Effective habits delivered fast

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In the late 1980s Stephen R Covey wrote a book about personal change. It’s highly rated.  Sold a lot of copies.

But The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is nearly 400 pages long. If that’s off-putting, try this video summary. It lasts less than seven minutes. It might provoke you to read the book. Even if it doesn’t, you’ll have heard some ideas worth thinking about. Good use of time. Win-win.


Concentration doesn’t help creativity

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Are you one of those people who has their most creative ideas in the bath?

Or perhaps you’ll find yourself in the middle of a conversation about something else completely and the solution to a long-standing problem pops into your head.

Why is this?

The simple answer is that concentration and focus are great for some types of activity, such as adding rows of figures or editing a text. But to be creative, brains need to relax.

Unfortunately, most people don’t know this and beat their brains up trying harder and harder to be creative and not getting the result they want.

Later, when all focus and concentration have been abandoned and they’ve given up trying – zap! Into their heads, swiftly and easily, slide the brilliant ideas or the amazing solutions.

It’s not so much the bath, the shower or the particular conversation that triggers the result. It’s just the fact that you’ve given your creative brain the space it needs to work at its best. You’ve taken your highly-conscious, analytical, logical brain off the task, and given the more creative, imaginative part of the brain a chance to work at a deeper, less-conscious level of awareness.

This knowledge is used by businesses that rely on a high level of creative input from their staff. Companies like Google and Apple, for example, have created work spaces and working regimes which allow creative brains to work at their best. They offer aesthetically pleasing spaces which promote calm and relaxation. Time restrictions and requirements are reduced to a minimum.

So, if your brain seems empty of new ideas and just won’t play, or you’re eating away at the same old problem with no result, just stop trying. Take yourself off and do something that is relaxing or enjoyable—or both—and hand over responsibility to your creative, inner brain.

It will deliver the goods when you least expect it.

Your brain needs bite-sized chunks

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When your life’s at its busiest, your brain seems to fill up with task after task, issue after issue, list after list.

Soon, you’ve so many things on your mind that you can’t recall them all, and being forgetful becomes another thing to deal with. Then you worry. You worry that you have too many things on your mind, and then you feel anxious all the time – so you worry about how anxious you feel….and so on.

It isn’t so much that you have a lot of things in your life, it’s the feelings you have about them that cause the common sense of overwhelm so many people carry around.

Now, serious anxiety needs a proper therapeutic approach, but this to-do list anxiety responds very well to “chunking”.

Here’s an example of an exercise that management trainers use to demonstrate how the brain prefers chunking or categorising information.

A room of people is split into four groups. They are asked to work together to list as many types of bird as they can think of in two minutes. Three of the four groups work hard, racking their brains to randomly recall birds from their collective memories. They come up with a decent score of between 40 and 60 birds.

The fourth group however, was given something extra – a set of headings:

  • Water birds
  • Garden birds
  • Caged birds
  • Birds of prey
  • Flightless birds
  • Swimming birds
  • Sea birds
  • Exotic birds

This group named 150 birds in two minutes – their brains recalling information so much more easily once it could be chunked into categories.

So, if you are suffering from a busy head, try using the same principle. Stop trying to remember everything, or work from one long meandering to-do list.  Instead, sit down and calmly “chunk” your life/work. You can write down headings and sub-headings. If you like diagrams you might prefer to be more creative.

It doesn’t really matter how you do it – the important thing is to give your brain something it can manage.

Starting with the “super headings”. For example:

  • Home
  • Work
  • Personal

works for some people.

  • Little things
  • Medium things
  • Large things

works for others.

  • Tasks
  • Projects
  • Problems

might help in a work context.

It’s important to choose categories that work for you. You can then chunk into smaller categories. Home might be further broken down into

  • Kids
  • House
  • Relationship
  • Money

And Kids might be broken down further into

  • School
  • Home
  • Activities
  • Friends

You will be surprised how much more in control you feel when you take the time ut to do this. The amount of things to do or think about in your life remains the same, but ordering them into chunks enables your brain to cope and to recall things so much more easily.

And when your brain can cope, anxiety reduces and that feeling of overwhelm disappears.

As time goes by

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I laughed out loud the first time I saw a sequence in a Young Ones sit-com where a character, Mike, checks his watch. As he does so, another says, “Gosh, is that the time?” To which Mike replies, “No, time is an abstract concept. This is a wristwatch”.

There’s wisdom in pedantic jokes. Time is an abstract concept. It’s really hard to get your head round. It doesn’t behave as you expect it to. Sometimes it flies, sometimes it drags. You can’t do anything to stop it, slow it or store it. It just goes on its merry, invisible, intangible way—an abstract concept quite out of reach. We know what it is, but like other abstract contracts—truth or beauty, say— we go to pieces if we try to define it.

Which puts a big question mark over the idea of trying to manage it. You wouldn’t try to manage beauty or truth. What makes anyone think they can manage time?

It’s a lot easier to manage things that are concrete. Change the vocabulary to something more tangible and you have something to work with. On the way you will have clarified something important.

That’s why I always encourage people I work with to push beyond “issues with time management” as a description. I ask for something more precise, something related to the individual and their activities. Once we’ve begun talking about workload management, or task management, relationships management or energy levels management, we’ve something concrete and coherent to work with. Keep abstract notions for the sit-coms.