Archive for April, 2008|Monthly archive page

Habits, not gadgets

by Margaret Lukens, New Leaf + Company

“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.” ~~ Bill Gates

Every piece of exercise equipment currently being used as a big clothes rack makes the point: improved results depend first on improved habits, not tools and gadgets.

Sometimes we behave as though we could purchase greater efficiency in the form of a special planner, new software, or the latest technology. The good news is that often we can just save our money. Improvement is available without buying a thing.

What we need first and foremost is to establish the habits that will allow us to take full advantage of whatever methods we choose to use.

Of course if you’ve already gotten rid of all the paper you don’t need and you still can’t finish your filing because you have four drawers worth of files and only a two-drawer filing cabinet, then by all means purchase the right tool to complete the job. But if my habit is to stack papers on my desk, guest chair and floor rather than put them away, then all the file cabinets in the world won’t help me. It’s a habit change that’s called for.

I’ve gone into some offices that have dozens of fancy boxes and containers, racks, sorters and memo boards of every description, but the owner of the office still feels (and is!) as disorganized as ever. In some cases, the containers themselves become another form of clutter. I’ve seen a similar pattern with “software collectors,” looking for a newer and better technology that will fix the problem.

Bill Gates probably understands the power and limits of technology as well as anyone alive today, and his succinct quote above should be printed on coffee mugs in break rooms everywhere: first establish the efficient operation, then apply the technology. (I leave it to you to decide how well his particular brand of software delivers on its promised improvements!) And what Gates says of technology, meaning electronic technology, also holds true for non-electronic technology, the box as well as the software.

Have you experienced technology (or tools) applied to an inefficient operation? What happened? How about the reverse: have you successfully shifted a good process into overdrive by applying an appropriate tool? Share your experience here.

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Mind Games

Margaret Lukens, New Leaf + Company LLC

There was a time when scientists believed that the adult brain had nowhere to go but down. Like a flower that develops, blooms and fades, our brains were thought to reach a peak of processing power early in life, then begin the long, irreversible march toward decrepitude.

Now research has shown that the adult brain is characterized by neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections, which continues throughout life. Several companies have entered the market with the promise that we can have a more buff brain to match the gym-toned body.

One such company is Lumosity. With a series of games played on the computer, Lumosity claims to help boost your BPI, “brain performance index,” a ranking based on over 7,000,000 uses of the Lumosity games. The Lumosity games aim to take advantage of neuroplasticity by encouraging the brain to form the neural connections that improve functions such as memory, processing speed and cognitive control.

Often feeling that my brains have drained away through my ears as I slept, and having mastered half a dozen games on Solitaire Until Dawn plus some advanced-level sudoku in an attempt to build my brain power, I signed up for Lumosity’s free 14-day trial.

While my mousing hand doesn’t appreciate the extra work, I find the games enjoyable and relaxing. I take a 10-minute break during my workday to compete against my personal best on computer games and feel virtuous about it.

The brain functions targeted by the games play a critical role in helping people be more productive, too, by helping us to attend quickly to what is necessary, to exert control over the things that command our attention, and to handle more things more quickly without feeling overwhelmed. So I’m not frittering away time on computer games; I’m improving my brain’s executive function. At least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

What methods have you tried to improve your brain’s abilities? Crossword puzzles? Jigsaw puzzles? Other brain fitness products? Share your experiences here.

From Intention to Action

by Margaret Lukens, New Leaf + Company

This afternoon I was jolted out of my seat when my terrier, Ginger, exploded in a fit of barking. What set her off was the daily appearance of the mail carrier. Every day the postal employee approaches the door, Ginger sets up a nerve-torquing bout of barking, the carrier retreats, and Ginger rests easy, knowing that her kibble is once again safe from marauding mail carriers.

Ginger, the wonder dogIt occurred to me that there is just no disconnect for my dog between intention and action. She never looks up and wonders, “Should I go bark at the mail carrier? On the one hand, I resolved when I moved in here to guard the place. I do want to protect my territory. But a sunbeam is hitting the carpet just now. Maybe I’ll bark later.” For her it’s immediate: I intend to bark, I bark.

Life for humans is not so simple. There is plenty of room for slippage between intention and action. In fact, it’s a feature of our brain’s “wiring” that we don’t have a good mechanism for following through on our intentions, for pursuing an intended goal with the tenacity of a terrier.

What we need are some good work-arounds.

One type of work-around is a cueing device. Consider this simple example: let’s say that I intend to stretch periodically while working at my desk. I know that it’s better for my health and concentration. There’s no doubt that I want to do it. Unfortunately, time passes as I’m engrossed in my work and I forget all about my intention. A cueing device is anything that will periodically remind me of my intention, prompting me to act on it.

I might put a stickie note on my monitor that says “stretch!” so that every time I see it, I’m reminded of my intention and can act on it. Or I could set an alarm to alert me twice an hour to stop and change position, take a break, or move.

More complicated intentions require more sophisticated cueing, but there is always a work-around to shorten the distance from intention to action. To dig deeper in this subject, one good resource is Following Through: A Revolutionary New Model for Finishing Whatever You Start by Steve Levinson and Pete Greider.

What do you do to keep your intentions? Are there intentions you’ve been unable to keep over long periods? If you have tried cueing devices, what have you used? I invite you to act now! and record your comments here.

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