Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Questions, Questions, Questions

There is power in questions.  Often, the answer we need is driven only by our ability to question, to seek out the answer in the first place.  Is our lack of answers then a result of not having asked the right questions or is it more a reflection of not having asked enough?

As children we are full of questions; ongoing, ever-ending questions.  There is no thought about whether the question is good or bad, smart or insightful, interesting or thought-provoking, worthwhile or boring.  It was simply enough that we didn't know something and wanted to.  As we grew though, we started to become more self-conscious about what our questions might say about us to others.  We didn't want others to know that we didn't know something, that we didn't understand.  We became worried about what others might think of us and we started to filter our questions.

As adults, we ask fewer questions.  We try to find more information out on our own than simply asking someone to share their insights and knowledge.  Typically because we don't want to look dumb.  There's a risk in asking and so, we don't.

Asking fewer questions though means that not only do we often fail to take in all of the information that we want and need, it also means that we tend to lose our questioning skills.  We ask fewer questions, often of a poorer quality.  We stop refining our questioning skills which results in a drop in the quality of the questions we do ask.  The true result?  We stop getting quality answers. 
The Quality of our Answers is Driven by the Quality of our Questions
The bottom line is this.  If you don't have answers in your life...  start asking more questions.  And I mean MORE!  Don't stop.  The more questions the better, because at this stage you don't know what the 'right' question is!   The more questions you ask, whether of yourself or others, the more answers you will get.  The more answers, the more insight and, ultimately, the greater the clarity of your final 'answer', the choice you make. 

Choose now to enhance the quality of the choices you make in the upcoming year by asking more and better questions. 
“Quality questions create a quality life. Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.” — Anthony Robbins
Don't filter your life by filtering your questions.  Likely the very questions you are afraid to ask are those that contain the answers that you need.  Make this upcoming year one in which you truly embrace the Art of Asking Questions, starting with yourself.  If you refuse to ask yourself the tough questions, you might want to start with the following question...

Why?  What am I afraid of uncovering/discovering by avoiding asking that?

A good question to use when trying to determine why we're afraid of asking questions!  A child's favourite question - Why?  Make it yours.  Simple, yet effective, it can help you to uncover your barriers, challenge your beliefs, question the seemingly obvious and uncover the non-so-obvious truths.  When you feel resistance, your fallback question should always be 'Why'. 

Make this upcoming year one in which you embrace the Art and Practice of Questioning.  More answers lead to better choices, which lead to greater growth.  The life you want starts with a question.  Are you ready to ask yours?

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Art of Giving... Up!

At this time of year, much of our time and attention is taken up with preparing for the holidays; in buying and wrapping that special gift, in donating our time and/or money to support others in need, in spending time with family and friends, gifting them with our attention and love.  It is truly a time in which we are focused on giving openly and readily to others.

However, as much as there is often talk and direction offered concerning how to GIVE; how to give bigger, better and more, rarely are we given instruction on the need to develop our skills in Giving Up.  In fact, much of the push from society at large, and even well-meaning family and friends, is to strive harder and do more, all in the name of success. 

This constant focus and emphasis today on being 'Successful' comes at a cost, one which is rarely expressed.  We continue to often unknowingly and unwittingly pay the price for succeeding, without ever questioning whether it is a price we are truly interested in paying.  Studies are now showing that even our children are leading overcrowded, over structured and overwhelmed lives, resulting in them losing out on much-needed relaxation time and sleep.  This pattern results in a loss of focus, a drop in their productivity and a stronger push and urge for them to 'try harder', all of which serves to strengthen the downward spiral.

We often hear that to be more successful takes willpower.  However, our willpower is not unlimited.  We do not have an infinite capacity to push and focus.  Therefore, as we strive and push in one area of our lives, we might overuse our willpower and lack the willpower that we need in other areas.  Therefore, if we are depleting all of our willpower resources in our drive and push to succeed in business, we might find that we lack the willpower we need to say 'no' to that second dessert, or to get out of a toxic relationship. 

Now, those that know me will understand that I believe in defining and going after your goals.  However, you also know that I believe in balance.  There is a price and cost associated with any action that we take in our lives, which is why I always emphasize the concept of 'choice' with my clients.  I urge them to ensure that any action they decide to take is one they have chosen, after having recognised and accepted the impact on the availability of other choices. 

Perseverance is required for breaking through barriers, for overcoming obstacles.  Not everything worthwhile in life comes easily or the first time we strive for it.  However, if you have goals that are truly unobtainable, that are causing you undo stress, frustration and angst, that are negatively impacting your health, then it might be time for you to Give Up.  Despite the negative stigma that others often attach to 'quitting' or 'giving up', we need to recognise that they serve a very useful purpose. 

There are times that we work toward a goal because of what it can do for us in the long run.  However, once started on a given path we may find that it doesn't lead us in the direction we wanted, or that it satisfied our need sooner than we thought.  We must reserve the right to then readjust, to abandon that goal sooner than anticipated. 

Very early in my career I was working in social work.  However, I recognised a need and desire to do something other than that.  In order to transition into 'business' I decided to pursue an MBA.  I wanted my applications to be taken seriously and therefore the MBA appeared to be an option that would get me the recognition I desired.  Once hired into a company though, I was faced with the fact that I couldn't continue to do both well.  My work travel schedule prevented me from participating in the group activities required by my MBA program, I was not 'learning' the material so much as squeezing in moments to satisfy the requirements of the professors.  The dilemma therefore was...
  • My career was growing but my time and attention on my MBA was suffering. 
  • I could certainly focus more on the MBA to get better grades and more learning from the program, but I would need to slow my career path.
As I really sat down to assess and analyze my options I found that I kept coming back to one key issue.  I was having trouble considering quitting the MBA program as a legitimate option... because it meant QUITTING.  I was taught you don't quit something you start.  If you quit, you were a loser.  There were no in-between options. 'Just suck it up and get it done!' was the phrase that kept running through my head.

However, whenever I thought about why I was doing my MBA, what I wanted to get out of it, all I came up with was the fact that I wanted to use it to get 'business' to take me seriously, and help make my transition from social work into the business sphere.  In short... the MBA had already done what I needed it to do.  I then questioned... if I finished the program, what more would I get from the time, money and effort? 

The bottom line...  I consciously made the decision to Give Up.  I left the program, determining that the additional time would be better spent redirected toward my career and leisure/personal life.  Quite honestly, a decision once made that I never regretted.  I had seven increasingly responsible roles in the 6 years that I was employed with that company, none of which I would have been able to create had my focus been split.  I got married and was able to enjoy my new husband and two wonderful stepchildren.

The biggest lesson of course was in learning to recognise the difference between when to push through a barrier and when to give up on something.  This represents a lesson that many of my clients struggle with continuously.  When faced with the possible need to Give Up on a Goal of your own, consider using some of the following thoughts and questions to help you clarify your decision.
  • What exactly is the purpose of the goal you have set?
  • What have you already achieved in its pursuit and is that enough?
  • What values of yours does it satisfy?
  • Are there alternative ways of satisfying those values?
  • Is this a goal you are pursuing for yourself or for others?
  • How much stress is the pursuit of this goal causing you? 
  • Is the price of pursuit one you are willing and able to continue to pay?
  • What is the impact of pursuit on other areas of your life?
  • What really is the impact of disengaging from the pursuit of the goal?
Use any, or all, of the above to help you assess whether the goal is one that should be continued or set aside.  Use the questions to help you make that determination consciously.  Studies by Wrosch and his associates found that overall, people who were able to disengage from 'unobtainable' goals were far happier than those who continued to pursue them. 

In the end, the decision needs to rest with you as only you can determine the true value and meaning of a goal to you and your life.  Just bear in mind that the Art of learning when to Give Up may be the very lesson you need to learn to free your time and focus to achieving want you truly want in life.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Be the Change...

We're at that time of year when people's minds start to naturally think about the New Year and everything that they hope and wish it will bring them.  As we have been taught, everyone tends to dream big.  the bigger the better... right?  Unfortunately, Big dreams also tend to mean big plans which can often seem overwhelming for many to get started with

This year, I invite you to take those dreams and break them down into much smaller steps.  Even one small action can have an overwhelming ripple effect in your life, giving you the impetus and courage to take another.  At the end of the day, you are the source of the Change you want to see in your life, your career and your relationships.  It all starts with one small step.  Don't minimize or denigrate the power of the small... the cumulative effect of a series of small actions can have a tremendously huge impact.  On yourself, and on others. 

You are the source of the difference you want to see in your life, so go out and do something different... today!          Cindy Dachuk

Monday, December 5, 2011

Don't Worry... Be Happy!

I have clients that are worriers.  I have family that are worriers.  I have friends that are worriers.  I worry about them!

In all seriousness though, worrying is seemingly becoming a very pervasive emotion.  Now, perhaps it is more simply a reflection of my coaching profession, but there seems to be an upsurge in the number of worriers that I am encountering.  An impact of our economic times?  Perhaps.  But it does seem that more people are worried about their futures than ever before, in recent times.  However, the act of worrying itself does nothing to improve their state but, it can very well have a significant impact on making things worse.

Worrying is like sitting on a rocking horse, it gives you something to do but you don't get anywhere doing it.                   Tony Robbins

 Worrying itself is neither a proactive or effective emotion.  Certainly worrying about a problem or situation in no way improves or changes it.  However, the effects of worry are much more negatively insidious than may be immediately apparent.
  1. A key implication of worry is that things will not turn out well. Let's face it, we don't worry about things turning out well, just that they might turn out poorly for us.  The focus of worrying is all negative.  I won't get that promotion... I might lose my job... What if I fail at my task?... I might get hurt...  These are all what-if scenarios that lead us to inaction, rather than risking the possibility that they may occur.
  2. The energy of worry is a heavy burden for us to carry.  It has a physical impact on us and can prove very debilitating for us over the long term.  Just as we know that carrying an extra 100 pounds of excess weight will have a physical impact on our body, causing early wear and tear and strain on our muscles, organs and heart... so too with worry.
  3. Worry is not just physically debilitating but mentally debilitating as well.  We create worry loops in our mind that play endlessly, preventing us from engaging in the very thoughts that would lead us to the solution we desire or the action we need to take.
  4. Worry expands.  It ripples out beyond us.  Even as we worry about ourselves, we also worry about others in our lives that we care for.  Although this is done out of love and concern for them, we slowly begin to push that negative energy onto them, forcing them to also begin to carry the worry load.  The more they begin to assume and duplicate our burden, the more self-doubt begins to creep into their perspective, thus limiting their growth and potential. Not our intention, surely!
Worrying can be a healthy response to life when it is realistic in its frequency, strength and duration.  When it becomes extreme though, it becomes almost addictive.  We have all heard of adrenalin junkies, those extreme athletes perhaps that pursue the next big adventure that provides them with that adrenalin high.  The truth about worrying though is that it also causes a release of adrenalin into the body, which can prove just as addictive.  We now become worry-junkies, constantly finding something new, something more, to worry about, thus getting our adrenalin fix.  We might get the immediate reinforcement of that adrenalin, but our worry and fears will keep us from going after what it is we want from our life and leave us with nothing but our worries to show for it.

Instead, we need to take control of our thoughts and redirect them in more positive ways.  When we are worrying, we are thinking about the possibility of negative outcomes.  We fear the 'what ifs'.  This is all thinking about the future though.  We are projecting outward the possible negative outcomes of a particular action.  Instead, we need to become more fully present in and focused on the present.  The more we maintain our focus on today, the less we have to worry about.  Every time you find yourself thinking the 'what ifs' or 'yes buts', redirect your thoughts back to the problem at hand and the actions you can take now.

Worry, like fear, is all in the mind.  We are afraid of the possibilities that may potentially exist for us and it paralyzes our actions.  Instead, consider all possibilities.  Nature likes balance... why not you?  Every time you find yourself thinking of  a negative possibility, balance it with its positive counterpart.  Break the negative worry-loop by disrupting the pattern and inserting a potentially positive outcome.  Just beginning to recognise that there are outcomes that may prove helpful and beneficial can go a long way to reducing your anxiety.

Show yourself, and others, your support.  Say... 'I know I (you) will get through this - what can I do now to support it?'  This will prove more helpful to everyone than pointing out every potential pitfall.  And... in the end, adopting the attitude of Bobby McFarren (the title of this blog post) or a mantra from Disney's Lion King... Hakuna Matata...  couldn't hurt either!


Monday, November 28, 2011

Reasons or Results

I just spent this past weekend attending a training program and got caught up in the concept referenced in the title of this blog - Reasons or Results.  The general principle behind this concept is that, when faced with doing something different, attempting to introduce 'new' or 'more' into your life, you can either have the results you have achieved, or you will have reasons for not having results.  But... you won't have both.

I see this all the time in coaching sessions.  I will ask a question about a particular course of action we had previously discussed, an action step that the client had determined was critical for them achieving the success they want in their life, and I get reasons as to why they couldn't, didn't and hadn't taken that step.  Sure, they all sound reasonable...
  • lack of time
  • boss dumped more work on them
  • felt a bit sick
  • wasn't sure what they were supposed to do
  • didn't have the support, resources or knowledge they needed 
  • the dog ate their homework...
You get the picture.  Reasons.  Reasons as to why they didn't take the promised action.  Reasons as to why they didn't move forward.  Reasons for not having what they desire most in life.  Reasons why they didn't do what they said they were going to do. 

The question is not whether the reasons are justified or not.  In the minds of each of my clients, their reasons always seem like the best choice at the time.  However, often the 'best' choice is simply the most expedient.  It's the most comfortable.  Making a difference in your life though is about change.  That means discomfort.  You therefore need to be vigilant when reasons start arising that prevent you from moving forward.

Sure, those reasons may seem valid, but your subconscious mind is a tricky thing.  If it sense your hesitation and reluctance to push forward, it is going to do what it can to help you out, including coming up with reasons to stay where you are.  The reasons may sound good and solid, but they are still going to prevent you from getting what you want in your life.

Instead, you need to use your conscious mind to maintain control, keeping your eyes firmly fixed on the action that you need and want to take to fulfill your goals.  Use your conscious mind to keep a firm reign on your subconscious thoughts.  Your 'reasons' are generally the explanation behind why you are not managing to reach your goals.  Each time a new 'reason' arises, examine it, determine whether it is critical or not, useful or not, valid or not and then make a conscious determination as to whether it is truly a reason to stop moving forward or merely your subconscious attempt to maintain the status quo.

Ultimately, you want your forward movement to be a conscious choice.  you can have reasons why something wasn't achieved, or you can have results, but you will never have both.  Your choice as to which you would prefer.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

We've Come a Long Way... or have we?

Check out this latest article in Fast Company, which highlights how pervasive the desire for boy children is around the globe.  (http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/161/branding-for-girls-advertising-for-women)  Certainly, in second and third world countries the impact is clear:  higher abortion rates (now that the fetal sex can be determined early in a pregnancy), sex trafficking, rising incidence of 'missing' female children, the list goes on. 

Given the statistics outlined in the article, it's not a big leap to assume that these perspectives infiltrate the workplace, leading women to not only feel devalued but likely BE devalued, all of which operate below the radar of  'political correctness'. 

Believe we've come a long way?  These statistics would indicate we've still got a long way to go!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Preventative Action

Why does it always take something negative to happen before we take the action we knew we should have taken days, months or even years before?  Case in point.  My life, and perhaps more specifically my two businesses, is on my computer.  For my training business this means over a decade and a half of programs, files, slides and research.  I have had hard drives fail in the past, without adequate back up, and so I have an external hard drive to back things up. 

Now, I must admit that I haven't been backing things up as often as I should... I've gotten complacent.  I've tended to use the external drive primarily as a means of transporting and transferring data from my PC to my laptop for when I need to work remotely.  This past weekend though, I was hit by a trojan virus that appeared to have wiped my PC clean of both programs and files.  Not to worry though... I have my backup files on the external hard drive.  As luck, in particularly mine when it comes to technology, would have it though, I had decided to finally back up my files and my external hard drive was attached at the time of the virus invasion.  You guessed it... those files got wiped out too!

That's it... years of work... gone.  It took seconds.  Much of it I couldn't re-create without significant time and effort and it would certainly have a major impact on the product launches scheduled for January.  With some luck (positive this time!) and the help of a computer genius (previously known as a computer geek but upgraded forever to genius status!) my files were recovered.  However, the lesson was learned.  Not only was a second external hard drive purchased to ensure that a backup would always exist that was not directly attached to the PC, but a second computer as well. 

My original computer was 'older' (okay, maybe hitting the four year mark but in the world of computers it could almost be classified as ancient!!).  My lesson:  the information on my computer is too valuable for me to risk its loss.  I am now doing what I knew I should have all along, but it took the threat of its loss to make me take action.  To take THE action: the action I should have taken from the beginning but kept putting off.

Your lesson?  Certainly, make sure you are backing up your computer regularly but... there is a bigger life lesson here.  What action are you not taking today, that you are putting off, that you know you 'should'...  that you must be taking to ensure that you maintain control over your information, your relationships, your career, your life?

The following list is not exhaustive, but it's a good place to start:
  • Have you got an updated resume?
  • Do those people that matter in your life know how you feel?  When was the last time you said "I love you" to those that you do?
  • Have you been to the doctor for a check up lately?  The dentist?  The optometrist?
  • What about that weight you've been meaning to lose?
  • How's your car running?  Need a check up to ensure you don't get stranded somewhere? Need a roadside assistance membership?
You get the idea.  Often we put off the 'maintenance' aspects of our lives with the belief that we 'don't have time', that 'we'll get to it later'.  The truth is though, we will be forced at some point in time to have to 'make' time'.  When systems break down, when we lose our jobs, we become sick or our car breaks down, we no longer have the option of putting things off.  Typically, these moments will occur when we least expect them, when we have even less time to focus on or devote ourselves to them but... we will no longer have the choice of timing. 

Learn to manage the timing of these critical moments by taking the preventative action you know you need to, you know you should... NOW.  It just might make those moments, if not a thing of the past, much easier to get through.

Now...  I think I better go call my doctor for a check up.  Hmmm...  maybe my mechanic too...

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Art of Allowing

I was flipping through emails recently when the phrase 'The Art of Allowing' caught my eye.  This concept proposes that we allow people, things and events to be as they are... not as we want or wish them to be.  In doing so, we free ourselves from the need to 'fix' things to our own predetermined sense of rightness.

Think of how much time and energy we expend in frustration and anger over people not doing as we want, as things not going how we'd like.  I see this wasted energy a lot during coaching sessions, where clients vent their frustration over someone close to them not behaving as a 'good' mother, sister, spouse, friend 'should'.  This type of thinking of course presupposes that we know the correct way to be, do or act in a given situation. 

In practicing the Art of Allowing though, we need to suspend this judgement of people and events.  We are asked to recognise that others have the right to choose their own course and that those choices may not always be in support of our desired direction.  Not choosing to move in our direction doesn't make them 'wrong', it just makes their path different.  As soon as we adopt the view that they are wrong though, we begin putting thought and energy into fixing or changing their choices and direction.  We engage our energy and action into 'correcting' their course and certainly get angry, frustrated, disappointed when they don't.

Most of us struggle at coming up with the energy we need to chart and stay our own course, let alone expending energy into plotting everyone else's.  The Art of Allowing though, frees us from fixing or changing events.  We learn to accept things as they are, not to expend energy wishing them to be different.  We fight for the right to make our own choices, to lead our own lives... the Art of Allowing asks us to remember that others have those same rights.  Learning to respect those rights is a natural corollary.

In short... I don't need to like or even approve of your choices, but I need to learn to acknowledge your right to make them.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Cultivating a Success Mindset

According to a study* in the journal Psychological Science, they have found evidence suggesting that those individuals who believe that they can improve their level of intelligence are more likely to be successful over the long run.  Hmmm.

In the study, subjects wore a special 'cap' that recorded their electrical brain activity while completing certain letter puzzles.  These puzzles were specifically designed for participants to make mistakes.  What researchers found was that when participants made mistakes, their brain sent two quick signals.  The first was a quick recognition of the error (what Michigan State University psychology professor Jason Moser refers to as the 'oh crap response') and a second signal that indicated a willingness to get it right. 

Those participants with a growth mindset, a belief that their hard work will pay off for them in the long run, had a much stronger second signal and were more likely and willing to correct their mistakes.  They saw a net advantage to doing so. In essence, this group saw their errors as opportunities to grow, improve and learn, rather than an indication of their lack of capability.

It is this belief, that you can continue to learn, grown and improve that serves to establish that Success Mindset.  Successful people do not look to their failures and indications of what they can't do, but at learning opportunities.  They recognise only that their errors are indications of what they didn't know, but need to learn... and then they go out and learn it!

The Work:

  • Consider what your typical response is when you fail or miss the mark at something.  
  • What is your self-talk like immediately following such an event.  Are you more likely to to use the event to validate why you shouldn't have tried in the first place, or is your self-talk affirming instead a belief that you can do it in future with a little more direction, information or coaching?
  • If it's the former, we need to work at rewiring your belief systems, to shift your perspective to that Success Mindset.  Instead of believing your intellect is entirely predetermined, recognise that you can develop and grow your intelligence through hard work.  If you are willing to put in the work, you can decrease your margin of errors in the future.

I read the above study shortly after reading on a facebook posting the following quote.  The two fit perfectly together, and I invite you to consider this quote the next time that things don't go according to plan...
Instead of beating yourself up about the past and saying  "Damn, what was I thinking", ask a better, kinder question... "What was I learning"?

Works for me, let's see how it works for you!

* study... "Mind Your Errors:  Evidence for Neural Mechanism Linking growth Mind-Set to Adaptive Post error Adjustments" 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Marketing ourselves through Comparisons

Mired as I am right now in completing the upcoming Bragging Rights program, I found Seth Godin's blog post today - Accentuating Differences - to really hit home.  All too often, as Seth rightly points out, we attempt to distinguish ourselves through our comparisons of our skills and talents relative to those of others.
"This is just like Brand X, but 5% cheaper, 10% faster, 20% easier to use and it comes in chocolate..."
          Seth Godin
Certainly it is worthwhile to be clear about just what the competition brings to the table relative to you, but you will benefit more from highlighting what makes you different and unique, what separates you from the crowd, than by comparisons that serve to make you part of it. 

In the end we want our audience to remember us.  It is unlikely they will if we only highlight how we are like everyone else.  Use your points of commonality to indicate how you have the fundamentals, use your areas of difference to highlight how you bring 'more' to the table than others.  This is what will set you apart and get you remembered.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Lotus Blossom

No, I am not getting poetic on you, nor am I looking to share with you the benefits of yoga poses.  The Lotus Blossom is a Japanese Brainstorming Technique.  This was a technique originally developed by Yasuo Matsumura of Clover Management Research in Japan, and described by Michael Michalko, author of Creative Thinkering and Thinkertoys.
Lotus Blossom Diagram

This technique allows you to organize your thinking around specific themes, which allow you to keep your thinking fluid, allowing shifts in your thinking patterns.  All too often we attempt to brainstorm in far too linear patterns, not keeping ourselves open to alternative directions of thought.  Certainly the benefit of brainstorming in groups is to open yourself to the various possibilities that different minds bring to the table.  But when you are working with the benefits of just one mind, your own, how do you ensure that you are not missing potential pathways of thought by not fully exploring all options?  Yep... the Lotus Blossom.

Like Bubble Diagrams, you start with a central subject and expand it out into different ideas/themes.  In this technique, each of these core themes, representing various petals in the blossom, are expanded themselves to reveal key components or sub themes.  This continues to expand outward, in ever widening circles until each has been fully explored.  By expanding outward in such a way, you ensure that each theme becomes developed fully enough that all alternative possibilities are clear, allowing you to abandon or accept each.

How to:
1.  Write the central problem in the center
2.  List the main themes in the surrounding circles (A to H).  The optimal number of themes for a diagram that doesn't drive you crazy is between 6 and 8.  Consider what your specific objectives are, what the dimensions of the problem are... even... if your subject were a book, what would the chapters headings be?
3.  Each of these ideas in turn break out into forming new petals, generating eight new ideas or applications.
4.  Continue to expanding outward until no other expansion is possible.

The diagram itself allows you to begin to recognise emerging patterns and relationships between themes.  Sometimes, features not previously identified or recognised will emerge, offering new opportunities.  This technique can be applied to any area in which you need to generate new ideas, whether for a project, business issue, job search, or personal dilemma.  If your current brainstorming techniques seem to have stalled, give this one a try, or check out one of Michael's books for some alternative ways of approaching your problems.  It just might be that you just need a new way of approaching your problems to uncover new solutions and answers.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Defence Mechanisms - What ones are you using?

Defence Mechanisms.  We all use them.  These are the unconscious protective measures we take to protect ourselves from our anxieties, to avoid confronting our weaknesses.  In the short term they typically work to help us to manage the stress,to cope with messages and situations, allowing us to slowly come to terms with our thoughts and experiences.  In the long term though, our defence mechanisms may serve as barriers to our own learning and growth, preventing us from coming to terms with our experiences and growing beyond them.  Learning to recognise your defence mechanisms of choice can sometimes help you to unmask your barriers and learn to move beyond the initial hurt and anxiety.

According to Anna and Sigmund (Freud that is!), there are 9 key defence mechanisms...

1.  Denial.  This has to be the most common and generic of the defence mechanisms (and really, have any of us not used this at one time or another?).  Denial occurs when we refuse to accept the reality of a fact or experience, we argue against an anxiety provoking stimuli by stating it doesn't exist perhaps that it never even happened.  You may see this in people who distance themselves from their bad habits by insisting that they are only social drinkers or smokers, or perhaps someone who denies that their physician is correct in their diagnosis of cancer and continues to seek out other opinions rather than beginning treatment. 

2.  Repression.  This simply means you forget that something bad happened to you.  Just as someone may 'forget' sexual abuse from their childhood, due to the trauma and anxiety it caused, repression serves to create a buffer between you and the event.  In the short term this may be a necessary method of coping with the pain, but in the longer term it may have an unavoidable impact on the way in which you view yourself or relationships in general if not recognised.  Repression may even result in your unconscious 'forgetting' an upcoming event that you dread attending as a means of avoiding it entirely.

3.  Regression.  In this defence mechanism we tend to revert to a childlike emotional state (a previous stage of development) where your unconscious fears and anxieties generally reappear.  In short, you are likely to have a more childlike reaction to the stress you are under; throwing a temper tantrum, refusing to talk when mad, sitting in a corner and crying, running to your room, slamming doors...  if you are a parent you know these signs!

4.  Displacement.  This occurs when you transfer your feelings and take out your impulses on a less threatening target.  For example, punching the wall instead of hitting someone, yelling at your spouse or kids because you're mad at your boss.

5.  Projection.  Instead of recognising and accepting a particular quality in ourselves (which might not be that appealing or comfortable for us) we 'project' it onto others and instead accuse them of having those thoughts and feelings.  In essence, whatever we don't 'like' about ourselves we see in others. An example would be when we're losing an argument we accuse the other person of being 'stupid'.  Homophobia would be another.

6.  Reaction Formation.  This is when we mask our true feelings by adopting the exact opposite, because the true feeling causes us anxiety.  For example; we lust after someone we feel we shouldn't so they become the target of our hatred; we have a bias against a particular race or culture and so we embrace them to the extreme.

7.  Intellectualization.  Is the avoidance or neutralization of unacceptable or uncomfortable emotions by focusing on the intellectual aspects.  We deal with the logical aspects to avoid feeling or dealing with the pain.  For instance, focusing on the details of a funeral, rather than the sadness and grief we feel.

8.  Rationalization.  This is somewhat similar to intellectualization but it deals more with supplying a logical or rational reason for some negative action we have taken, as opposed to the real reason.  Often it is easier to blame others for our behaviour than to face up to what we were feeling, or why we did what we did.  Rather than accepting our poor performance as the reason for being fired we create the explanation that the boss never liked us and always had it in for us.

9.  Sublimation.  This tends to be a much more long term strategy, in which we act out our unacceptable impulses in a socially acceptable way.  In this mechanism we transform our conflicted emotions into more productive outlets.  Dealing with aggressive impulses by taking up boxing or martial arts would be an example.

Certainly you it would be difficult to read over the list above and not see yourself in some of them.  We all need to create some distance between ourselves and our emotions at times.  However, we don't want to be at the mercy of these defence mechanisms and have them create such a bugger between us and our experiences that we are unable to learn or grow from them.  There can be tremendous growth that comes out of our experiences, but we have to be present to those experiences for that growth to occur.  Next time you catch yourself using one of the above, take a moment to ask yourself what emotion you are defending yourself against, and what you can learn from it.  The point is not to wallow in the emotion but to discover the life lesson it contains.  Embracing the lesson is all about moving forward toward something better.  And really...  who would want anything less for themselves?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Living on Auto-Pilot

We are all creatures of habit. Our habits are time and energy savers and, in general, serve us well. We can engage in activities throughout our day, expending little conscious thought in accomplishing these tasks. Our unconscious, habitual autopilot takes over for us and we are able to think of other things while performing these tasks.

• In the shower, we tend to wash ourselves in the same way, same order of body parts, every time

• We dress by putting our pants on the same way, same leg first

• Ever drive on autopilot, coming back to yourself just as your exit comes up? (or...worse still...just as you pass your exit?)

Much of our everyday lives have been condensed into habitual rituals that save us from having to be consciously aware of each moment needed to complete them. This frees our mind to be present for, and focusing on, different things. The downside, of course, is that we can get locked on autopilot for various activities and we then fail to question the 'why' of the behaviours we engage in. We therefore fail to learn or to grow by attempting to do differently.

In organizations we see this all of the time, processes that are running not because they are efficient but because they reflect 'the way it's always been done'. It is only when someone new enters the picture and challenges the status quo that we begin to question these processes ourselves and search for improvements.
How many of these opportunities do we miss for ourselves, those potential moments of possible growth and improvement simply because we live too much of our lives on auto-pilot? Sometimes the biggest thing holding us back from taking a chance on something is our belief that 'it's not the way things work', or that 'it's not how things are done'. Perhaps it is time for us to challenge some of those assumptions by telling ourselves instead... 'that's how it was but it isn't necessarily how it has to be'.

This point came home to me this weekend when I went to see the movie 'Moneyball' with Brad Pitt.  In this true life story, he plays the Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane, who is legendary for having rethought (and revamped) the way that baseball players are selected.  He faced tremendous criticism (perhaps most notably from baseball scouts) who were all quick to tell him that it 'wasn't how it's done'.

Tim Ferriss, in his best selling book The Four Hour Workweek also gained notoriety for completely shifting the assumptions we had about the way we view and structure 'work'.  Tim constantly explores and challenges 'the rules', looking for ways to reorganise, restructure or flat out work around the way things have been done to get more done, in less time.

Take a lesson from Billy Beane or Tim Ferriss...open yourself periodically to switching things up a little, trying a new way of doing something. You just might find a better path, a new interest, develop a skill or just streamline a process. Maybe instead of not doing something differently because you’ve always done it a certain way, your new reason for doing different is simply BECAUSE you have always done it a certain way.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Art of Mastery

What does it take to achieve true mastery, whether in a skill, a subject or an activity? The answer seemingly is straightforward and simple...practice. What is not so simple perhaps is the amount of practice required. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book The Outliers, speaks about the 10,000 hour rule. Studies from various disciplines show consistently that 10,000 hours of practice are required to achieve the level of mastery needed to be considered a world-class expert in anything. 10,000 hours.

In fact, no one has yet been able to document a case of someone whose mastery was achieved in anything less than that. Practice is therefore the key to becoming truly excellent at anything requiring:
  • Clarity of intention
  • Dedication of effort
  • Focus of mind
  • Commitment to achievement

What then for those of us that are only beginning our journey into mastery? Do we feel weighed down by the seeming impossibility of ever achieving that magical number of 10,000 hours and give up before beginning? I believe this question should be answered with a clear and resounding NO!
 “ The Master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both. -- Zen Buddhist Text
The important catch-phrase in the 10,000 hour rule, that most seem to miss, is that it is a requirement for achieving 'world-class' mastery. Your goal of personal mastery can be something less than world dominance in a field. In fact, you need only look to your field and strategically plan for 20%, perhaps 10%, better than those around you to be considered an expert. Let's face it, even doing 1% better, knowing 1% more, achieving 1% greater results can often be enough to put you ahead of the game being played by those around you.

Regardless of your target though, mastery both begins and ends with practice. You have to put in the time to net the results and it is this time that separates the achievers from the non-achievers. Those that are truly dedicated to gaining a level of mastery over a subject, a discipline, an activity, will invest the time needed to learn and develop an area.

I heard an alarming statistic this weekend. The average American tends to spend 4 hours a day watching television. This is 4 hours a day that they are not working on or practicing their mastery of anything. 4 hours a day that they choose not to dedicate toward becoming excellent at something. To take this statistic even further, consider that if you take someone in their teens, through to the age of 66, those four hours a day turn into 13 years. 13 years of your life that you have devoted yourself to watching television rather than devoting yourself to your development.

A further thought...the biggest reason I am given by clients as to why they have not taken action on a desired goal is that they did not have time. My follow up question of course is whether they had watched any television in that same week in which they had not found any time to work on their stated purpose. (and yes, YouTube counts!) The answer of course was that they had. Could you have responded differently?

I'm not suggesting that you run home and sell your television sets, but I am suggesting that you take a serious and long look at where and how you could be investing your time to develop your level of expertise. The fastest way to a promotion and increased career opportunities is to become better at what you do, to develop your level of mastery. Even small investments of time can accumulate big results.

For instance...

1/2 hour per day spent in study and practice would give you a total of 78 hours of study over the course of a year. Given an 8 hour workday, this represents the equivalent of just under 10 business days of focus and growth.

Would you not be significantly ahead of your competition at the end of a year in which you set aside just 30 minutes a day to practice, hone and refine your craft, to dedicate to extending your level and area of expertise? The answer seems pretty clear to me.

Your choice then...Master or Disciple? How you choose to spend your time will contribute greatly to the answer to this question not to mention what you achieve and experience in your life.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Run Your Own Race

Last weekend had the half marathon for our area starting from the park across the road from my home. Seeing those runners brought back to mind my experiences in running marathons and, in particular, the life lessons I learned along the way.

The goal of most first-time racers is typically just to finish! They may have a rough goal of the time they would like to complete the race within but, if being honest, most really just want to cross that finish line. They have likely invested in their training schedule; worked on their pacing and stride; learned about what will fuel them throughout the race. Often the most overlooked element though is an understanding of how quickly and easily they can get caught up in the hype and the moment of the race and end up running someone else's race.

That starting gun goes off, the crowd surges forward and they get caught up in the energy and excitement of everyone else around them. Before you know it, they are starting off too fast, running at a pace that quickly leaves them exhausted and, ultimately, without enough energy left to finish. One of the biggest causes of not finishing is getting caught up in running a race other than your own.

I was lucky enough, before my first marathon, to have someone emphasize to me the need to know and understand your race intimately. To know the feel, rhythm and beat of your stride so that you don’t get pulled off of it by others around you. This takes requires you to build that element into your training plan, to gain the clarity you need about yourself to be able to focus and stick to it on race day.

I don’t run marathons anymore but I do still apply the lessons of the race every day. In our work and personal lives, we can become easily distracted by the noise of those around us. There is never any shortage of people that are willing and eager to tell us what we ‘must’ do, what we ‘should’ do. I’m not saying don’t listen, but it is necessary to weigh these suggestions against your own plan. If it fits and it helps… keep it. If it pulls you off course… ditch it. Unless there is a definite strategic reason for doing otherwise, stay the course and run your own race.

Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in the feeling of ‘momentum’. Momentum alone can be deceptive. You are busy, you are accomplishing things, but it they aren’t activities that move you forward in the direction you’ve set for yourself then, when it’s all over, you just might find that you’ve crossed the finish line of a race you never intended to run and ended up somewhere you never really wanted to go.

• Decide consciously what race you want and choose to run.

• Do what you need to prepare and train yourself for that race.

• Take action to move you forward. If you’re running a race of your choosing, any action that moves you forward, even small steps, gets you closer to that finish line.

Remember this also. Your race is run by you. There is no first, second or third place… there is just finishing. There is you and that finish line.

Clarity of purpose, Focus of Intent… now… GO!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Multitasking - Friend or Foe?

Given the workplace of today, we are all guilty of trying to get too much done each day.  We over pack our schedules in an effort to 'keep up' and we use technology as a tool to help us keep track of if not complete, multiple tasks simultaneously.  Who hasn't been guilty of reading an email or text message from one person while speaking to another?  When accused of not listening or paying attention we confidently assure them we are, that we are simply multitasking and can pay equal attention to both activities simultaneously.

Our ability to multitask successfully is much lauded and sought after during recruitment.  However, as it turns out, there is a very narrow window of activities that allow us to truly multitask.  In fact, two key conditions must be met for us to multitask, to truly engage in two separate activities simultaneously...
  1. one of the activities must be so ingrained, so well learned, that it is now automatic and habitual.  This means that there is no conscious thought required for you to engage in the task (think walking or eating here)
  2. that the activities you are looking to engage in use completely different types of brain processing.  For example, you can read and listen to instrumental music because they involve different parts of the brain.  However, your comprehension and retention of information you're reading drops significantly if you read while listening to music with lyrics.  As soon as the lyrics are added you are asking the same part of the brain (language center) to attend to two different sources of information simultaneously... and it can't.
As soon as our multiple activities stimulate and require the same brain area or function, we are no longer Multitasking, but 'Serial' Tasking.  Our brain continually shifts from one task to the other, in very rapid succession.  As much as this might seem like a significant difference, research is now showing us that there is a high price to be paid in productivity for Serial Tasking. It seems that, despite how it feels, our brains are not able to shift smoothly and seamlessly from one task to another.  There is a lag time in which our brains detach from the current task and attach to the new task.  If we are constantly shifting from one to another, this can add a significant amount of time (up to 40%) on completion time, versus single tasking.

  • in studies testing multitasking capabilities, those who rated themselves as chronic multitaskers actually made more mistakes, cold remember fewer items and took longer to complete single-focused tasks than those who rated themselves as infrequent multitaskers.
  • other studies have definitively shown that children perform worse on their homework if it done while watching TV (thank god my mother never saw this but then, my children didn't appreciate the fact I had!)
  • and again, research shows that employees are more productive when they don't check their email frequently
I know that when I have a new program that I am writing, I will pack up cases of my research notes, a million and one sticky notes, flipcharts and markers and head to the cottage for a couple of weeks.  Minimizing my distractions and immersing myself in the subject truly allows me to gain greater clarity, finish faster and develop a far superior product than had I stayed back at the office fielding calls and interruptions.

I know that this isn't an option available at all times though, so what are we to do when life seems to scream at us to multitask all of the time?

  1. recognise that life is rarely asking us to multitask.  Instead, it is simply coming at us with simultaneous demands.  Rarely do our task have to be accomplished simultaneously, they simply have to be done by the same time.  Staging our activities in a priority order truly helps us in single tasking more efficiently.  Maintaining our focus on one activity, for a set period of time, can help us accomplish it faster.  At the end of the day we just need our list completed.  How we have managed that is less important.
  2. although we can't pick up and head to the cottage to work every day, we can block out moments in our day that help us to really focus and concentrate on an important task.  Close the office door or move to a meeting room, shut off the phone, the blackberry, turn off the message received notification on your computer.  In order words... minimize all potential interruptions and distractions.
  3. consider making some changes on an ongoing basis that do the same.  Turn your desk so that you do not face directly out of the door.  This prevents you from seeing movement going past your door that draws the eye and breaks focus.  Turn off the message receipt sound to your email and only answer it at scheduled points during your day. (same with other devices!) 
  4. when focusing on a task schedule a set amount of time during your day for working on it.  Just the fact that you know you have 30 minutes set aside for a task allows you to feel comfortable spending the time needed on it, rather than feeling guilty about the time it takes.  This helps you to relax into the activity and not have part of your brain focused on how long it is taking and reminding you of everything else waiting for you. 
When we have so many things, and people, screaming for our attention throughout the day, we may find that the key lies not in learning to multitask better, but in simply learning to focus on one thing at a time better!  Breaking away from the myth of multitasking may prove to be the biggest productivity booster that you have implemented yet!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Picture your Performance

We experience thousands of influence attempts a day, whether via sound (conversations with friends, family, coworkers; advertisements on radio, TV, Internet; sirens as we're driving; etc) or through visual means (television and TV, billboards and posters, magazines, friends, family, coworkers, etc.).  Regardless of the source, we are bombarded with messages and attempts to move and sway us in one direction versus another.  Why can't we then jump on the influence bandwagon and work to influence ourselves in a desired direction?

It sounds like a logical idea and yet, few people deliberately and strategically structure their environment to influence their thinking and behaviour in a specific direction.  If we look at your work environment in particular (but know that the same would apply for any space that you occupy with any regularity), you likely would be interested in increasing your productivity.  Research shows that surrounding yourself with pictures and memorabilia of people you admire and respect has a positive influence on your productivity and performance. 

In basic terms, the brain doesn't know the difference between the picture and reality.  Therefore, looking at pictures that are motivating, that represent a specific and positive message, influences who you are and what you do.  You need to be very clear about who and what inspires you though.  Consider... what will ALWAYS drive and push you forward.

Just as we know that certain colours work to soothe and comfort, while others increase our feeling of stress and anxiety, so too do we now know that pictures can create certain responses in us as well.  Bear in mind too that these images are highly personal.  What works for the guy sitting next to you may be and feel totally irrelevant to you.  The more open and honest you are with recognising what people and things inspire you, motivate you, drive you, the greater the influence of those images.

One caveat though.  There should be NO family pictures in your work space.  Nope... none!  Pictures of your family - especially your children - drive different behaviours that are often at odds with those that enhance your performance.  I know that I will likely get push back from many who feel that they 'do it all for their kids'...  but research shows us that looking at pictures of our kids may lead us to temper our performance drive rather than rev it up. 

It's up to you to decide what you're trying to accomplish, whether on the job or life in general!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Joy of Learning

I am writing this blog post, early in the morning, with my iPad and I both huddled under the covers while my roommate sleeps on. I feel a little like a kid at camp must, who has been told that it's lights out and who, instead, huddles with friends under the blankets with a flashlight, telling ghost stories.

Why am I not taking advantage of the time away from the day-to-day household noise, enjoying the lovely hotel bed that I won't have to make, sleeping in for a change? Because I am away attending an amazing conference and I am too excited about what I am learning. I can't wait to get home and start applying it. I can't wait for the day to get started so I can get into the conference room and learn more. My mind seems overloaded with new thoughts, ideas and concepts. And yet...it miraculously opens up to new thoughts, making room in a space that had previously seemed full to bursting.

Although I do feel a sense of overwhelm and do experience questions in my mind concerning what I am going to do with all of this new information, I am far too excited and jazzed about everything to allow anything to break my buzz.

Here's my question to you. When was the last time you felt like this? When was the last time you allowed yourself to be a student and opened yourself to learning something new? And not just something new...something that got you excited, ideas that you could feel physically, with an almost butterflies in the stomach kind of wonder?

This is how we felt as children when we were learning. We experienced the wonder of new ideas. We let them sink in and connect with other things we had learned until we then asked questions to increase our understanding and strengthen those links. And not just one or two questions, we asked QUESTIONS! We weren't concerned with what other people thought about the quality of our questions, we were solely focused on our own understanding. We wanted to know, we wanted to understand and, perhaps most importantly, we wanted to learn more.

As I prepare to head out to experience my final day of this conference, I invite you all to crawl out from under your covers with me and open yourself to new ideas and thoughts today. Adopt the learning model and pose of a child. Look at the new idea with wonder, not skepticism; with joy, not reluctance; with excitement, not dread.

This is my new motto, and I invite you all to explore and perhaps even adopt THIS new idea... To learn as a child. You might just be surprised to rediscover the pure pleasure of learning.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Why Keeping Your Eyes on the Prize May Make You Miss It!

We are all taught that we not only need to have goals, but that we need to remain clearly focused on them. There is research that would indicate though that our ability to focus and concentrate intensely on a task may blind us to everything else going on around us, thus limiting the quality of our end result.  We have all experienced this phenomena in some respect...
  • When asked at work how many yellow Volkswagen beetles we passed on our way in, we reply none.  We assume that we didn't see any because there were none to see.  We're surprised driving home because we see seven. 

  • Police Officers take down the eye-witness accounts of an accident that occurred directly in front of three different witnesses, each of which report different facts.

  • We are talking to a colleague at work about a need we have for a special project we are struggling with when another colleague approaches and comments on the new haircut of the first.  We hadn't noticed until it was mentioned by the second person.

In a study of this phenomena, known as Attention Blindness, researchers showed an entire audience a video tape of six people passing a basketball.  The audience was tasked with counting the number of passes that occur between the three people wearing white t-shirts, not black.  The intent of course is to get the audience focused on the task of counting.  Most people in the audience count correctly and are pleased with having done so.  Imagine their surprise when asked if they had noticed the gorilla walk onto the screen, walk amongst the tossers, and walk off.  Few see it until the replay when, to their astonishment, there is a large gorilla clearly walking amongst the group of six.  This is the result of attention blindness. 

Typically, those amongst the audience that notice the gorilla were those that did not get the number of passes correct.  They either hadn't bothered to try, got distracted by some other stimuli (cell phone vibrated, fly landed on their nose... something!) and then looked back to the screen.  Because they weren't focused on a task directly, they were more open to other input. 

Each of us sees the world from a different perspective.  Our perspective can leave us blind to the perspectives and insights that others may have.  It is impossible for us to see everything because every time we are looking, we are programmed already to 'see' from and through the perspective of our wants, needs and goals.  Our focus has already been determined by our need. 

In business this may mean that we indirectly limit ourselves from being as creative, arriving at the best solution, or in fully seeing and anticipating potential barriers and issues.  However, by virtue of them 'seeing' differently than we do, others may be in a better position to point these blind spots out to us.  Our challenge of course, is to remain open to listening to their input.

What can we do?

First of all, acknowledge that more exists beyond what you can see.  Getting another pair of eyes to review your project, your solution, your direction may catch things that you overlooked.  Getting this insight before you have finalized your direction is definitely preferable to realizing, after implementation, that you overlooked something.  This may mean that you deliberately add people onto your team specifically for the different perspectives that they bring to the table.  If everyone sees and thinks the way you do then you are automatically limiting the result from the outset.  Embracing differences in perspectives is not always easy, but it almost always proves to have value.

Secondly, recognise the differences in people's perspectives and assign elements of a task according to the strength of that perspective.  Know that your people will see what they are instructed to see.  There may be value in not limiting the direction of their sight, by asking someone to be responsible for seeing what others are missing.  In other words... if you're responsible for doing the counting, assign someone else to watch out for the gorilla!

This is just as relevant for you to consider at a personal level.  Don't allow yourself to get derailed from your goals simply because you failed to notice an upcoming roadblock.  Take the time to periodically bounce your goals and chosen direction off of someone else, for their insights and perspectives.  They are likely going to see pending potholes and roadblocks that you have failed to, allowing you to plan another route to your success.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Tired of Making Decisions?

Regardless of whether you answered 'yes' or 'no' to this question, the latest research out indicates that we all get tired when faced with having to make too many decisions.  The biggest insight though was the discovery that when we suffer from mental fatigue the quality of the decisions we now are asked to make deteriorates significantly.

It seems that no matter how good we believe we are at making decisions, we can't continue to make decision after decision without paying a price biologically.  We know this about physical and muscle fatigue, but our brains apparently get tired too.  The problem is that we typically aren't consciously aware of when we're low on mental energy and therefore we tend to continue to push through, without ever knowing that our self-control (which is the element that tends to over-see bad decision making!) is being depleted.

Decision Fatigue is the term applied to the phenomenon called Ego Depletion - so labelled by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister.  His experiments showed that there is a finite store of mental energy for self-control.  When it is depleted, our ability to resist temptations is also significantly reduced.  This new insight helps explain the dieter's dilemma...  why losing weight can prove to be so hard.  If you are constantly having to deny yourself food that you're craving you are, in essence, having to consistently make a choice between 'cheating' or not.  Each decision continues to deplete your willpower resources until you finally cave-in late in the day.  This is why candy bars at the check-out counter sell so well.  Up until now it was put down to simple impulse purchases.  However, if you have been shopping for a while, making decision after decision about what to buy, the make, model, price...  you are more fatigued by the time you go to pay.  That fatigue results in a loss of willpower and, before you know it, those M&M's are tossed in your cart.

These findings though have bigger, more far reaching implications...
  • Research shows that if you are a prisoner going to a parole hearing, you are 70% more likely to be granted parole if you are on the docket early in the morning than if you are scheduled late in the day.  Although studies haven't yet been conducted, I can only assume that sentencing decisions late in the day would also be affected.  I'm not sure though if it would result in greater or lesser sentencing... which is easier to decide?

  • If you have had to make a lot of decisions (even small relatively inconsequential ones), you will give up more than 50% faster on the next decisions you have to make

  • Once decision fatigue has set in, you are significantly more likely to settle for whatever the 'recommended' options are from sales personnel.  Buying a car?  Researchers had customers wade through a number of additional special features that they could select to add onto their proposed new vehicle.  Although they weighed their choices carefully in the beginning, as decision fatigue began to set in customers started settling for whatever the default option was.  Savvy salespeople of course kept the more expensive options and decisions for the end.  The result?  Car buyers ended up purchasing more than $2,000 in extras.  Decision fatigue can therefore leave you very vulnerable to marketers who know and understand the phenomena and time their sales accordingly.

  • The poor are more susceptible than the rich.  Interestingly, the less money that you have to spend, the more decisions you have to make - constantly weighing your choices over the course of the day.  This leaves you more mentally fatigued and therefore more susceptible to to the effects, making poorer choices for yourself and more easily influenced by others

  • When we exercise too much we feel it and know to relax.  We allow our body some time to shut down and recover.  Our brain though never stops working.  It can't, it's in charge of too many processes that are perpetually ongoing.  Decision Fatigue then doesn't result in a shut down of the brain, but it does result in the brain stopping its activity on certain things and starting doing others instead.  It redirects its focus.  The big shift tends to be a refocusing from long-term prospects to focusing instead on more immediate rewards.  Yes, you know your long-term goal is to lose those 10 pounds, but your brain has now determined that you deserve that candy bar... now!

In fact, in order to recover from mental fatigue your brain requires glucose.  That's why whenever we get exceedingly mentally fatigued we find ourselves reaching for the sweet snacks rather than salty ones.  (again... a tough one for dieters who are likely trying to avoid the sweet snacks)

What to do with this?

Know and understand that there are no telltale signs or symptoms of decision fatigue.  All decisions, large or small, add up to deplete your will power.  Choosing what to have for breakfast, what clothes to wear, what to spend, what model to buy, whether to go out to a movie...  all add up.  Don't delude yourself into thinking that you are immune... we are all susceptible.  Even knowing it happens doesn't prevent it from happening.  It is logical to expect therefore, that the decisions you make later in the day are likely to suffer as a result.  If you have big decisions to make later in the day then ensure that you top up your glucose levels at least a half hour beforehand.

Additionally, studies show that the people with the best self-control are those that have structured a lot of the elements in their lives so as to conserve their willpower.  Actions you can take to conserve yours...
  • try to avoid scheduling back-to-back meetings, allow a little mental recovery time in between whenever possible

  • schedule in moments throughout your day that don't require decisions of any kind, take a mental decision break!

  • establish habits that standardize activities, thus requiring fewer decisions.  (if you set up work out times ahead you don't have to decide each day whether to do it or not)

  • make your biggest decisions in the morning

  • finish each day making whatever decisions you can for the day ahead (plan out your breakfast, your clothing, your route, your evening activities.  If you've got anything left in you, before going to bed (when you will replenish your fatigue), spend it on making some upcoming decisions.  Think of this like 'banking' some decision time.  You don't know how challenging your next day might be, it never hurts to bank a little insurance!

  • when your day has been packed with decisions and choices, know that your brain must be fatigued and avoid making big decisions.  Know when not to trust your judgment. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Presentation Basics - Breathing

Breathing is life.  If you're not breathing, you're dead.  Simple fact that we're all aware of.  However, breathing is also voice.  Without breath there is no voice.  It stands to reason then that the quality of your voice and the amount of voice you have is also driven by the type and quality of breath.  Typically, when working with clients on their personal presence or formal presentation skills, we will need to work on their breathing.   For most of us, as long as we were breathing, people were happy with however we chose to make it happen.

If we want stronger, deeper, louder or more compelling voices though, we may need to relearn the way in which we breath.  Most of us breathe from the upper third of our lungs (called Tidal Breathing).  If we want to increase the depth of our voices, or we want to project them more, we need to learn to breathe from the middle third of our lungs, called diaphragmatic breathing.  To do so requires us to breathe from a different place, not to take in a different amount of air.  Professional singers, actors on stage, deep sea divers, musicians that play a wind or horn instrument all learn to breathe from the diaphragm in order to support their craft.  You can too.

To practice, start by standing up.  It is important that you stand fully upright, with the spine elongated.  If you slump you compress your diaphragm and cannot breathe from it.  Place a hand on your upper chest and one on your upper stomach area, just below the bridge of your ribs.  Take a nice, slow, deep breath in.  Watch which hand moves.  (Breathe out!)  Instead of seeing the upper hand rise and fall as you breathe (indicating that you are filling the upper third of your lungs with air), try to make the bottom hand (the one on your diaphragm) move in an out.  This will require that you target your breath more, but it will begin to train your brain and body to begin breathing from this area more often.  The more consistently you practice breathing from your diaphragm the more you begin to create the habit of breathing from it.

Breathing from the diaphragm also has a number of additional benefits.  Let's face it, most of us don't give many formal presentations and, even if we do, we tend to get very anxious and stressed about doing one.  We carry this tension in our bodies, which then influences the way we move and sound - making us appear uncomfortable.  Our presentation suffers.  I offer you two suggestions below to help you deal with some of this tension...

  1. It is not unusual for people, when they get nervous, to feel short of breath or sick to their stomachs.  This is because the nerves that control your digestion and your respiration attach to the C3 and C4 vertebrae, which are in the middle of the back of your neck.  When we get nervous and tense, we tend to tighten and bunch up these muscles (how many of your feel stress through the muscles of your neck and upper shoulders?).  As we tense these muscles up, we impact the nerves controlling our breathing and digestion.  The solution then is to relax those muscles, release the tension.  Certainly getting someone to massage them for you would work.  When at work or at other times you don't have access to someone willing to give you a neck massage, try the following exercise.  Stand comfortably and bend over, letting the head hand freely.  Really make an effort to fully relax the neck muscles.  You can test this out by taking your fingers and gently pushing on your head (while it's hanging).  If you feel resistance your haven't fully released it.  Allowing the neck to hang freely, and using the weight of the head (much heavier than you realize!) to pull and extend the vertebrae of the neck, helps relieve the tension and release the pressure on those nerves.

  2. Practice your breathing!  Take a couple of quiet moments periodically throughout the day to breathe deeply and fully.  Sit fully upright and put a hand lightly on your diaphragm to serve as a target for the muscles you want to engage.  In addition to practicing breathing from the diaphragm, concentrate on the breath you take.  Breathe through the nose only since breathing through the mouth tends to signal to your brain that you are in distress.  Not the effect we're after!  Deepen your breathing by elongating your exhalations, not your inhalations.  Your lungs will adjust naturally and automatically to replace the air you have lost through your exhalations. Therefore, you don't have to focus on your inhalations, they will take care of themselves.  Additionally, when you're nervous, trying to inhale more could result in hyperventilation.  Focusing on the exhalation is what will prove calming.  Try to extend and lengthen the number of outward counts of breath each time.  Although you could certainly start and end your day with 15-30 minutes of controlled breathing, most of my clients don't tend to find, have or make the time for this.  Instead, using this technique periodically throughout the day, for 3-5 breaths, will serve to help you maintain a greater sense of calmness, well-being  and will help keep your stress in check.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Take a Break!

I'm on vacation this week.  Okay... so I wrote a blog this week but, overall... I had a lot of downtime, visiting with friends, swimming in the lake, hosting a pig roast... minimal work.  We all recognise the value of a vacation and, indeed, seem to build our lives around the opportunity  for our next big break.  However, the same arguments that could be applied to why taking a vacation every year is so valuable to our health and well being could apply to the need to take regular breaks throughout our workday.

We live in a world that rewards and celebrates 'busyness' like it is a commodity in and of itself.  We wake up to an alarm and race from one activity to another until we collapse in our beds preparing ourselves to do it all again tomorrow.  Think back over your typical work day though and ask yourself where the periods for recovery and renewal were, if at all. 

Technology has helped us to engage more fully, but it has also served to prevent us from being able to disengage  We are always available, always connected.  However, being constantly on and focused brings with it a cost.  In fact, research shows us that our ability to be fully engaged at work depends in good part with our ability to periodically 'disengage' successfully.  It seems that building moments of recovery into your work day ensures that you are able to engage in tasks more fully and passionately.  Even though you may be breaking more frequently than those working flat out, building in periods of renewal over the course of the day typically increases overall productivity.  You may spend less time on tasks but you are more fully present in the time you do spend, thereby getting more done, in less time, while retaining your health and well-being.

Just like any muscle in our body, our energy capacity decreases with both over or under use.  Therefore, we need to balance any energy expenditure with time for energy renewal.  Pushing through tasks, moving immediately from one task to another, leaves little time for recovery.  However, our energy stores are not limitless and, as we deplete them, it requires more energy to maintain the desired level of output.

How often are breaks ultimately needed?  Although it was long known and understood that Circadian rhythms, which work on the cycle of 24 hours, dictated our activity and rest patterns, in the 1970's it was determined that these rhythms were actually broken down into smaller/shorter cycles of 90-120 minutes - which operate throughout the day.  These are known as our Ultradian rhythms. It is these rhythms that account for the rise and fall of our energy throughout the course of our day.  Although our focus, energy and alertness may be high at the beginning of each of these cycles, by the end they are low.  Despite our efforts to continue to persevere and concentrate, our systems go into a marked decline.

Our body will attempt to communicate the need for a break by yawning, stretching, losing focus, hunger pangs, etc.  Although our response is to typically override these signals, we would do well to listen to them instead.  These are the perfect moments to  integrate in a period of renewal, a small break that helps you to recharge and refocus.  These breaks don't need to be long in order to be effective.  Einstein himself was a strong advocate for the benefit of catnaps.

Suggestions for possible renewal activities might include...
  • plugging in your ipod and listening to a favourite song or two

  • read a chapter from a fictional book or a magazine article for interest sake alone

  • watch a short video on the internet that is of interest (my favourite of course is http://www.ted.com/ where you can even key in the number of minutes you have available and it will find a TED talk in that length for you)

  • close your eyes and 'nap' for five minutes

  • meditate

  • do some deep breathing exercises

  • do some body stretches

  • take a walk

  • drop by someone's work area and touch base with them quickly

  • file or tidy something (only time it gets done for me!)

  • do a self-neck massage

It doesn't matter the activity, as long as it offers a chance to recharge, renew and refocus.  With so many demands to juggle and so much on our plates clamouriing for our attention, learning to manage our energy, such that we are able to accomplish more in less time, is an asset beyond measure.  Who knew that working smarter meant breaking more often? 

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'll recover from the stress of writing this article by taking a nap for a minute or two!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Are You Listening?

I was thinking about our listening abilities the other day.  No, this didn't just come out of the blue.  Like so many thoughts I have this one was spurred by two incidents, both of which happened while up here at the cottage (yes, I'm looking out over the lake as I type this...)
  1. I was sitting reading on the front porch beside my husband when I turned to him, commenting on something that I heard the neighbours say while they were out swimming, maybe two-thirds of a football field away.  Bear in mind that sound travels amazingly well over water.  My husband was stunned that I could hear them clearly from that that distance... although he could tell they were speaking he couldn't decipher any of their conversation.

  2. As with many cottages, we have had issues periodically with mouse invasions.  A friend recommended that we try the sonic mouse deterrents they had installed in their cottage - having had great success with them.  These are small devices that, when plugged into an outlet, emit sonic noises that are uncomfortable to mice and deter them from setting up home anywhere near them.  This noise is apparently undetectable to humans.  As soon as they were plugged in though, I commented on the low-level hum that they emitted.  No...  I don't think I have the hearing sensitivities of a mouse, but the device does have a small motorized sound to it that is constant and a little irritating at first.  My husband of course... hears nothing.

These two incidences are what got me started thinking about our hearing.  Given that I don't possess 'super' listening powers, why the differences in our abilities?  The one conclusion I reached was that our jobs are very different.  Much of the work that he does is in his head... analyzing, computing, reporting.  It is a very one-sided form of communication. Certainly he has meetings and speaks with people, but the level and type of listening is very different from my own. 

In my role as a coach and trainer, certainly in my role of 'reading' others, I am paying close attention to the nuances of messages.  Tonal shifts in speaking voices are telling, as are shifts in volume, pace and pitch.  My conscious listening habits while at 'work' I supposed, meant that my listening skills in general were more enhanced.

In researching this further (and yes, I really do go look this 'stuff' up!) it appears that although 60% of all communication time is spent listening, we only retain less than 25% of what we hear.  In our modern world, which is becoming more busy, more noisy... it seems we are losing our listening skills. 
  • We are bombarded by noise and sound, which is leading us to develop more selective hearing, unconsciously electing to not hear more and more sounds.  Just as people living close to airports for instance no longer consciously hear the planes flying overhead, we too unconsciously learn to ignore certain repetitive sounds in our lives.  Although we can consciously attend to and hear them when directed to, we learn to cancel out repetitive noises to increase our own personal comfort

  • There are now so many ways and means for us to record and play back conversations and information that we no longer feel the need to pay as close attention in the first place, knowing we can 'listen' later

  • So many people walk around with headphones plugged into their ears that they are creating their own little personal sound bubbles.  We are therefore teaching ourselves that we can only attend to minimal and directed sound

  • As the demands on our time increase we are becoming more and more impatient in our listening, requiring people to get to the point.  Twitter, Facebook and email communications have taught us that we need to communicate in sound bites, thereby reducing the need (and perhaps desire) to communicate messages through conversations

  • There are increasing demands for our attention as well, with media alone bombarding us with constant messaging, such that we are becoming desensitized to these messages.  Ads are now becoming more graphic - bigger, bolder, more blatant - in an effort to get noticed.  As a result, we are missing the more subtle pieces and forms of information and communication.

As a result of the above though, we are developing into a nation (if not a world) of poor listeners.  We are missing much of what is happening in the world around us and increasing not just the odds of miscommunicating but of misunderstanding and misinterpreting the messages we are receiving..  If listening is our access to truly understanding, then learning to listen more consciously represents our path back to increasing our understanding of the world, and people, around us.

Julian Treasure, sound expert, offers the following five suggestions for increasing your ability to reconnect yourself to the world of sound...
  1. Practice 3 minutes of silence a day in order to recalibrate your ears.  If you can't manage silence, go for three minutes of quiet.  Use this time to allow your hearing to once again tune into the smaller, more subtle noises around you.

  2. When you find yourself in a mixed-noise environment (like a coffee bar, cocktail party etc.), sit back and listen, trying to isolate the sounds.  Try to focus on only one sound in particular. When you've isolated it from the noise around you, select another to attend to.  Challenge yourself to decipher as many separate channels of noise as you can.

  3. Learn to hear, savour and enjoy the mundane sounds around you.  (such as the dishwasher, car engine, sonic mouse repellent)  This helps you to break through the unconscious filters you have placed on your listening, allowing you to more consciously select and choose what you wish to listen to and hear.

  4. Play with your listening positions, in order to hear differently.  Julian emphasizes that the position that we take in a conversation very much determines the outcome of what we've heard.  To change the content of the messages received, change the listening position you have adopted.  For example... switch from active to passive listening, reductive to expansive, critical to empathetic.

  5. Use the Acronym RASA (sanskrit for Juicy or Essence) to help you be a better listener.

      • R - Receive (pay attention)

      • A - Appreciate (provide supportive behaviours and sounds to the speaker)

      • S - Summarize (to demonstrate and validate understanding)

      • A - Ask questions

Learning to listen better and more attentively can open you to significantly more information in your communicative processes.  There are a lot of messages delivered through more subtle systems than we might otherwise catch.  Opening ourselves to hearing them may provide us with a wealth of information that would enhance our relationships and decisions.  Now... if they would discover a sonic mouse deterrent that was as quiet as the proverbial mouse... I'd be a happy woman.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Reach Out and Touch Someone

Most of us would agree that a gentle touch on the forearm, by someone that we know and care about, can bring us comfort, warmth, a sense of well-being, understanding, caring...  It can communicate many positive and heartfelt emotions, depending upon the situation and other outward signals of the sender.  Did you know though...  that the same touch, given by a stranger, can be surprisingly persuasive?

Consider the following research findings...
  • Diners are more inclined to give their wait staff larger tips if they have been touched casually by them
  • Strangers are more likely to perform small mundane tasks for others if they were touched on the forearm when the request was made
  • Women are more likely to dance with you if you touch them lightly and briefly on the arm when asking
  • If you touch a library user lightly on the arm when they register for your services they are more likely to rate your service favourably than those not touched when registering
Behavioural studies have certainly demonstrated, over and over, that we are much more favourably responsive to the other party (either them directly, or their requests) when we are touched casually (on the forearm) in conversation with them.  New research out, (A. Shirmer and colleagues) has shown that the source of the touch doesn't matter at all, it is the sense of being touched that enhances the brain's response.  Their study indicated that emotional information, when presented concurrently with touch, may be more motivating to the individual's brain, which then devotes more processing resources to that information.

Implications?  Certainly it's clear from an influence standpoint.  If you have developed enough rapport with the other party to enter their personal space, touching them briefly on the forearm when making a request of them will enhance the likelihood of gaining their agreement or support.  You could even forego making a request, simply use touch as a means of building and cementing the positive rapport you have been establishing, creating a stronger sense of relationship and good will.

Bear in mind...  I am talking about a brief touch, on the forearm.  Touching longer, anywhere other than the forearm is going to give you a reaction other than the favourable one we're after here!  I think that in our touch-phobic business world, we have swung so far onto the side of complete touch-avoidance that we have likely increased the impact and effect that appropriate touch would have.  I have definitely noticed a greater emphasis on the handshake in recent years, perhaps because it is our only remaining 'appropriate' form of physical contact within the realm of the business environment. 

Perhaps there is a small psychological advantage for those who do implement a small touch here and there.  Such an innocuous gesture may provide an even more significant positive effect when used with an audience that is now missing any form of physical connection with their audience.  A subtle way to stand out and enhance your likability and promotability?  It would seem so.

My final piece of advice for you regarding touch and the workplace.  Are you confused by the definition of forearm?  Not sure what the definition of a light gentle touch is?  Still trying to distinguish in your mind the difference between a touch and a grasp?  Then... don't.  Just... don't!