6 Ways to Stay Focused. Keeping Mind Clutter in Check.

Last week I wrote about physical clutter, this week it’s about interpersonal time suckers in your life.  The force of other people’s priorities into your life to distract you from your true passion.  Someone drops by your office just as you are hitting your stride on a project.  Your boss voluntolds you for a local board that you really aren’t interested in.  The school calls because (according to the rules) your daughter’s skirt is too short and you need to come to the rescue with a potato sack.

Most Human Resource professionals live in a constant state of interruption.  Meetings with Human Resource are rarely scheduled.  There is normally a fire smoldering (or raging out of control) before someone decides to drop by or pick up the phone – do you have a minute?  It’s rarely a minute.   It’s the nature of the beast. index

Someone else’s failure to plan, schedule or otherwise handle an issue can easily leak into your life and weigh you down.  If you want to stay on track to your best work, you need to work on keeping people from treading on you.  Don’t be a doormat. Here’s how:

1. NoSet up some boundaries.  Let your family, friends, and colleagues know where your limit’s are. Business mentor Christine Kane calls this your “Proactive No”.  I’m not available from 9 until 10:30 AM.  I only work with charities that are aligned with my goal of helping disadvantaged children.  I’m always home on the Sunday to be with my family.  I set my schedule according to my son’s wrestling meets.  No television or phone calls during dinner.  I check email and voice mail on the hour. Draw a line in the sand.

2. Barriers.  Shut your door.  Put on some headphones.  Turn off your phone.  Mark out your space.  A colleague of mine used to put police tape across his cubicle when he had an important conference call.  In the book “18 Minutes” by Peter Bregman, the author has prescribed work hours in his home office and his children know that they may not interrupt for any reason.  If the door is shut – don’t interrupt Daddy.  Other barriers can be turning off all alerts for phone, email and text.  I have a little piece of post it note over the place on my monitor where the little envelope shows up when I have email.  Out of sight, out of mind.

3. Cue.  When someone comes in asking if you have a minute – give them a cue.  Mark out a time limit.  I’ve got fifteen minutes.  I have a conference call at 2.  I’m in the middle of a project but I can give you ten minutes.  Give them the parameters before they get started.  This will help them hit the highlights before heading down a long meandering tale of whoa.  If you find out this is bigger than you thought it would be, you might need to stop and quickly reschedule impending appointments.  Being up front will help soften transition back to your own priorities.

4. Delegate. Can someone else do this?  Don’t be the hero.  You do not need to be responsible for everything that comes across your desk or desk top.  I know.  It so much easier to just take care of it yourself.  Especially if you are impatient like me.  You’ve been doing that report for the last 3 years and it only takes you 30 minutes to complete. Training someone else will take at least an hour and they will probably make mistakes the first few times around.  Ugh.  Invest the time and, in the long run, it will pay off in additional hours to spend on what brings you joy in your life.

5. Gossip.  Hanging out at the water cooler isn’t the greatest use of your precious time.  Discussing the latest episode of “Modern Family” or who got kicked off of “Top Chef” is usually a procrastination technique.  Gossiping about Suzy’s new haircut or Joe’s constant lateness can damage your relationships in the long run.  Gee, if Cathy will talk about Joe that way…what is she saying about me behind my back.  More mind clutter.  Your prefontal cortex doesn’t need to be fed that stuff.  Keep the stage clean.

6. Select.  Being more selective about who you hang out with can improve your use of time.  Hanging out with Debbie Downer or Negative Nancy can suck the time and energy out of you.  Being around optimistic folks helps you stay of away from your lizard brain and fueling the flame of fear.  Surround yourself with some carefully selected Pollyanna’s and let them lift you up to your best.  This is advice that I have given my daughter frequently.  When she complains about a “friend” being consistently critical of her actions or associations, I ask – why are you hanging out with this person?  What value are they bringing?

Frequently it’s best to back away and seek out those who will help you stay clutter free.

What would you do?

Be the Lizard Tamer

Breaking habits is tough work.  Whether you want to quit smoking, stop procrastinating or get off the couch, it’s tough row to hoe.   Your amygdala is frequently referred to as your lizard brain and it’s standing in your way.  It’s the oldest part of your brain and where your fear lives.  When you get on a bike for the first time in ten, er, twenty years, your amygdala kicks in and remembers how to ride the bike.  It also brings along all the emotions that go with it.   I remember when I broke my arm at age 13 while riding my bike down Majestic Court with my friend Wendy.  It’s all there – one pedal at a time, balancing, the asphalt, the road rash, the trip to the ER, and the cast on my arm – one big sloppy sack of memory.  And my amygdala is happy to bring it up every time I think about riding a bike.

So every time you try to start a new habit like riding a bike, eating less, or working on projects first thing in the morning, your lizard brain wakes up and tries to put the kabosh on the new habit.  When you wake up the lizard brain, it sends out the fear signals.  Ride a bike? Don’t you remember going to the ER that time? Skip the Krispy Kremes at the breakfast meeting? But I always get a glazed cream filled donut at the finance meeting.  We are on auto pilot and our lizard is leading us down the path.

The good news is there are ways to unplug your auto pilot, tame your lizard and get on the road to renewal:

1. Meditate. Studies have shown that just 5 minutes of meditation a day can increase neuroplasticity and blood flow to your prefrontal cortex in just 8 weeks. This creates greater connections in the brain and improves brain function, especially your prefrontal cortex (where your best work is done!).   The best part is that it decreases the size your amygdala which lowers your stress level.  When your stress is lower, you make better decisions; like skipping the donut and riding the bike instead.

2. Lucky 7.  That is the sweet spot on sleep.  No more, no less.  For optimum cognitive function, you need 7 hours of sleep.  More than 8, and your brain function declines.  Less than 6 and a half and it declines as well.  For better concentration and control of your decision making, it’s best to get seven hours of sleep.  Have you ever had to have a conversation with a teenager after an all nighter?  Nuf said.  Get your lucky 7.

3. HRV.  You want to increase your Heart Rate Variability.  In the book, “The Willpower Instinct” by Dr. Kelly McGonigal, studies have shown that those with a higher HRV can handle anxiety and stress more easily.  They bounce back and get back on track easier.  It’s difficult to change your HRV but quitting smoking, eating a plant based diet, meditation and regular exercise are four proven ways to increase it.  Slow your breathing down to 4 to 6 breaths per minute.  If you can exhale slowly before facing a stressful situation, you will be more resilient.  Angry customer?  Slow your breathing.  Need to resist that cream filled donut?  Slow your breathing.  Take back control.

4. AlcoholEvery time I started smoking again, I was in a bar.  Hmmm.  I wonder why?  Maybe it’s because alcohol was involved.  Alcohol lowers your inhibitions and, of course, lowers your self control.  So if you are working on a new set of habits and want to bolster your self control, put down the martini glass.

5. Exercise.  It just takes 15 minutes a day.  It can take any form you like: window shopping, gardening, walking, p90x, or yoga.  As Dr. McGonigal says all that’s required is that you are able to “answer no to the following two questions: 1. Are you sitting, standing still, or lying down? 2. Are you eating junk food while you do it?”.  Easy.

6. Plan.  Think and plan your habits.  Put your sneakers by the foot of your bed.  Don’t power up your PC until you’ve planned your day.  Schedule your meals for the day in advance.  When you’ve planned it out ahead of time, the new habit becomes a default. I guess I have to run this morning because my sneakers are waiting for me.

7. NoAll willpower starts and ends with No.  You will need to push away from the table, turn down the dessert, shut down your devices, and walk away from facebook.  Start with steps 1 through 6 and your prefrontal cortex will be there to support you when the going gets tough.

It’s also a good idea to take one small step at a time.  Start with the meditating and then build from there.  It takes time and patience to take control of your lizard.  Be the Lizard Tamer.

How have you tamed your lizard?

Burn your doormat.

Last week I wrote about physical clutter, this week it’s about interpersonal time suckers in your life.  The force of other people’s priorities into your life to distract you from your true passion.  Someone drops by your office just as you are hitting your stride on a project.  Your boss voluntolds you for a local board that you really aren’t interested in.  The school calls because (according to the rules) your daughter’s skirt is too short and you need to come to the rescue with a potato sack.

Most Human Resource professionals live in a constant state of interruption.  Meetings with Human Resource are rarely scheduled.  There is normally a fire smoldering (or raging out of control) before someone decides to drop by or pick up the phone – do you have a minute?  It’s rarely a minute.   It’s the nature of the beast.

Someone else’s failure to plan, schedule or otherwise handle an issue can easily leak into your life and weigh you down.  If you want to stay on track to your best work, you need to work on keeping people from treading on youDon’t be a doormat, in fact, I recommend burning it.  Here’s how:

1. NoSet up some boundaries.  Let your family, friends, and colleagues know where your limit’s are. Business mentor Christine Kane calls this your “Proactive No”.  I’m not available from 9 until 10:30 AM.  I only work with charities that are aligned with my goal of helping disadvantaged children.  I’m always home on the Sunday to be with my family.  I set my schedule according to my son’s wrestling meets.  No television or phone calls during dinner.  I check email and voice mail on the hour. Draw a line in the sand.

2. Barriers.  Shut your door.  Put on some headphones.  Turn off your phone.  Mark out your space.  A colleague of mine used to put police tape across his cubicle when he had an important conference call.  In the book “18 Minutes” by Peter Bregman, the author has prescribed work hours in his home office and his children know that they may not interrupt for any reason.  If the door is shut – don’t interrupt Daddy.  Other barriers can be turning off all alerts for phone, email and text.  I have a little piece of post it note over the place on my monitor where the little envelope shows up when I have email.  Out of sight, out of mind.

3. Cue.  When someone comes in asking if you have a minute – give them a cue.  Mark out a time limit.  I’ve got fifteen minutes.  I have a conference call at 2.  I’m in the middle of a project but I can give you ten minutes.  Give them the parameters before they get started.  This will help them hit the highlights before heading down a long meandering tale of whoa.  If you find out this is bigger than you thought it would be, you might need to stop and quickly reschedule impending appointments.  Being up front will help soften transition back to your own priorities.

4. Delegate. Can someone else do this?  Don’t be the hero.  You do not need to be responsible for everything that comes across your desk or desk top.  I know.  It so much easier to just take care of it yourself.  Especially if you are impatient like me.  You’ve been doing that report for the last 3 years and it only takes you 30 minutes to complete. Training someone else will take at least an hour and they will probably make mistakes the first few times around.  Ugh.  Invest the time and, in the long run, it will pay off in additional hours to spend on what brings you joy in your life.

5. Gossip.  Hanging out at the water cooler isn’t the greatest use of your precious time.  Discussing the latest episode of “Mad Men” or who got kicked off of “Big Brother” is usually a procrastination technique.  Gossiping about Suzy’s new haircut or Joe’s constant lateness can damage your relationships in the long run.  Gee, if Cathy will talk about Joe that way…what is she saying about me behind my back.  More mind clutter.  Your prefontal cortex doesn’t need to be fed that stuff.  Keep the stage clean.

6. Select.  Being more selective about who you hang out with can improve your use of time.  Hanging out with Debbie Downer or Negative Nancy can suck the time and energy out of you.  Being around optimistic folks helps you stay of away from your lizard brain and fueling the flame of fear.  Surround yourself with some carefully selected Pollyanna’s and let them lift you up to your best.  This is advice that I have given my daughter frequently.  When she complains about a “friend” being consistently critical of her actions or associations, I ask – why are you hanging out with this person?  What value are they bringing?

Frequently it’s best to back away and seek out those who will help you burn the doormat.

What would you do?

The Big Lie

In addition to being a recovering interrupter, I am also a recovering multitasker.  There was a time, about 15 years ago, when I was a commuter in Northern California, in which I would apply makeup, drink a Venti Mocha, talk on my cell phone AND drive my car between Windsor and Petaluma.   Not too good.  I was under the delusion that I was getting so much accomplished – that I was Super Woman.

As technology exploded in the 90s, there was the imperative to keep 10 balls in the air at one time, and it hasn’t stopped. Dr. David Rock has busted the multitasking myth with his book “Your Brain at Work.” In the book he compares your frontal cortex which is the size of a postage stamp and where you make all your decisions, to a stage in a theater.  And this stage is not the size of Madison Square Garden or even Carnegie Hall.  It’s more like a puppet theater with room for about three hand puppets max.  In Dr. Rock’s analogy, your frontal cortex is being bombarded with actors trying to get on stage.  And the more actors you have on stage, the more your decision-making diminishes.  For each additional task (actor) on stage, the more your performance drops.

Christine Rosen, who wrote the article “The Myth of Multitasking,” agrees with Dr. Rock and says that the result of multitasking is a 10-point drop in IQ or twice the drop as for marijuana users. And we all know that multitasking while driving (you know, like applying make up and talking on your cell phone) is worse than drunk driving.  Tsk, Tsk.

So here are a few steps to bring us back on the road to monotasking:

1. Clear. As in clear all the clutter. I have been letting my magazine subscriptions lapse.  I don’t get the local newspaper anymore.  Set the timer and take 10 minutes to clean out your kitchen junk drawer, your closet or your car.  De-cluttered means less distractions.

2. List.  Close your office door and make a list.  Do a brain dump of everything you want or might want to get done takes a lot of actors out the mix and off your “stage.” If I’m in class and just remembered I need shampoo from the store, that bottle of shampoo is going to sit on my stage (maybe) and trip up my other actors.  Do a brain dump to get it off the stage.  Or better yet, get Wunderlist (a wonderful free app for making and organizing task lists) and put it on your grocery list.

3. Focus. This is the hard part.  Pay attention to the task at hand.  If you are on a conference call and start going through your email; you are not listening.  You are reading email.  If reading email is more important, then hang up the phone.  If the conference call is more important, then shut down the email.  You are going to have to start making choices.  So choose.

4. No.  You’re going to have to do it.  Turn off the TV.  Send it to voice mail.  Don’t go to the conference.  Get off the committee.  I can see you rolling your eyes but it’s true.  Just because you can check email 24/7 doesn’t mean you have to.  The world will still be there tomorrow.  Just say NO.

5. Imperfection.  Do it imperfectly at first.  It’s OK.  It’s fine if you back slide a little.  Small messy steps are more important than no steps.  There is going to be that phone call you were waiting for as you’re driving north on 101.  Maybe you can pull over and take it.  Maybe you can explain and call them back later.  Don’t beat yourself up.

The fact that you’re aware and trying will help you make more effective and smarter decisions.  Sometimes a shampoo bottle will come rolling onto the stage.  It’s OK.

Are you putting your best cast on the stage or is it full of shampoo bottles?

What if you just said “No”?

I’m not sure why, but I have been the trigger person for most of my career.  The gunslinger brought in to say, No.  Human Resource professionals are frequently referred to as The Fashion Police (that skirt is too short), The Personal Hygiene Moderator (deodorant is a necessity), Policy Patrol (insubordination IS grounds for termination) and, worst of all, the b-word.  So why can’t everyone else draw a line in the sand? I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve asked myself that.  They are in avoidance

It’s so much easier to bring someone else in to say No.  You can stay at arm’s length, point the finger and, in essence, say, “This wasn’t my decision”.  Let someone else be the trigger person and stay clear of the wake.

Try taking a giant step forward and say No. Here are the reasons why you should:

1. Respect.  People pay attention to those who pull the trigger once in a while.  You earn the reputation for being someone who has a backbone and stands up for their principles.  People want you on their team when they know you can be counted on to make the tough decisions even if they are unpopular.

2. Honest.  We’ve all known people who are brown-noses.  How many corporate projects have you been party to that went in the wrong direction because no one in the crowd wanted to say No.  Earning the reputation for being candid takes a few No sayings. I’m not advocating just blurting out No but a well-polished, properly crafted No will increase your authenticity.

3. Less Bunkum.  I had to look up that one up in the thesaurus to keep this polite.  When you get the promotional phone calls for a vacation getaway; don’t hang up.  Say No and take my number off your list.  Disingenuous people stay away from No sayers.  They move on to fawn over someone else who doesn’t mind swimming in bunkum.

4. Relief.  Unresolved conflict can fester.  Be the one to step forward and make the decision.  Do you really want to be up at 3 AM worrying about how you tell the PTA that you want off the committee?  When you have given that well-crafted No; you’ll be sleeping like a baby.

5. Empowerment.  Saying No is gratifying.  You can look yourself in the mirror and know that you stood up for something; you stood up for your beliefs.  It might have been difficult (it almost always is uncomfortable…messy even) but once you get past the No, your self confidence will be rebooted.

6. Culture.  No one likes co-workers who get away with clocking in late, not pulling their weight, constantly stepping over the line that no one else would dare to cross.  That crowd; the group at large.  They are rooting for you.  They want you to pull the trigger.  Be the gunslinger for the 95% who are pulling their weight.  Raise the tide for the culture of your company.

It’s not easy.  But you need to do it.  Be the go-to gunslinger.  Everyone is waiting for you to be a No sayer.  Draw a line in the sand.