Archive for the ‘Brain science’ Category

Worth Repeating – October posts from New Leaf News


Still fresh, still good for you! (Farmer's Market, Granville Island, British Columbia. Photo by Margaret Lukens)

I’ve dipped into the New Leaf News archives to share a few posts that still seem as fresh and relevant today as they did in Octobers past. In case you missed them the first time around, here they come again!

I’m still using mind-mapping as a technique to organize and view more information than is possible with a list or outline. And since I wrote about it last year, I have begun making some mind-maps using a piece of free software that couldn’t be easier: MindMeister. I recently used it to develop the curriculum for my new teleclass/workshop PortaVault Prep. It enabled me to fit essential notes for three hours of class time on a single page.

Do you believe that multitasking is a useful productivity practice? My work with clients indicates you’re not alone. Still, research on how our brains execute tasks is yielding stronger evidence that we need to stop interrupting ourselves. Read this advice from an 18th century father to his son, and take it to heart.

Want your productivity instructions boiled down like a concentrated sauce? Here is last year’s light-hearted look at the main ingredients of getting more done.

Wishing you a happy October!

Want Greater Productivity? Walk This Way.

I’ve written before about ways to exercise when it seems hard to include exercise in your schedule. There’s another tool that I recently suggested to a client who wants to do a lot of exercise with no down-time. It’s a Steelcase desk called the Walkstation.

The Walkstation’s basic structure is a treadmill that operates at low speeds — 1 to 2 miles per hour — with a standing desk attached. The treadmill has a longer deck than normal to allow plenty of room for the desk in front, and a motor that is able to withstand the constant use at low speeds that would burn out the average exercise treadmill.

The science on these walking desks is consistent and solid (original research on the Walkstation was done at Mayo Clinic). The test subjects who got the Walkstations didn’t want to give them back when the tests were over.

Our brains work better after exercise, but even better still while exercising. Our bodies are made to walk all day. (Note: for a compelling and entertaining recap of the research on how exercise boosts brain power, see John Medina’s book Brain Rules.) Walking two hours per day, burning 100 calories per hour, weight loss is pretty much guaranteed. It’s not hard to talk while walking at low speeds; my client reports that learning to type while moving comes quickly, too.

If the $4,200 price tag slows you down, there are a few websites with instructions on how to make a treadmill desk yourself using a standard treadmill, though it’s not entirely easy. It requires a good-quality machine whose motor can withstand the slow-speed use. Also, the treadmill must have level arms to hold the laptop – again, not easy to find. Getting the height right to avoid arm, neck, and back strain can be tricky. The desk must be stable enough so that your computer never meets the treadmill in a fall. Also, the treadmill requires a longer than normal deck to accommodate the laptop, so you don’t fall off the back.

My client is loving the results. What do you think? Would you like to use a treadmill desk? Leave a comment here.

Humans are natural procrastinators

A wise person does at once, what a fool does at last. Both do the same thing; only at different times.
– Sir John Dalberg-Acton

Hold on, Sir John! Is it possible that delay serves a good purpose? And if, like our appendix, delay has outlived its usefulness, how can we work around it with as little discomfort as possible?

This Thursday I will be speaking to the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) San Francisco chapter, and the topic will be “Mastering Follow-Through.” Join this opportunity to network with many of San Francisco’s most dynamic business women by registering at the NAWBO website, or just join us at the door.

Why is it so hard for us to follow through on our plans and make the change we really want to make? It turns out that humans, along with having big brains and the ability to sort lots of choices, have become “natural procrastinators.”

Want to know how to work with our natural tendencies rather than struggle against them? Join us this Thursday at the Omni Hotel, 500 California Street, San Francisco. We’ll share hors d’oeuvres, lots of networking, and some information you can use the very next day to get more done and feel better about it.

I’ll be making a very special offer just for NAWBO attendees for my “Plan to Thrive” coaching program, that will give you the support you need to go from overwhelmed to overjoyed in just six months, by helping you get control of  your time, paper, and projects.

Great networking with the wonderful women of NAWBO, useful information, special offers —  there are so many reasons to be there on Thursday! Hope to see you then!

Strengthen your success with a gratitude journal

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but also the parent of all the others. — Cicero

Gratitude journalsFor years I had kept a gratitude journal — a notebook in which I recorded things large and small in my business for which I felt grateful.

I knew that great thinkers from all ages and traditions had commended the practice of gratitude. Though I was never certain how the gratitude journal “worked,” I was aware that whatever I focused on was the thing I attracted, and I continued to find the practice helpful in combating the slumps that beset solo entrepreneurs, so I recommended it to many of my organizing and productivity clients.

Recently, I encountered scientific validation for the power of my gratitude journal (see source of original study below.) As described by Dr. Martin Seligman in his book Authentic Happiness, “(the researchers) randomly assigned people to keep a daily diary for two weeks, either of happenings they were grateful for, of hassles, or simply of life events. Joy, happiness, and life satisfaction shot up for the gratitude group.”

Here’s my method for keeping a gratitude journal: Find a small notebook that pleases you. As you finish work each day, jot down a few things for which you feel grateful. Here are some of mine:

  • I am scheduled to teach the GO System workshop at (a client) next month.
  • Steve Overman wrote a recommendation for me on LinkedIn. What he wrote was warm, gracious, articulate, and deeply felt.
  • (One of my board colleagues) told me she is glad I’m president of the organization. She feels the group is more inclusive and welcoming.
  • Tonight I arrived home at 7 pm after an 11-hour day. The dog walker had already taken care of the dog. It was heaven!
  • I was able to refer (a client) to Susan Tiner for bookkeeping and financial organizing. I think it will be a great match for both of them.

Start your gratitude journal. Begin by recording one to five thoughts daily for a few weeks. Then use your journal as often as it seems helpful.

As you prepare to do a review of your accomplishments as part of your planning process, be sure to scan your journal entries to remind you of past accomplishments.

Do you keep a gratitude journal? What have you observed? Leave a comment here.

(Original study cited above: Emmons, R.A., & McCullough, M.E. (2003). “Counting blessings versus burdens: Experimental studies of gratitude and subjective well being in daily life.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, No. 84, pages 377-389.)

Kaizen: solve small problems

There are many instances when we must solve large problems because we failed to notice them when they were small. Tiny changes can add up for good and for ill. Consider these examples:

Just a drop in the bucket adds up to gallons of maple syrup

"Just a drop in the bucket" adds up to gallons of sweet maple syrup

  • The uncomfortable chair that causes a small back problem that flares into a major disability.
  • The daily 100-calorie indulgence that adds an unwanted 20 pounds in a year.
  • The small irritation imposed on a client (“…press 8 to speak to a customer service representative…”) that costs referrals and eventually the relationship itself.
  • The small pieces of insulating foam that regularly break away from the space shuttle’s fuselage, at first having no apparent impact, eventually damaging the wing, causing failure on re-entry.

Here’s a kaizen improvement technique that anyone can use, courtesy of Robert Maurer, author of One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way. It will help to bring focus to small problems before they have out-sized consequences down the road.

Step 1: Each day identify one mistake you have made, without becoming angry with yourself. (This step alone will carry you closer to your goals for excellence by helping you notice what is available for improvement.)

Step 2: Ask yourself whether that mistake might reflect a larger problem. For example, if you misplaced your keys, is it an indication that you are over-committed, you are trying to multitask, or are too distracted?

Step 3: If so, ask yourself, what small step can I take to correct this situation?

There is nothing more productive than to deal with small problems before they become large. The kaizen mindset shows the way.

(For more about the concept of kaizen and how it relates to productivity, search my tags for earlier posts on this topic, and contact me through my website.)

Announcing February’s SF coaching book

by Margaret Lukens, New Leaf + Company LLC

In October I requested recommendations for a book to share with the San Francisco coaches-and-friends book group. Several people, including authors, offered wonderful suggestions (see below for more good reads), making it excruciating to choose just one book.

book shelf

book shelf

But choose we must, so here it is:

If you are in the San Francisco area on Wednesday, February 18, 2009, please join the SF members of the International Coach Federation and their friends (no need to be a coach!) at Books Inc. for a discussion of Brain Rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home and school, by John Medina.

As many of you know, brain science is a particular interest of mine, and this book, published in 2008, is one of the most accessible and interesting reviews of what the latest research can tell us about how to work WITH our brains rather than against them, for maximum productivity, joy and health. The book comes with an entertaining DVD, making use of at least two of the “brain rules”, #4: we don’t pay attention to boring things, and #10: vision trumps all other senses.

This book will provide immediate help if you:

* give a PowerPoint presentation
* parent a teenager, or a toddler
* wonder how to sell to a client
* influence an office layout
* want to learn new skills
* hope to remember things better
* and more.

Whether you have read the book or not, please join us for the discussion at Books Inc. on Van Ness Street in San Francisco this February.

And if you’re packing your suitcase with books in addition to a snowboard and gifts this month, consider adding these runners-up for the book club choice:

Being Productive, Getting More Done with Less Effort, by Chris Crouch, available later this month. Chris, sometimes referred to as the “Jack Daniels distillery of organizing” for the way he boils down and renders the best of what is known about productivity, is the author of several books on organizing. This is his newest.

Bit Literacy: productivity in the age of information and e-mail overload, by Mark Hurst. This book got votes, a testament to the need we all feel for help in managing new information technologies.

The Spiritual Art of Being Organized, by Claire Josefine. Many people yearn for a simpler and more meaningful life, free of clutter and confusion. Claire Josefine is their Lewis, their Clark, and their Sacagewea.

Fun With Filing, by Maria Parkinson. It’s about creating files (either business or personal) that last a life time and anyone can understand. Brand-new book by a first-time author.

If you can’t make it to the San Francisco group in February, please connect with the book discussion by leaving a comment here.

Update on April 3, 2009: As of this week, Brain Rules is now available in paperback.

The power of gratitude

by Margaret Lukens, New Leaf + Company LLC

Feeling dissatisfied is an entrepreneur’s occupational hazard.

We make a lot of progress by noticing what’s wrong — what need is going unmet for our prospective clients, what opportunity is going begging, what improvement is possible? While noticing what’s not right leads us to opportunities, chronic dissatisfaction wears on our spirits.

Adopting practices that create a grateful attitude is a powerful stress-reducer. For several years I have kept a small notebook in which I have recorded successes large and small, all the things for which I am grateful, recording things daily or weekly. I often recommend this practice to my clients as well.

It turns out that science is confirming what philosophers have known for ages. Calling gratitude the “forgotten factor” in happiness research, two researchers have been studying gratitude’s effect on well-being. Their findings include:

* In an experimental comparison, those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).

* A related benefit was observed in the realm of personal goal attainment: Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period compared to subjects in the other experimental conditions.

* A daily gratitude intervention (self-guided exercises) with young adults resulted in higher reported levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy compared to a focus on hassles or a downward social comparison (ways in which participants thought they were better off than others). There was no difference in levels of unpleasant emotions reported in the three groups.

* Participants in the daily gratitude condition were more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to another, relative to the hassles or social comparison condition.

* In a sample of adults with neuromuscular disease, a 21-day gratitude intervention resulted in greater amounts of high energy positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, more optimistic ratings of one’s life, and better sleep duration and sleep quality, relative to a control group.

Reconstructed house at Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth, MA

Reconstructed house at Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth, MA

The Plymouth Pilgrims set us a good example. As the Thanksgiving holiday draws near in the United States, let’s pause a moment to consider all the things for which we may be grateful. Record some of yours by leaving a comment here.

Following Through: What’s Wrong With Me?

by Margaret Lukens, New Leaf + Company LLC

Tra dire al fare, c’e in mezzo il mare. (Between saying and doing lies the sea.) — Italian proverb

You have set a goal, and it’s a good one. You know what steps you need to take, at least initially. Maybe you’ve taken one or two of those first steps, but sooner or later you run out of steam. Time passes, and your goal is no closer to reality than it ever was. What’s happening?

Are you a weak-willed wimp? Do you suffer from those character defects your elementary school teacher suggested would bring you down in the end? Is it fear of failure? Fear of success? What is going on?

The fault probably lies with none of the above. It turns out that inconsistent follow-through is a feature of human life, a strength that is also a weakness. In an earlier post I wrote about how it is that my dog always acts immediately on her intentions, while I, sadly, do not always act on mine.

It’s because I, being human, am uniquely adapted to respond to a wide range of specific conditions, while my pooch’s repertoire is much more limited. I can conceive of thousands of possible actions at any given time. My flexibility as I move through the world is dazzling! I can turn nimbly from one top priority (completing my taxes) to another (learning Spanish) every few moments, unless I perceive an immediate threat to my existence, such as a tiger in the trees.

We all learned that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” and so it is. I simply respond to the project that is squeaking the loudest at any given moment. But completing my taxes or actually mastering Spanish require concerted effort. How will I ever attain a goal if I constantly flit from one project to another?

We have to find a way to make our important goals “squeak”.

Do you have a method of making your goals “squeak”? How to do help yourself overcome barriers to following through? Don’t procrastinate! Record them here!

Improvement: Tiptoeing past “Amy”

by Margaret Lukens, New Leaf + Company LLC

Like weight loss, getting organized is one of the top five resolutions on New Year’s lists. Every year. So why are we not all specimens of peak productivity and perfect health by now?

While it’s undeniable that sometimes change happens in an eye-blink, more often getting good results requires consistent application of a new practice until that new practice becomes a habit.

We humans are uniquely able to work at cross-purposes to our own desires and commitments. I may decide to write a book or do 30 minutes of cardio every day, no matter what, but in the crush of competing values and interests the work required to produce five good pages or get on the rebounder loses out. There is some stress involved in making even the most beneficial changes.

One factor that contributes to our reluctance to change is seated in the part of our brain responsible for our emotional learning, the amygdala. I’ll call it “Amy”. When something is emotionally powerful, it is Amy’s job to record that memory. In the average person Amy is moderately risk-averse, avoiding the repetition of painful or stressful experience. To make positive change, we must charm her.

One way to avoid activating all of Amy’s powers against stressful change is to tiptoe past, by making small incremental changes. Focus on one improvement at a time, and implement it gradually. Make a list of all the positive changes you’d like to make, then choose just one to work on daily for a week or a month before adding another.

(Thanks to Jennifer McDaniel-Wolfe, CPO, CPO-CD, of Organize for Life LLC in Milwaukee, and her April 12 session at the National Association of Professional Organizers conference for some of the ideas in this post. A CD of her session is available from VW Tapes.)

Will incremental change be sufficient to get you to your goal? I’ll address that question later in the week.

Improvement: Kaizen or the Big Win?

by Margaret Lukens, New Leaf + Company LLC

When making changes in habits or processes to improve productivity, which is better: to make a dramatic change or to move ahead with small incremental steps?

Some people tend to opt for the sweeping gesture. Comparing habit change to removing a band-aid, they want to yank it off in one fell swoop rather than remove it by stages. Or comparing habit change to a business deal, they go for the “big win”, aiming for the one life-changing event.

Others adopt the kaizen approach. Kaizen is a method (some call it a philosophy) brought to public attention in recent years by the success of the Japanese auto-makers. (See the article by James Surowiecki in the May 12, 2008 issue of The New Yorker entitled “The Open Secret of Success”.) Usually translated as “continuous improvement”, it refers to a process of looking to get the greatest impact by consistent adjustments in all phases of the manufacturing process.

This week I plan to explore the question of which method is most useful, not to an auto manufacturer, but to the busy professional, who may be a knowledge worker, service provider, or worker in a creative field.

What have you tried, kaizen or the big win? What worked for you? Please post your responses here, and stay tuned for more on this subject in the coming days.

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