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Who is calling the shots, you or your computer?

Don't let technology high-jack your brain.
Don’t let technology high-jack your brain.

In today’s work environment our brain is on constant alert – both the reactive core brain, and the frontal lobes, which are constantly called upon to make decisions, choices, as well as plan our day minute by minute. At the same time, we play nursemaid to technology and its own set of demands. This is not only stressful, but drains our energy and throws our natural body rhythms out of sync. Trouble sleeping, anxiety, fatigue and even depression could ensue.

Bombarded by digital messages, cell phone calls, artificial light from computer screens and handheld devices, the working environment is generally not user-friendly, and not conducive to improved productivity. If we allow our environment to control us, incessantly distracting us from our priority tasks, interrupting our train of thought and kidnapping our minds for minutes at a time as we respond to emails or instant messages, we will never regain the productivity of the past.

Sure technology itself is synonymous with increased productivity; but it’s the computers that are productive, while we are used as “go-fers” at their beck and call. Computers are efficient to the nth degree; but without the creativity and thinking power of the human brain, they will never be able to manage companies, let alone a family or a personal life.

Yet the human brain is frequently being relegated to making service calls to keep technology humming. There is little time left for creative thinking, problem-solving or planning. And what little time is left is being utilized by tired and sometimes exhausted brains that are no longer working on all cylinders.

No wonder the emphasis these days is on the development of artificial intelligence. Ours is being rapidly dissipated. Already we are seldom required to add or subtract, spell or even write – activities that enhance our brain power in one way or another.

What I am proposing is to take control of our working environment – including the technology – so that we can establish a pattern of working that not only increases our personal productivity, but maintains a healthy, energized brain and body.

I have written enough articles in the past about the negative impact of technology on our brains and bodies – enough at least to attract criticism as being anti-technology. (Which is not true since I use technology daily to maintain a high level of personal productivity.) I do not criticize technology itself, but our use of it. Technology should not dictate when or where we check email or receive phone calls or the extent to which we participate in social media and so on. Those are our decisions to make.

But we have taken the path of least resistance and forfeited these responsibilities, allowing technology to hijack the more primitive parts of our brain and developing self-defeating habits that keep us from realizing our full potential. That’s not surprising considering the amount of personal energy required to make decisions, muster willpower and take charge. It’s imperative that we manage our energy as well.

In the next few articles I will give some suggestions as to how you might manage your environment to increase personal productivity and well-being. It will include more than just the control of technology; it will cover everything from the location of your desk and working area to the addition of plants and natural lighting. The most critical change of course will be the way you interact with technology. Technology is a driving force; but don’t let it drive you. Get a good seven hours or more sleep each night this week. Be sure to eat properly and keep up with your daily exercise. You will need all the energy you can get in order to take back the control that is rightfully yours.

Next blog article: Are you going to work or working on the go?




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The single most effective strategy for managing email

Email management strategies

Email management strategies

Is it the end of personal time?

The single most effective strategy for handling email is to control it and not allow it to control you. Personal life coach Valorie Burton, author of How Did I Get So Busy (Broadway Books, 2007) relates the story of a woman who sleeps with her BlackBerry. Her reason? If she gets an idea in the middle of the night, she can email it before she forgets.

That’s not such an uncommon story. Stefan Klein, in his book The Secret Pulse of Time (Marlowe & Company, 2007) talks about the constant stream of emails that prevent us from finishing our projects. He cites an AOL study that indicated people are addicted to email. Three quarters of all Americans spend more than an hour a day on it. 41% of those questioned retrieve their email first thing in the morning even before brushing their teeth – and almost as many admit to getting out of bed at night to check their email. 4% even read their email on their laptops while seated on the toilet!

One of my own clients told me that he was proud of the fact that he could reach any of his managers at any time – even if it were midnight Sunday – because the company had issued BlackBerrys to all the managers.

Valorie Burton referred to a Wall Street Journal article titles “BlackBerry Orphans” that discussed how these gadgets intrude on families and how children are feeling neglected.

Email is one of the reasons that work is no longer a place but a state of mind. It’s also one of the culprits in an out-of-balance life. And it contributes to the number one time problem as we will soon see as well.

It’s not email itself, but our lack of control. People check it from the time they get up in the morning until they go to bed at night. That is, if they don’t sleep with it! And it frequently takes them on tangents, checking recommended websites, reading attachments, responding to queries and keeping them from working on their priority projects. Some people even have bells and whistles that tell them another email has arrived so they won’t miss another distraction.

If you want to gain control, set up a time and a procedure for handling email. Don’t allow it to control your day. You might check email twice per day, for instance – more frequently if your company’s success depends on a quick response to emails. Checking your email every ten minutes or so is both costly and time consuming.

Timothy Ferriss, author of the book, The 4-Hour Workweek, published in 2007 by Crown Publishing, 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.

It’s not generally a good idea to check email first thing in the morning. You could easily get distracted from your plan. Make sure you get your top priority done first. We recommend you schedule one or more priority tasks each morning and not check your email until about 11:30. You could check it again about 3:30 in the afternoon. You might want to turn off the automatic send/receive option so that email doesn’t pop up in your inbox the moment you sign on. Email programs seem to be designed to control us rather than the other way around.

I encourage everyone to at least give it a try. Check your email twice per day for at least a couple of days and then assess the impact on your business. I’m sure most people have experienced a computer crash or an Internet access problem or a vacation when accessing email was impossible, and yet have survived the experience with no earth-shattering problems.

When you do check your email, make sure that you have enough time to dispense with all the email messages in your inbox. You might want to allow a half hour for instance every time you check your email. Either delete it, forward it to someone else for reply, file it, answer it, move it to an action file or To Do list, or (if it warrants it) schedule time in your planner to take the necessary action before replying. It’s a similar process you would use with paper. Handle it only once where possible and never leave it in the inbox.