready before you start so there’s no excuse to interrupt yourself and doing unpleasant tasks first are good ways to partially compensate for weak initiation skills.

Forming a habit of starting for early in the morning, having policies as to when you work on the various tasks and choosing a quiet location all might help.
But we tend to avoid unpleasant things and gravitate towards pleasant things. This tendency is so common that it has even been given a label, the Pleasure Principle, which has been defined as: “an organism avoids pain and seeks immediate gratification.”

In a way, the marshmallow experiment is an example of this principle. It was originally conducted at Stanford University back in the sixties. A group of four-year olds were given a marshmallow and promised another if they could wait 20 minutes before eating the first one. Some children could wait and others could not. The researchers then followed the progress of each child into adolescence, and demonstrated that those with the ability to wait were better adjusted and more dependable and scored an average of 210 points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Those who gave into temptation early on were more likely to be lonely, easily frustrated and stubborn. They didn’t cope well with stress and stayed clear of challenges. Yale University later conducted research on adults and found the similar results.

The executive skills needed to wait for the greater reward include task initiation and response inhibition. It may explain why we tend to procrastinate on distasteful or overwhelming tasks and work instead on those brief and pleasant tasks, even though they may be less important. When we procrastinate, we are frequently putting off what we want most in order to get what we want at the moment.

But how were the few four-year-olds, who also had very weak executive skills (since these skills take almost twenty years to fully develop) able to resist temptation and wait for the second marshmallow? Well, in examining the tapes many years later, researchers noticed that those children used strategies that allowed them to resist temptation – strategies that we could use ourselves in order to manage ourselves more effectively. They all changed their environment in some way to offset their natural inclination to devour the marshmallow right away. Some put the marshmallow out of sight by sitting under the table or by facing away from the marshmallow. Others sang a song or hummed a tune, focusing their attention on something other than the marshmallow. They did something to avoid having to face the temptation.

Translating these strategies to the business environment, you could turn off your cellphone, engage voicemail, turn off email alerts and close your office door at specific times while you work on your priority projects. You could remove all clutter and other potential distractions from your immediate work area – including any in-baskets. Don’t have family photos or memorabilia in your line of sight. Face a blank wall, not a window or open doorway. Work on projects for 60 or 90 minutes at a time – maximum. If you find that’s too long to postpone urges to interrupt yourself, shorten the work sessions even more. You can always increase them gradually later. Between sessions you can check email, return phone calls and grab a coffee. Work in short sprints rather than attempt marathons. Research shows that willpower consumes a lot of energy so you must pace yourself.

Through environmental and procedural changes it will be easier to resist the temptation to put things off. And the more you practice self-discipline, the stronger the neural connections in the brain, and the stronger those task initiation skills will become.


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Is your attention span decreasing?

Sustained attention is the capacity to focus on a task despite fatigue or boredom – to be able to maintain attention and not be easily distracted or side tracked. You are strong in this executive skill if you are able to screen out distractions and complete a task without your mind drifting to other thoughts. But if you’re easily distracted, have trouble completing tasks, frequently interrupt yourself to deal with e-mail, text messages etc., then you have weak sustained attention skills.

There was an experiment conducted about 12 years ago that involved subjects watching a video of a basketball game. The psychologists showed the same video to everyone. A person dressed in a gorilla suit walked across the playing court during the game. Half the viewers never noticed. They coined the phrase “illusion of attention” to describe the fact that we are unaware of how much we are really missing in our visual world.

When you are focusing on a task, whether it is watching TV or working on an article or thesis, the mind tends to filter out distractions so that “intentional blindness” is a side effect of your power of concentration. If you’re not looking for it, chances are you may not see it. As a case in point, 75% of the cases where DNA evidence frees someone previously convicted of a crime, they had originally been convicted by the testimony of eye witnesses.

You can use this fact to work more efficiently by focusing on a task even in a noisy environment or one in which people are forever walking past your field of vision. If you are interested and focused on what you are doing, you will be less susceptible to self-interruptions.
Unfortunately, focusing for any length of time is difficult, and in this digital age of speed, where we are continually being bombarded and interrupted by electronic media, attention spans are becoming even shorter.

Most people seem to be able to pay attention to things that they do well, whether it is texting, drawing or working on jig saw puzzles. But they may have problems with common tasks that bring no sense of pleasure or sustained interest. These could include writing weekly reports, attending lengthy meetings or organizing their home or office. So it’s not that they are unable to pay attention for any length of time, but they may find it more boring than other people to stick to tasks that have no interest to them.

Focusing on something that is of little interest or more difficult for them consumes more of their energy. It has even been shown that making decisions consumes energy – to the extent that decisions made later in the day are not as sound as those made earlier in the day.
Also, the brain is goal-oriented, and if the expectation of achieving a goal is strong, and the rewards are great, attention is strong for longer periods of time. Therefore it would help if the tasks were reasonably easy, took shorter periods of time, were connected to a definite plan of action or schedule, and offered benefits that were clearly evident.

That’s one reason why I recommend using the 90-minute rule of scheduling. This refers to the practice of breaking projects and larger tasks into 90-minute work sessions separated by breaks, either physical or mental.

Ninety minutes is a reasonable length of time to be unavailable to other people. It also minimizes self-interruptions & fatigue, allows you to capitalize on your “prime time” each day, avoids the inefficiency of marathon work sessions, and makes it easier to build a consistent habit of working productively each day.

Those who think they are good at multitasking are usually the worst at it. Although researchers have identified a few “supertaskers,” who can focus fully on two or more things at the same time, chances are we’re not one of them. Stick to one task for 90 minutes – less if you find you can’t focus that long. If you are able to get two of these work sessions into each day, you will be head and shoulders above most people when it comes to personal productivity.

And you will be strengthening your attention skill in the process.


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 People who can’t control their anger really make me mad.

Emotional control, the next executive skill that we’ll discuss, is the ability to manage emotions in order to achieve goals. If you are strong in this skill you are relatively unemotional and cool under pressure. You’re not easily sidetracked, resist temptation, don’t get overly emotional if criticized, and are not easily discouraged – in short, you have emotional control.

But if you react when criticized, have difficulty controlling your anger, and are easily frustrated, you have a low emotional control.

This is a difficult one to control since so many people seem to anger easily and take comments personally. And a negative attitude and emotional state can cause stress and lower the body’s immune system. One Harvard study showed that those with the most negative attitudes at 25 suffered the most illnesses in their forties, fifties and sixties.

And another study involved 69 women with breast cancer who were asked three months after their surgery how they viewed their disease and how it affected their lives. 5 years later, 75% of those who had reacted positively and with a fighting spirit were still alive compared with less than half the others. There is little doubt that attitude can have either a negative or positive impact on your health.

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.

If you use the same suggestions as under impulsiveness and you don’t answer contentious e-mail until next day or at least count to ten before answering, you might avoid the emotional impact. And if you view your mind as separate from your brain and use the “thought-stopping technique whenever you find yourself slipping into anger mode or negativity or worry, you can gain control of your brain. You have to learn to press the “delete” button when non-productive thoughts start surfacing, and you might do this by actually saying, “Stop that!” and start thinking happy thoughts instead.

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. Most of the suggestions in strengthening the other executive skills will help with the emotional skill as well.

A happier, healthier lifestyle is more important than ever, and along with it, an attitude that tends to stress-proof your life. It’s important to get sufficient sleep, daily exercise and social support. But 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. And volunteer on a regular basis. By helping others you are also helping yourself.

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How Memory Effects Our Ability to be Effective

Working memory is the ability to hold information in memory while performing complex tasks such as language comprehension, learning and reasoning. In the middle of a hectic day when you’re going from one crisis to another and you still remember that you were supposed to phone someone at a specific time, you have a strong working memory. Or you’re interrupted by a phone call and you don’t forget where you left off.

Computers with greater RAM yield better performance and so it is with working memory in humans. Dr. Zach Hambrick, a Michigan State researcher found that those with greater working memory capacity outperformed others. Studies of pilot errors in fatal airline crashes indicate that problems are rarely due to the pilot not knowing what to do or when do it, but more often due to failures in resuming a task after being interrupted.

The most important aid for coping with this weakness is to write down things and make lists. If you have to leave a project, write the next step before you leave. Before you answer the phone, or greet a drop-in visitor, jot down the first few words of your planned next sentence.

Recall is better at the beginning and end of events. For example, if you are trying to remember a nine digit number, you would easily recall the first few numbers and the last few numbers but you would find that it is more difficult to recall the ones in between. This is referred to as the “primacy effect” and “recency effect.” You tend to remember more of the information at the start and at the finish than in the middle. Working on a project or reading or studying for shorter periods of time provides more beginnings and endings. This is one of the reasons I recommend working on a project in shorter sprints rather than longer marathons.

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Some researchers feel that working memory is critical, that there is a link between working memory and ability and general cognitive performance. An article in the May 5, 2011 Toronto Globe and Mail titled “The brain can juggle only so much” by Mark Fenske, co-author of The winner’s brain, claims that practice can improve working memory. He illustrated this by using a computer-based task that requires information to be held in mind while updating it. Simply memorizing things will help. And you can become quite good at it. I used to facilitate memory training workshops, and on occasion I still do for seniors at our local church. People are amazed at what they are capable of remembering once they apply themselves.

It’s evident that if we don’t use our executive skills they will weaken. It’s similar to the impact of a sedentary lifestyle on our muscles. But not only are we outsourcing our memories to computers, and doing it willingly, some people seem to be advocating it. The personal technology columnist for the New York Times in the August, 2013 issue of Scientific American, asks “why should we mourn the loss of memorization skills any more than we pine for hot type technology, Morse code abilities or a knack for operating elevators?” Yet by letting computers do all our memorizing and dozens of other mental activities, we are weakening our brains.

I’m not against progress. Computers in the classroom? By all means. Let them take over the routine work? Absolutely. Programming them to do those time wasting jobs, including calculations? Of course. But not to the extent that they eliminate the need, ability or desire to memorize, calculate, problem solve, create, think and otherwise exercise our brains. Heaven forbid if some quirk of nature should short-circuit the world’s computers. We would all be as helpless as newborn babies.

The best thing for strengthening your memory, both working memory and long-term memory, is to exercise both your body and your brain. Do crossword puzzles, read articles and books, take educational courses, practice creativity exercises, and continually challenge yourself. If you retire physically, don’t retire mentally. Studies suggest that maintaining intellectual activity throughout life can preserve memory in later years. The Victoria Longitudinal Study in Western Canada revealed that middle-aged or older individuals who participate in intellectually challenging activities and projects, including reading, are less likely to suffer declines in cognitive functioning.

Physical exercise is even more important. You need to keep the blood flowing to the brain with the oxygen and glucose that it needs to operate at its peak. Physical exercise and other important factors such as sleep, stress reduction and brain-boosting foods will be discussed in later blogs once I have covered actions you can take to strengthen all the executive skills that we mentioned previously.

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Think before you act

It would be great if we were all strong in the executive skills listed in last week’s blog; but unfortunately few of us are. I have never met anyone who didn’t struggle at times with self-control, patience, focus, time management or other issues relevant to the executive skills described previously. Those of us who struggle excessively would probably be diagnosed as having ADHD. According to Jesse Payne, in his 2014 book Change your brain change your life before 25, in the US alone, 5.2 million children do struggle with ADHD. Then there are the adults.

The skill I will discuss here, which has a major impact on our ability to manage time, is response inhibition – the ability to think before you act. If you weigh the pros and cons before you act, work on tasks in accordance with their priority, and take a methodical approach to things, you’re probably strong in response inhibition. Weakness in this skill would give rise to impulsiveness. So if you tend to say the first thing that pops into your mind, do things without thinking about the long-term impact of such actions, and are easily distracted by urgent, unimportant or trivial matters, you are relatively weak in this skill.

According to researcher Angelina Sutin, who tracked 200 people for more than 50 years, people who score in the top 10% on impulsiveness weigh 22 pounds more than those in the bottom 10% on average. Perhaps they intend to go to the gym and something else pops up and they follow that impulse instead or they see that tempting Big Mac hamburger and go for it.

To strengthen this and any other executive skill, you must buy into the fact that you are not your brain. You can control these impulses and actually rewire your brain with sufficient effort. Besides the actions I will describe, you must also create an environment that does not support the weakness that you want to eliminate.

For example, don’t go shopping on an empty stomach, don’t have email open when you’re working on a project, and don’t have your cell phone turned on when you’re in a meeting. Studying the tapes of the marshmallow experiments, described in a previous blog, researchers detected that some kids were able to resist eating the single marshmallow by putting it out of sight or turning away from it so they couldn’t see it. That’s why you shouldn’t keep your “fat clothes” once you lose weight or keep cigarettes in the house if you’re giving up smoking.

In the same way, you shouldn’t face an uncovered window when you’re working on an important project or have personal photos and memorabilia on your desk that could encourage distractions. If your workstation is not conducive to concentration, try changing the location by having work sessions at a local coffee shop or spare boardroom.

Other things you can do are: work for shorter periods of time, structure your day by scheduling appointments with yourself to get specific things done, have specific times to check e-mail and text messages, and work with your natural body rhythms of high and low energy.

You can practice willpower. For example, break your favorite chocolate bar into 7 pieces and have only one piece a day. Grab water when you have an urge for a coke. Give up dessert for a week. Decline invitations you don’t enjoy. Don’t respond to an emotional email until the following morning. Use the stairs instead of the elevator, and so on. The more you practice self-discipline, the more your inner strength grows, just like exercising at a gym increases your physical strength. Your brain will be rewired through the repetition of good habits so keep at it until it becomes a habit.

It’s important that you have goals and objectives and plans to achieve them. Then you have a reason to resist the temptation to go wherever your impulses take you. The more you resist temptation, the easier it becomes. Self-discipline is the rejection of instant gratification in favor of something better – a higher and more rewarding goal.

There are many things, such as exercise, that you can do to strengthen all your cognitive skills, including the executive skills, but these will be covered after briefly discussing each executive skill in turn. But I should mention here that it’s believed that exercise may inspire healthier choices by altering structure in the brain that deal with self-regulation and impulse control.

In the next blog will discuss working memory and what you can do to improve it.

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Brain-based skills that impact how you manage time


A 2010 book, where the same authors of Smart but Scattered , Peggy Dawson and Richard Guare, team up with Chuck Martin, who has also been researching this area, is called Work Your Strengths: a Scientific Approach to Identify your Skills and Match Them to the Best Career for You, published by AMACOM, New York. It doesn’t focus on strengthening these skills, but rather, matching your stronger skills with jobs that require those skills in order to excel. Chuck Martin has found that most people have two or three strong skills and two or three weak skills with the rest falling somewhere in between. You could partner with someone who has strengths where you have weaknesses, or move into a job that matches your skills, but why not strengthen these skills? We can change our brains as surely as the younger generation’s brains are being changed at this very moment. Except that their brains are being changed with no effort on their part – they are simply living in a different technological environment.

In the next few blogs we will take a look at these skills in more detail – describe them them more fully, see how they impact our ability to get organized and manage our time, and discuss how we can improve or strengthen these skills.

But first, here are brief descriptions of the various executive skills described in the book, Work Your Strengths, by Richard Guare, Peg Dawson and Chuck Martin.

Response inhibition: the ability to think before you act.

Working memory: the ability to hold information in memory while performing complex tasks.

Emotional control: the ability to manage emotions in order to achieve goals.

Sustained attention: the capacity to focus on a task despite fatigue or boredom.

Task initiation: the ability to begin tasks without undo procrastination.

Planning/prioritization: the capacity to develop a road map to arrive at a predetermined goal.

Organization: the ability to arrange according to a system.

Time management: the ability to estimate and allocate time effectively.

Goal-directed persistence: the ability to have a goal and follow through until its completion.

Flexibility: the ability to revise plans in the face of obstacles and setbacks.

Metacognition: the ability to observe yourself in a situation and make changes so you’re better able to solve problems.

Stress tolerance: the ability to thrive in stressful situations.

According to the book just mentioned, the executive skill that is the most significant in high performance is planning/prioritization. The top strength in the most high-performing males is metacognition. The top strength in most high-performing females is organization. And the most common weakness is task initiation.

All these skills are important to children coping with life, students attempting to learn and adults wanting to make the best use of their time. In the next few blogs we will explain these executive skills more thoroughly and offer some suggestions on how you can strengthen them, and cope with any weak ones until you do.


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Strengthening your executive skills is a lifelong process


Executive skills are critical in today’s world because life is getting more and more complicated with increasing numbers of choices and decisions to make and less time in which to make them. The ability to set goals, plan and prioritize, and stay on course is vital if we are to remain effective in this digital age of speed.

In fact the executive skills I’m describing seem close to what we used to teach managers or executives in workshops and business students in college. The functions of a manager are planning, organizing, staffing, directing and controlling – and includes innovating, decision-making and representing.

When we trained managers we tried to show them how they should plan, organize, staff and so on in order to become better managers. In retrospect, it would appear that some students were already good in those areas because of some highly developed brain skills. In fact the prefrontal cortex is sometimes referred to as the CEO of the brain, drawing on the feedback from other areas of the brain and making the decision whether to take one course of action or another.

Although there are similarities between the management functions that we teach and executive brain skills, the executive skills, as we are describing them here, relate to brain skills acquired through normal development. They are located in the prefrontal cortex and are the last areas of the brain to develop in late adolescence or early adulthood. The frontal lobes themselves, thought to be the main areas where the executive skills reside, require 18 to 20 years to develop. Some of the skills are developing at 5 to 6 months of age. By age 24, they are thought to be fully developed – or hardwired – some stronger than others.

But like math and reading, these skills can be taught and learned as children grow older. They are not genetic. When a baby is born she has no ability to control the undeveloped and primitive emotional circuits. The baby must learn from the fully-developed brain of the parents or others through one-on-one interactions with them.

As many as half of North American children have poor self-regulating skills by the time they get to school. It shows up in high rates of attention deficit disorder or ADHD among other problems. It is also claimed that some of this is traced to the increase in neurotoxins, such as mercury, air pollution and PCBs passing through the umbilical cords.

Executive skills can still be strengthened when we are adults, and I’ll talk more about that later. But it’s easier to strengthen them in childhood if the parents role model appropriate behavior. Our brains are malleable or plastic, and are capable of changing throughout life. But there are two main growth periods, one in pre-adolescence, say up to 5 years old, and another during their teens. (100 billion cells by 5 years old followed by pruning, then more growth.)

A parent can design games and tasks that help develop the various executive skills that the child is weak in. It’s a lot easier when the child is young than it is when they’re twenty and fully developed. Change can still take place as we age, and we will discuss this in future blogs. In the meantime, if you want to read up on executive skills and their impact on learning, I would recommend Smart but Scattered by Peggy Dawson and Richard Guare. It is directed primarily at parents and takes one skill at a time and discusses ways of working with your child to strengthen that skill.

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Strengthening your “Executive Skills”

Sometimes referred to as” habits of the mind”, a person’s “executive skills” are those Brainbrain-based skills required to execute tasks – that is, getting organized, planning, initiating work, staying on task, controlling impulses, regulating emotions, and being adaptable and resilient. These skills primarily reside in the prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain that helps you manage complex problems, goals and self-control.

People with weak executive skills, then, are those who have trouble getting organized, managing time, planning ahead and staying focused. They tend to be impulsive, procrastinate, and get easily sidetracked.

If a child had these characteristics they would probably diagnosed as having ADHD. Many researchers believe that ADD and ADHD are disorders of executive skills. All agree that if the child has ADHD at least some executive skills will be impaired, such as the ability to pay attention and stay focused, manage their time, and stick to one task for any length of time.

Strong executive skills are critical in today’s digital age of speed because life is getting more and more complicated with increasing numbers of choices and decisions to make and less time in which to make them. For this reason, I believe that time management strategies must focus less on environmental control and more on internal control. We cannot control how the world is changing, neither the pace of life nor the 24/7 connectivity and constant bombardment of information. But we can change how we react to this change. And although some of that may still be physical, success in the future will depend more on what’s going on in your mind, body and spirit than what’s going on in your office.

The exact number of executive skills has yet to be determined. Smart but Scattered by Peggy Dawson and Richard Guare (The Guilford Press, 2009) identify 11 executive functions. Work Your Strengths by Chuck Martin, Peggy Dawson and Richard Guare (AMACOM, New York in 2010) describe 12 executive functions. A New Understanding of ADHD in Children & Adults:Executive Function Impairments by Thomas E. Brown (Routledge, May, 2013)  proposes 6 separate clusters of executive functions. This makes more sense since several of the executive functions are similar, and the more detailed you are, the more open to error you are as research in this area continues.

Regardless of the number of skills, they are generally those essential to effective self-management or time management, and they can be strengthened. In next week’s blog I will pass along some information on how you can use your mind to strengthen weak executive skills in order to manage your time more effectively. The battle in the mind has begun.



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When you leave the office, the interruptions follow

imagesWe are ill-equipped to deal with the onslaught of interruptions introduced by technology. Our brain’s natural inclination is to react to them. We coped with this in the old days by isolating ourselves from interruptions by closing our office door, having our calls screened or intercepted or by going to a coffee shop where no one could contact us.

With the advent of the cell phone, e-mail, texting and portable devices, interruptions now follow us wherever we go. We are at the mercy of our own ability or inability to resist the urge to answer our smart phones, check incoming e-mail or respond to text messages.
The battlefield, where it is determined whether we will lose the quest for personal productivity, has shifted from our office to our brain.

Although technology is evolving exponentially, our brains are not. The allure of e-mail, according to one techno-psychologist, is similar to that of the slot machine: You have intermittent, variable reinforcement. You don’t know when you will be next rewarded so you keep pulling the handle.

There are different theories on willpower. Originally it was thought that willpower was like a muscle that was easily depleted. And research backed this up. But newer research also suggests we have as much willpower as we expect we have. If you believe you have the willpower to resist interruptions, you will have it. Sort of like the placebo effect.

This latter theory also seems to be backed up by research conducted at the University of Rochester as a follow-up to the marshmallow experiments of the 1960s. In the experiments of the 1960s, children were given a marshmallow and told that if they could resist eating it for a few minutes they would get two marshmallows. Those who resisted the longest, showing the greatest self-control, were more successful later in life.

The Rochester experiments involved giving one group of children old used crayons and telling them if they resisted playing with them, they would be given new ones. But they never received the new ones. Another group was told the same thing but the researchers made good on their promise of new crayons. When they all took the marshmallow test afterwards, the group with a good experience behind them resisted eating the marshmallow for 12 minutes. The other group, who obviously had lower expectations, lasted only 2 minutes.

Although our brain hasn’t evolved recently, perhaps it doesn’t have to. We already have a brain capable of resisting temptation – although it may need strengthening – and we can still do a lot to remove the source of the temptation.

Removing the source of temptation could involve turning off your handheld devices while you work on priority projects, keeping the paperwork, to do lists and other distractions out of sight while working on a specific task, and leaving your cell phone at home if you decide to work in a coffee shop. You could also do all your priority work in the same place — one devoid of distracting scenery, pictures or paraphernalia so your brain gets to associate that space with work.

Resisting temptation might involve not going online or checking e-mail before 10 AM, ignoring a ringing telephone when you’re talking with family and friends, and resisting any urge to buy electronic devices that you really don’t need. (After all, who really needs a smart watch when they already have a smart phone? It’s much more important to have a smart brain.)

Self-discipline or self-control, focus, attention, prioritizing and planning are essential if we are to remain effective in this digital age of speed. These are functions of our executive center in the prefrontal cortex area of our brain. That’s why I claim that the battlefield has shifted from the office to the brain. In the next few blogs I will be discussing how we can strengthen our cognitive skills, and in particular, these executive skills that are so critical to the effective use of our time.

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Is technology changing the way we think – and live?

brainmachineOne thought stands out from the writings of Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s –“The medium is the message.” Step ahead 50 years and that statement now seems prophetic. The medium is the electronic technology such as e-mail, and as we remain focused on the messages we receive, the medium takes over — impacting how we manage our time and our lives.

There is an expression I used for over 30 years: “We are so busy doing things that we don’t realize we’re not getting anywhere.” I’m sure I didn’t come up with this originally since it’s doubtful I’ve ever had an original thought in my life. But combined with McLuhan’s statement, it warns us that we should not be so focused on the beauty of the trees that we are unaware of the dangers of the forest.

Technology is a beautiful and wondrous thing. We can shop online, do online banking, send electronic greetings to our family and friends, download music, watch movies on our laptops, dictate to our computers using voice-activated software, and read electronic books on portable handheld devices — among hundreds of other things unavailable in Marshall McLuhan’s lifetime.

I see nothing wrong with reading e-books or performing any of the above activities with the aid of technology. But I do question what’s happening to us if we stop reading altogether, remain cocooned in our homes, infrequently meet personally with friends and relatives, and spend more time watching movies than interacting with our children.

Nicholas Carr, in his 2010 book, Shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains, claims he has noticed changes in his own reading. He loses concentration after a page or two, becomes fidgety, loses track of the storyline and looks for something else to do.

The ability to focus is one of the most critical brain functions according to Barbara Strauch, author of The secret life of the grown-up brain. And this ability depends on the strength of our executive skills, which are currently under attack by the unrelenting impact of technology.

Multitasking taxes the brain, and gets progressively worse as we age. Have you ever been distracted by a telephone call only to forget what you were going to do before the distraction? The other morning I found myself brushing my teeth with after shave lotion! (But others might attribute this to senility.) Research indicates you can have several motor programs running simultaneously, such as steering a car, chewing gum and reaching for a cell phone; but you can only focus your conscious attention on one thing according to Shelley Carson, author of Your creative brain, because your brain thinks sequentially.

Our lifestyle seems to be changing to one of constant rushing to get more things done, and researchers studying people’s behavior at traffic lights have spotted people combing their hair, applying makeup, eating, reading newspapers, talking on cell phones and even using laptops. To quote Barton Sparagon of the Meyer Friedman Institute in San Francisco, “Hurrying is a struggle against time — and that’s unhealthy.” And Faith popcorn, author of The popcorn report, claims “Speedeating has developed into a fine art.”

Cramming more activities into a day causes stress, and stress causes sleeplessness, and lack of sleep causes impatience and the ability to concentrate. It’s a vicious circle. Is technology to blame? No, we are to blame. Because we failed to heed Marshall McLuhan’s warning that the medium is the message.

In my next blog I will describe how this is affecting our time, our health and our personal productivity, and what we can do about it.