3 Minutes to More Effective Leadership

3 minutesIf you could improve your leadership in just three minutes a day, would you make the time to do it? What if this magic 3 minutes consisted of doing... pretty much nothing at all? Sound too good to be true? In leadership, our ability to connect with people and align them towards common goals is a function, in large part, of our leadership presence.

Presence is how we show up. It's the quality of our be-ing (as opposed to the content of our "do-ing"). In any given moment, our presence may be grounded and focused -- or checked-out and scattered.

When the quality of our presence is high, we are more inspiring to others, more connected to ourselves and more effective in our leadership.

But back to those 3 minutes. It is impossible to cultivate presence if we never pause -- if we're always rushing from meeting to meeting, tied to our smart phones, and feeling forever behind.

The simple act of sitting in silence with our breath, when practiced over time, can radically shift our presence -- even if we do it for only 3 minutes a day. The act of sitting is simple (but not always easy):

  • Find a seat on the floor or in a chair where you can sit comfortably but remain upright and alert.
  • Close your eyes and start to notice your body, in particular the places where it connects with the floor and/or the chair.
  • Tune into your breath, following each inhale and exhale.
  • Whenever your mind wanders, gently direct your attention back to your breath. (This will happen many times. Returning your attention to your breath is what you are practicing here, over and over.)
  • Continue this for 3 minutes or more (you may want to set a timer before you start).
  • When time is up, slowly open your eyes, start to move your body, and return to your surroundings.

Immediately after sitting you may find that you feel calmer, more grounded, and less frazzled. Over time, your attention, patience, and ability to empathize may significantly shift for the better. (I know I've seen these effects, and science agrees.)

If you could make time to sit like this daily, how would it impact your leadership presence? Give it a try, and let me know.

Five Questions for New Year's Reflection

5 Questions for New Year's Reflection
5 Questions for New Year's Reflection

Want to do some New Year's reflection but not sure where to start?  Here are 5 sets of powerful questions to get you going.  You can sit with these in silence, write or draw about them in your journal, mull them over on a long walk, or share answers in conversation with a partner or friend.


Looking back over the past year, when were you at your best? Think about moments when you felt most alive and engaged, perhaps joyful or particularly purposeful.  What threads of similarity connect these moments?


What has changed within you this past year?  What is just beginning to change within in you now?


As you end this year, what's weighing you down?  How can you shift your experience or perception of that which is weighing you down?


Imagine that it is twelve months from now, and you've had a fantastic, fulfilling year.  What does that look like?  What did you do -- and how did you have to be -- to get to this result?


In the coming year, what are the critical areas for your learning and growth?  What are your first steps for attending to these areas?

Are there other questions that help you to reflect at this time of year?  Share them in the comments below.

Wishing you peace and joy in the new year!

10 Things You Can Start Doing TODAY to Feel Less Overwhelmed

Best practices gleaned from Getting Things DoneThe Power of Full Engagement, 7 HabitsThe Fire Starter Sessions, and my brilliant clients. 1.  Identify & make space for your top priorities first. Identify your major priorities and make time for them in your schedule first. Then, make your lower priorities fit in around the big stuff. If you fill up your time with the little things, it becomes impossible to fit in the big things later.

2. Get everything out of your head and into a trusted system. As David Allen says, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” Get every nagging thought about something you have to do out of your head and onto a list or calendar.

3. If a task takes less than 2 minutes, do it now. Don’t put off a small task for later if you could get it done now in 2 minutes or less.

4. Keep a list of next actions & start every next action with a verb. Keep a list of the very next things you need to do. Each item should be as specific as possible and start with a verb. You are more likely to take action when you see “ask David about timeline for final report,” on your list than when you see something like “final report.”

5. Have a daily meeting with yourself. Once a day (preferably at the start of your day), take 15 – 20 minutes to check in with your top priorities next actions list and calendar. Identify the 3-5 things you must do today to make the day a success.

6. Review everything on your plate weekly. Take 60 - 90 minutes a week to review all of your commitments, assess the past week, and look ahead to the coming weeks. You will catch things that would otherwise slip through the cracks.

7. Use your “power hours” for your most brain-intensive work. Figure out what time of day you are most alert, sharp and energetic. Do your hardest work then & save the mindless tasks for when you’re spent.

8. Charge your electronic devices outside of the bedroom. Get your inbox out of your bed! Purchase an alarm clock if you’ve been using your phone & put your devices in the other room when you turn in for the night.

9. Create intentional time and space away from technology. This can look like: blocking your internet access when you are writing, unplugging from all technology for 24 hours once a month, not looking at your phone between work and when the kids go to sleep, or sitting and focusing on your breath for 5 minutes a day.

10. Do what you say you’re going to do. You’ll gain the trust, respect, and admiration of others – and yourself.

Third Annual National Day of Unplugging

It's that time of year again - the annual National Day of Unplugging.  Rooted in the Jewish practice of Shabbat, the National Day of Unplugging asks us to intentionally disconnect from technology and reconnect to the things that matter most to us. Here's the challenge, which lasts for 24 hours from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday:


[box] Shut down your computer.Turn off your cell phone. Stop the constant emailing, texting, Tweeting and Facebooking to take time to notice the world around you. Connect with loved ones. Nurture your health. Get outside. Find silence. Avoid commerce. Give back. Eat Together. [/box]

The day can jumpstart a more regular practice of unplugging, something I've written more about here, here, and here.

Want to give it a try?  Learn more and take the pledge here.


Drawing Digital Boundaries in an Always-On World

If you’re like most people, you’ve responded to work email while on the grocery check-out line, on vacation, and in bed. Increasingly we are always at work unless we make a conscious decision not to be. As a workflow coach to busy professionals, I get to see both the benefits and challenges of our ever-shrinking, instantly-syncing and always-buzzing technology.  The plus is that we can work from anywhere, anytime; the drawback comes when we are working everywhere, all the time.

The truth is that your inbox will still be accepting emails when you die. Will you choose to live in your inbox 24/7, or will you step away from time to time and be present in the messy, physical, relational world?

We have to get really good at choosing when we’re working and when we’re not. The radical act of unplugging – of intentionally turning off our devices for a few hours, days or even weeks – can have profound effects:

  • Coworkers will see that you place boundaries on your time and adjust accordingly.  By not responding to work emails after a certain time of night, on the weekends, or on vacation, you signal that you respect your own time and that of your colleagues.
  • Loved ones will appreciate your undivided attention. A dinner without text messaging and a day outside without email will not go unnoticed.
  • You will grow to enjoy the alertness, calm, and productivity that comes from focusing on the present moment without attending to a blinking device.

If turning off your devices for even an hour seems like an impossible feat, here are some questions to get you thinking:

  • What parts of your life could you experience more fully if you were to unplug?  What are the consequences if you don’t unplug?
  • What one technology habit, if you changed it, would make the biggest positive impact on your life?
  • Where in your day, week, or year, is it most important to you to you carve out time to disconnect from technology?

No one else will draw these boundaries for you.  The only person who can stop you from answering email 24/7 is you.  So, where will you draw the line?

From the Vault: Pondering Purpose in the (Jewish) New Year


For those who celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, now is a time of reflection, of returning to that which we value most, and of reconciling our best intentions with our actions. 

In the spirit of the holiday, I offer this post from the vault: Pondering Purpose in the New Year.  Whether or not you are celebrating the birth of a new year this week, I invite you to take a moment to step back and reflect with this exercise.  

How can you call upon your purpose to do your best work in the year to come?


Today I've been revisiting some of my favorite perspectives on the concept of purpose.  I am particularly moved by these words by choreographer Martha Graham:

[quote] There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action.  And because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.  If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.  The world will not have it.  It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how it compares to other expressions.  It is simply your business to keep the channel open.[/quote]

Reflecting upon these words, what resonates?

  • What is the unique energy or action you will contribute to the world?
  • How can you more fully express it in the year to come?
  • How have you blocked its expression in the past?
  • How will you remove these blocks this year?
  • What's the possibility you create when you "keep the channel open"?

Happy New Year.

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Photo credit: loop_oh on Flickr.

3 Super Online Tools for Writing and Reflection

One of my personal goals for this fall is to take more time for regular writing and reflection.  To get back in the groove, I've turned to some of my favorite free online writing tools.  Each of them make getting the words out fun, simple, and relatively painless. Write long:  750 words.com On the face of it, this site is simple: log in daily, start writing, and don't stop until the auto word-counter tells you you've hit 750 words (approximately 3 pages longhand).  Once you've accumulate several days worth of input, the site's algorithms kick in and you can take advantage some very cool bells and whistles.  Based on your writing, the site offers you data on everything from your typing speed to your mood and mindset; you can even earn badges for consecutive days of writing.

Write quick: ohlife.com Ohlife is founded on the simple premise that keeping a journal doesn't have to be a time-consuming endeavor.  Once you sign up on the site, you will receive an email each day that asks you simply, "How'd your day go?"  Reply to that email with whatever you want to write about your day, and the site will archive your responses (which you can access on the site at any time).  Collectively, your answers to this one question constitute a record of your days.

Write deep: doyou10q.com 10Q is an annual online reflection event that takes place during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur -- but you don't have to be Jewish to participate or to benefit.  Sign up and starting on September 28th, you will be sent one question a day to answer about your life, looking back and looking ahead.  (Sample question: "Think about a major milestone that happened with your family this past year. How has this affected you?") Your answers are "sealed in the vault" at the end of the 10 days and - here's where it really gets cool - only become available to you one year later (time capsule-style).  I'm going into my 3rd year of doing 10Q and can't wait to look back on my answers from 2010 and 2009.

BONUS - Write old school: (Non-virtual) Journal Online tools are great, but sometimes I just want to put pen to paper.  My go-to sources for journals are Moleskine (when I'm feeling spendy) and Muji (where my favorite journal costs $1.50).  Nothing beats a good old-fashioned blank page.

What are your favorite tools or prompts for writing and reflection?

The One Planning (and Focusing and Decision-Making) Tool I Couldn't Live Without

  Three years ago at the Selah Leadership Program, I was introduced to a planning tool that I've used every single day since.  This magic tool?  POP.

The POP Model was developed by organizational consultants Leslie Sholl Jaffe and Randall J. Alford.  POP stands for Purpose, Outcomes, and Process, and it's a simple and effective tool for keeping yourself and others focused aligned in almost any context.

Purpose answers the question, why is this important?  

Outcomes answers the question, what do we most need to accomplish?

and Process answers the question, how will we accomplish the outcomes?

It is easy to see why these three little questions have so much resonance.

  • Purpose fuzzy?  You are likely to find yourself spinning your wheels, lost and not sure how you got where you are.
  • Outcomes unclear?  Team members may be working toward different goals, reducing the group's overall impact.
  • Process ignored?  You'll find yourself in the middle of a dead-end meeting, wondering why there is so much talk and so little progress toward what you really need to be getting done.

POP In Action

To use the model, articulate the Purpose of what you are taking on, your desired Outcomes, and the Process for how you will get to the outcomes.  In some contexts it is beneficial to use POP on your own, and in others it can be a powerful tool for aligning a group.  POP can be the basis for a 5-minute back-of-the-envelope exercise, or an all-day, organization-wide planning endeavor.

Say you have an upcoming meeting with your staff to plan your big 2012 fundraising event.  Before the meeting, you might sit down and take 5-10 minutes to sketch out a POP for yourself:

  • Purpose: The purpose of this meeting is to kick-off planning for the 2012 fundraising event.
  • Outcomes: We need to leave this meeting with:
    • Clarity around who will spearhead each major piece of work.
    • A decision on if we will hire a marketing consultant or handle that in-house.
    • An understanding on the part of the Development team of the Board's expectations for how much $$$ this event will bring in.
  • Process:  In order to get to these outcomes:
    • I need to think about who I believe should take on each major piece of work, before the meeting.
    • I should look at that research we did two years ago about marketing consultants so I can go into the day with a ballpark figure of how much it would cost to outsource.
    • I sh0uld also have a conversation with my Development Director to make sure he understands the Board's target for this event -- that way he can help me get his team on board during the meeting.
    • Finally, I need to design an agenda for this meeting that will produce the outcomes I want -- so that we don't get lost in the weeds.

POP is a powerful tool to use in meetings. The meeting facilitator can either lead the group in collaboratively defining the meeting's Purpose, Outcomes and Process in real-time, or can bring a pre-defined POP to a meeting and solicit group-buy in.  A meeting where the whole team knows the POP -- why we are there, what we are trying to get to, and how we will get there -- is a meeting worth everyone's time.

POP can be used at the beginning of projects -- Why are we taking on this project? What do we want to accomplish by doing it? How will we accomplish that?  And, it can be a test of alignment, mid-project, when things seem to be drifting off course -- Why were we doing this project again?  What were we trying to accomplish?  How can we get back on track?

For me, the power of POP is in slowing down and thinking about what I really want to get out of the effort I am putting into a meeting, a project, or a partnership.  In a group context, going through the POP process can reveal hidden assumptions, biases and leaps in logic that would otherwise derail the group down the line.

It is no exaggeration to say that I use POP every single day.  I may have even POP'ed a vacation once or twice!   Try it out, and let me know how you experience the simple power of POP.
Want to learn more about applying POP in your organization?  Learn more about working with me.

3 Steps to Focusing at Work When It Really Counts

Are you able to focus when it really counts? When deadlines are looming -- when funder reports are due (or maybe were due a week ago), when you need to submit that important journal article -- how do you carve the time out of your already busy week to produce great work?

It's not like you can make the everyday emails, meetings, and work tasks stop while you work on this one really important thing.   You have to fit it in somehow.  Here's how.

Step 1: Identify The Conditions You Need to Do Your Best Work When, and under what conditions, do you get your best work done?  If trying to squeeze in a big writing project at the end of a busy day clearly won't work for you, what would work?  Some things to consider:

  • Time: Do you do your best work early in the morning, or  do you kick into high gear after everyone else has gone to sleep?
  • Place:   Can you do focused work at your desk, or do you need a change of scenery?  Consider taking a chunk of time out of the office if your everyday setting is too distracting.
  • Duration: At a certain point, you will face diminishing returns.  A 90 minute sprint of focused work (at your most productive time and place) may produce better results than a 4 hour marathon.

Step 2: Book It Once you know when and where you can get your best work done, schedule it.  Put it in your calendar in no ambiguous terms: "8 - 11 AM, report writing at public library."  This now represents a commitment to yourself.

Step 3: Do Everything You Can to Protect Your Focused Time This is the most important step -- because if you do the first two steps and then let the time disappear, you're back to square one.

  • Protect the time from others: Don't schedule meetings or phone calls during the time you've set aside for this important work.  Let others know you will be unavailable, and that they shouldn't disturb you.  If you are staying in your office, you might want to put a "Do Not Disturb" sign outside your work space.
  • Protect the time from yourself:  Before starting work, preemptively eliminate whatever distractions might pop up and pull you off course.  Turn off your phone and use web blocking software (I use this and this) to keep yourself from wasting time online. If you're working offsite, bring only the materials for this one project so that you won't be tempted to work on others.

Once you've taken the three steps above, you've created a solid container for doing your best work.  Now all that's left is to hunker down and be brilliant!

What have you learned about the conditions in which you do your best work? 

Unplugging All Year Round

This Friday night marks the beginning of the second annual National Day of Unplugging, but you needn't wait for the annual event to disconnect from your devices.  Here are some ways to unplug on the regular: every month, every week, or even several times a day.  (For more on the why of unplugging, see my piece on the subject from last year.) Several times a day: Many of us engage with technology during the mindless, routine activities of daily life.  For a break from this, define contexts in which you will consciously disconnect from your devices.  For example, commit to not being on your phone when you are walking to the subway or driving in your car. Or to not texting while eating.  Instead, notice your surroundings, the road in front of you, or the taste of what you are eating in a more mindful way.

Daily: There are several ways to do this.  Start your day unplugged by giving yourself a buffer of 20, 30, or 60 minutes before checking in with technology -- greeting the day before you greet your iPhone.  During the day, block out a no-technology hour or two -- perhaps the first couple of hours after you get home from work, to mark that transition into home-mode.  Or, give yourself a daily technology cut-off time, and put yourself to bed with a book rather than Twitter.

Weekly: Try a regular technology break on the weekends.  Try a six hour chunk without internet on a Saturday and see how clean your house gets, and how far your mind can wander away from your work.  The National Day of Unplugging is rooted in the Jewish tradition of Shabbat, which is another way frame a weekly unplugging -- 24 hours worth of disconnection from technology and reconnection with home, family, self and spririt.

Monthly: Can you go one day, or one weekend a month without technology?  I do this on occasion and think of it as a kind of technology cleanse.

Yearly, but in a big way: Give yourself a proper vacation from your devices if you can manage it.  A few days or a week away from technology, as this group of five neuroscientists and a reporter found when they turned off their phones and went into the Grand Canyon, will actually change your experience of the world around you.

How often do you consciously unplug?  Share your experiences in the comments.

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5 Questions for Deeper Self Awareness in Sticky Situations

Deep self-knowledge -- an awareness of our own thoughts, feelings, behavior, and motivations -- is one of the cornerstones of thoughtful leadership, yet it is often neglected.  In the rush of everyday work life, with its cascading opportunities and challenges, we can easily forget to keep our "selves" in mind.   Yet, whether you pay conscious attention to your self or not, you are the person driving everything you do. Being aware of what is driving you and how you are showing up to others is especially important in sticky situations -- whether it be a conflict with a coworker, a disagreement with your partner at home, or a misunderstanding with a friend.  We can become so reactive and responsive to the other people we are tangling with that we don't examine what's going on with our own selves.

Here are five questions to increase your self awareness when things get stressful.  To use them, you first need to acknowledge that you are in a sticky situation and decide to step outside of the mess for a minute.  Once you do that, take a deep breath and consider the following:

How is this situation exposing my limitations to  myself or others?

What underlying beliefs or values are influencing my experience of this situation?

What effect am I having on others?

What's going on in my body right now (pulse, breathing, muscle tension, how I'm sitting/standing)?

What is my role in this situation?

(update: see a great 6th question in the comments - and add your own!)

These questions matter, of course, because the only person one can truly change is oneself.  In sticky situations, our focus is often squarely on the other person -- what they are doing, saying, and thinking. By focusing on yourself for even a few minutes, you will be able to reapproach the situation with greater clarity, calm and insight.  Give it a try.

What questions do you ask yourself when you are in a sticky situation?

Pondering Purpose in the New Year

Today I've been revisiting some of my favorite perspectives on the concept of purpose.  I am particularly moved by these words by choreographer Martha Graham:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action.  And because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.  If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.  The world will not have it.  It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how it compares to other expressions.  It is simply your business to keep the channel open.”

And some questions to ponder-

  • What is the unique energy or action you will contribute to the world?
  • How can you more fully express it in 2011?
  • How have you blocked its expression in the past?
  • How will you remove these blocks this year?
  • What's the possibility you create when you "keep the channel open"?

Happy New Year.

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Words to Live By: An Alternative to New Year's Resolutions

I've always found the process of setting and measuring progress on New Year's resolutions to feel forced and to be a set-up for guilt.  This year, in addition to reflecting on my year (as I do every year), I will be creating my personal Words to Live By (WTLB).  To borrow from the business world, WTLB can be thought of as a personal motto; to borrow from the spiritual world, WTLB  can be thought of as a personal mantra. Some examples of Words to Live By:

  • Always be me
  • Think, then speak
  • Remain present
  • Breathe, listen, act

WTLB help you fill in the blank, "When in doubt, _______."  They are an always-available, always-relevant personal accountability system; they help you to course-correct in the challenging moments of everyday life.

Words to Live By are:

  • easy to remember; you don't need to write them down
  • applicable to all aspects of your life; you don't need one set for home and another for work
  • doable in the moment-to-moment; you don't need to measure your progress quarterly or annually
  • descriptive of how you want to be, not things you want to do

WTLB reflect what you need to be most mindful of as you walk through this next  year of your life. The words you choose may be based on learnings from the past year -- "I need to listen more" -- or a new intention that you are creating for yourself -- "I will remember to breathe when I'm stressed."  Your WTLB are the words you think you will most need to hear, most often, at the most critical moments.

It is likely that just by thinking about it for a few minutes, you will come up with some possible WTLB.   Good luck, and have a happy New Year!

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Five Provocative Ideas about Leadership & the Brain

I'm reporting live from Boston, where about 250 neuroscientists and leadership experts are gathered for the 5th annual NeuroLeadership Summit.  The crowd is a heady mix of folks who are equal parts charismatic and nerdy, and there is a palpable excitement about this growing field.  Here are five ideas that captured my imagination on the first day of this 3-day gathering. 1.  Group brainstorming can stifle insight (Jonathan Schooler, UCSB) Conventional wisdom says that the best way to generate lots of ideas is to bring a group together and ask them to brainstorm.  Schooler's research shows that group conversation can actually disrupt creative solutions.  Once a team member projects his or her interpretation onto the situation at hand, it is very hard for the others to see outside of the construct their teammate has created.  For maximum creativity, ask people to first solve the problem on their own, and then bring them together to share their individual ideas with the group.

2.  The essence of charisma is mindfulness (Ellen Langer, Harvard) Mindfulness is nothing more than noticing new things as they occur.  Sounds simple, but we spend much of our lives in mindless autopilot, assuming that the situation in front of us (whether it be our commute, our coffee, or our colleague) is the same as every situation that's come before.  This kind of mindless state is not lost on others; it is readily perceived by children, adults, and animals alike.  Mindfulness cannot be faked.  This is why leaders register as charismatic when they are mindful: actively engaged in the present, visibly invested in the uniqueness of the person before them, curious and ready to learn.

3.  Expanding your emotional vocabulary can change how you feel (Lisa Feldman Barrett, Boston College) Changing what you think about what you are feeling can change how you experience emotion. (It's okay, read that sentence again.)  Our feelings don't just happen to us.  In fact, both the emotional and decision-making parts of the brain are involved in how we experience our feelings.  The better we are at to pinpointing and labeling our exact emotions, the better able we'll be to shift our experience of how we are feeling.  For example, rather than settling on "angry" to describe how that encounter with your coworker made you feel, try to figure out if the feeling is really "embarrassed," "inadequate," or even "sleep-deprived."  This will change your experience of the situation that made you "angry" in the first place.

4.  Sometimes the best choice is not to choose at all (Sheena Iyengar, Columbia) We are bombarded with choices everyday.  Iyengar's research shows that the more choices we have (and the less meaningful the distinction between our choices), the worse we are at making a decision that we will be happy with.  Overwhelmed with choices, we end up either not choosing anything, or making a choice we later second-guess.  Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves is to opt out of choosing altogether.  It's okay to decide that the time we'd spend deliberating over this widget or that one is ultimately distracting us from our end goal.  (Incidentally, this is why I don't have TV, much less cable -- too many choices.)

5. Why we get bored of our spouses, but not our kids (Ellen Langer again) Situations/jobs/people are neither inherently boring nor inherently interesting.  It's our experience of these things/people that makes them so. Attending to what's different (what's changing) is what makes the world seem engaging.  The more we notice, the more interesting the world is.  A person will complain that she is bored in her relationship with her spouse of 20 years... but the same person would never say that after 20 years of parenthood, she is bored with her kids. This is because we expect our children to change. Our spouses - not so much.

There are many more thoughts from the day captured on my Twitter stream from the conference. Signing off for tonight.

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Your Brain on Computers: A Do Your Best Work Roundup

This week the New York Times began a great series on computers and the brain, examining how our thoughts and behaviors (and frighteningly, our very ability to parent) have been altered by the multiple screens and data feeds that divide our attention.

Here at Do Your Best Work, we've spent the past 8 months exploring some of the same issues, only with fewer scientists and a smaller team of reporters (okay, it's just me).

If you've been captivated by the Times series, check out this roundup of Do Your Best Work pieces on related topics:

It's great to see some of these ideas taking hold in the mainstream media.  Have you read the Times series? What most surprised you?  Don't be shy, jump into the conversation by posting a comment below.

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Multitasking is a Myth

  As mobile technology has become more portable and more powerful, we are able to do many more things (phone calls, texting, watching movies) in more contexts (driving, walking down the street, waiting in line) than ever before.  Multitasking should be at an all-time high.

But as some recent books about the nature of attention have made clear, multitasking is largely a myth.  When we think we are multitasking, we are not so much doing two things at once as we are rapidly shifting our attention back and forth between those two things.  And all that shifting dramatically depletes our functioning, making it hard to do either thing efficiently or well.

Here's a quick experiment  to prove this point.  Write the phrase "MULTITASKING IS A MYTH" on a piece of paper, but intersperse the numbers 1 - 17 after each letter (M 1 U 2 L 3 T 4... etc.).  Now, write out the same phrase  as you normally would - no numbers in between - and when you finish that, write out the sequence of numbers 1 - 17.  See the difference? [Experiment adapted from this guy.]

While there are some "mindless" tasks that we can do while doing something else (folding laundry in front of the TV, for example) most everyday activities require much more focussed attention than you might think.

Ever turn down the music in your car while looking for parking?  Surf the internet while on a conference call and then realize you haven't been listening for the last 5 minutes?  These are examples of the natural limitations of our attention.  Better to give in to these limits and do one thing at a time, well.

Turn your screens off. Turn off your monitor, close your laptop and stop trying to read the headlines or catch up on email while you're on a conference call.  Be on the call.

Stop the dinging, pinging, flashing email alerts. For goodness sake, if you're trying to get focused work done, turn off your email alerts so you aren't getting pulled into whatever shows up in your inbox.  If you have to stay in the loop while you're getting other things done, schedule a 10 minute email break at the end of every hour, or better yet, every 90 minutes.

Remember that multitasking has consequences. Typos in work emails can make a bad impression, a distracted tone of voice can be read as standoffish, and of course texting while driving can lead to accidents.  There are very real costs to trying to push beyond the rather modest limits of our attention.

Next time you are tempted to split your attention between two or more tasks, ask yourself if the email, relationship, or your safety is important enough to you to get your full attention.

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The Regret Minimization Framework

In this short video, Jeff Bezos explains how he decided to leave his cush, stable financial-sector job to start this wild dream called Amazon.com. Bezos' framework is essentially this question: when I'm 80, will I regret not doing this?  He calls it the Regret Minimization Framework. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwG_qR6XmDQ]

I've used this framework (without knowing Mr. Bezos' fancy name for it) to make a few important personal and professional decisions in my life.  As Bezos suggests, I found it helped me leapfrog over anxieties and uncertainties tied to the here-and-now and take a longer view.

Like the warmer/colder test (which is more about the here-and-now), the Regret Minimization Framework is a quick "gut-check" that can help you find clarity as you approach important decisions.  Of course, not everyone's internet start-up is going to turn into Amazon, but Mr. Bezos says that the important thing for him is that he tried (easy for him to say now, a cynic might add).

You can watch the video here (having problems embedding it on my blog, sorry).

What do you think about a regrets-based framework for making important decisions?

Happy National Day of Unplugging!

When was the last time you turned off every beeping personal device  -- phone, email, laptop, iPod -- and were unreachable and untouched by media for a defined period of time?  Does the mere thought of doing this give you hives?

The Jewish nonprofit organization Reboot is suggesting we endure the hives this weekend, declaring a National Day of Unplugging for 24 hours starting at sundown tonight.  In accordance with the Jewish practice of shabbat, or sabbath, Reboot suggest that Jews and non-Jews alike experience what it is like to disconnect from technology and reconnect with the non-technological aspects of life.

Striking a similar chord, Peter Bregman's blog this week at Harvard Business Review focused on unplugging during vacation.   He relates what happened when he completely unplugged during a week-long camping trip in the Grand Canyon:

When I returned to civilization — and a phone — I had over 50 messages. But here's what I found most interesting: the first half of the messages all raised problems that needed to be resolved and the second half were the same people telling me not to worry about the first half because they had resolved the problems on their own.

In this way, unplugging can be an exercise in humility.  Yes, you are important -- but not so important that the world will stop turning if you unplug for a day or a week.

Besides a right-sized ego, what are some of the other benefits of unplugging?

Break the "always available" cycle. At my last job, I made myself available at all times to deal with potential work issues.  This was partly due to a culture (to which I contributed) of emailing among colleagues at all hours of the night and over the weekend. Some of these late-night missives were both important and urgent; most were not. By unplugging even for 24 hours, I was able to temporarily sidestep this dynamic and remind myself that it was okay to not be consumed by work 24/7.

Curb attention-splitting, and focus on the here-and-now. Until I practiced unplugging, I didn't fully realize how much I was splitting my attention between the present moment and a colorful, tiny screen.  Turns out a game of  Scrabble is more pleasurable when I am  not checking text messages during my opponent's turn.

Make smarter decisions. You might consider using your unplugged time to do deep thinking about pressing issues in your life.  Why?  Because being less distracted by technology may actually make you a smarter problem-solver. Check out the results of this UK study on the effects of technological distraction (via David Rock):

Eighty volunteers were asked to carry out problem solving tasks, firstly in a quiet environment and then while being bombarded with new emails and phone calls. Although they were told not to respond to any messages, researchers found that their attention was significantly disturbed.  Alarmingly, the average IQ was reduced by 10 points - double the amount seen in studies involving cannabis users... [further,] ...working amid a barrage of incoming information can reduce a person's ability to focus as much as losing a night's sleep.

Remove a major unconscious time-suck. I lose a lot of time to being online.  For others it may be getting sucked into TV or playing Tetris on their phones.  Often this happens unconsciously -- before we know it, it's been 2 hours in front of the screen.  When I unplug and remove the option of getting sucked into the internet, I feel freer to make more conscious choices about how I spend my time.

Rest and re-envision.  A pause in our normal routines can provide space for rest and reflection. As Mordechai Kaplan wrote,

An artist cannot be continuously wielding his brush.  He must stop at times in his painting to freshen his vision of the object, the meaning of which he wishes to express on his canvas.  Living is also an art.

Good luck unplugging, and reconnecting with the art of living.

Have you unplugged recently?  How did it effect you?

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Make a List. Your Brain Will Thank You.

Lists can literally take things off your mind. Image from www.brainexplorer.org
Last month with my birthday approaching, I sat down and made a list.  Not a list of gifts I wanted, but a list of ways I would like to spend my day:
have coffee and an almond croissant
go to a museum
take a nap
walk around the city
bake something

Though my birthday has passed (I had a great day, and did do a number of things on that list) I've kept the list posted up near my desk.  It serves as a reminder of things that make me happy. I feel happy just looking at it.

Lists can be a vehicle for satisfaction and even joy; they can facilitate focus, relief, and clarity.  (Lists can also stress you out, more on that, and the cardinal rule of list-keeping, later.)  Crossing things off a list is one of life's simple pleasures.

Ever notice how putting something on a list can take it "off your mind"?   There's a neurological basis for this effect.   As David Rock explains in his book Your Brain At Work, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) -- the part of the brain engaged in conscious thought, interaction, and decision-making -- has very limited resources.

Try to hold too many things in your conscious mind at once, and your PFC will become overloaded.  You'll inevitably drop some things and lose track of others.  Thoughts you've already had but failed to do anything about will pop back up at the most inconvenient times.

But externalize those thoughts by making lists, and you will essentially expand your mind. By taking thoughts out of rotation in your PFC and putting them on a list, you will free up precious brain space to have new ideas and make decisions about existing ones.   This is what productivity-guru David Allen means when he says, "your mind is for having ideas, not holding them."

I asked my friends what kinds of lists they keep, and their answers spanned from the mundane (groceries, chores) to the sublime (inspirational ideas, big wishes).  Their lists express both the the need to simply keep moving, and the desire to keep life moving forward.

Here are just some of the lists kept by a handful of my friends:

bike trips
songs I like
business ideas
people to care for in my congregation
thank you notes to write
groceries to buy (staples/specific meals)
bills to pay
chores (as authored by the list-owner's partner)
wish lists for big ideas
things to pack for trips
great movies  I've seen
short-term goals
long-term goals
people I've been meaning to hang out with
master project list
places I want to visit
things I  want to learn
inspiring ideas
things to look forward to

I keep the core Getting Things Done lists: Next Actions, Projects, Waiting For, Someday/Maybe.   I keep store-specific shopping lists and lists of blog post ideas. I've always kept a list of activities that make me happy (much like my birthday list).

I was inspired by blogger Jennifer Ketcham to keep not only this happy list (she calls it a "Hooray" list) but also to keep an "Uh-Oh"list.  Jennifer's "Uh-Oh" list enumerates the signs that she is slipping into a rut; it includes things like letting dishes pile up, watching too many Law & Orders in a row, and letting voicemail go unchecked.  When she notices these things happening, she does what she needs to do to prevent herself from slipping further into this undesired state.

The cardinal rule of list maintenance is this:  Review Often, and Let Things Go. As much joy as lists can bring, when they get stale they will fill you with dread.  Who wants to look at a list of things you once committed to doing but now no longer have the time/resources/desire to do?  Ugh.  If you wanted to learn Spanish a year ago but no longer care to, take "buy Spanish instructional books" off of your daily to-do list.  Move it to a Someday/Maybe list, or erase it altogether.

If your lists feel "heavy" to you -- if there are parts of your lists your eyes skip over or your mind tries to avoid -- this is a good sign that it's time to review your commitments.  Either do it, schedule it to be done, or take it off the list.

What kinds of lists do you keep?  How do you keep your lists fresh and relevant?

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