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4 strategies to turn your brain from distraction to action

Life has become one constant distraction after another, threatening productivity of every one of us, but these non-traditional methods help rewire your brain.

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You are struggling to focus like the rest of us. How do I know? Because you are reading this article… which you probably found through Twitter, Facebook, and/or the AGBeat site directly. It’s okay. You aren’t alone, and in this particular case, you are making good use of your time (as opposed to the multiple entertaining minutes I spent looking at sleepy babies on BuzzFeed today).

As I started my own business, I was forced to research, study, and ask as many people as possible how they have successfully won the battle that wages for our attention. The reality is that most haven’t – our culture is drowning in a sea of distraction. Studies reveal that we are interrupted every three minutes during work and it takes us 23 minutes on average to get back to the original task. The real kicker is that more than half of the distractions were completely self-inflicted.

Four non-traditional strategies

To add onto what we’ve previously outlined, here are four non-traditional strategies to leverage the way your brain is wired to move distraction into action.

1. More trees. Less brick.
Hang with me here. This is about to get crazy.

You know when you are completely unable to concentrate due to mental fatigue? Psychologists studied people just like you at that very moment. Group A then took a short walk through a busy downtown. Group B walked through various natural environments (parks, etc). Guess what happened? Group A’s walk did not help them at all upon returning to work, but Group B received significantly better results in their ability to focus on key tasks.

Even reviewing photos of nature can have the same effect, according to the Attention Restoration Theory. If your mind is in a constant state of chaos, review photos of nature, or take a walk through the local park. Your work will benefit.

2. Start by prioritizing your priorities
Your pre-frontal cortex is in large part the area of your brain responsible for focus. It’s an amazing muscle, but it’s a muscle that tires easily. Every time you actively push away a distraction, you are sapping resources that will reduce your ability to effectively do it the next time.

The solution? Start your day by setting your priorities, from the most mentally draining to the least, rather than on the basis of who wants a response fastest. Put the most mentally draining work at the early part of the day (assuming you don’t have a hangover). 

Fight to keep the first two hours of work sacred. Ask for meetings to be later in the day so you don’t have your most precious mental resource robbed by a boss or colleague droning on about a subject that means nothing to you (probably using PowerPoint in a way that would make me want rip the projector’s power plug out of the wall).

3. Move the calendar front and center
Simon Reynolds, a friend and bestselling author of the book ‘Why People Fail’ offered this to me, and it’s been game changing.

While prioritized task lists are a huge step up from the ‘let my newest email tell me what’s important’ strategy, it’s not enough. Take your priorities and assign time chunks to cover each one. Your calendar, rather than your inbox or task list should now be the primary ‘screen’ on your computer.

As I use Google Calendars, I literally watch as the redline slides down my screen, reminding me that I am running out of time on this task before I must move to the next. For example, I have seven more minutes dedicated to finishing this article.

This causes my brain to release the right concoction of chemicals/neurotransmitters to work like I can’t procrastinate any more- I’m up against a tight deadline. Plus, I am leveraging what Jonah Berger calls game mechanics (or why I can’t quit you, Candy Crush!?).

4. Warm up the muscle
According to the last two rules, I should probably punt email and web surfing until I have completed the mentally exhausting tasks of my day. But what if something crazy has happened in the world?! Think of all the people who might have emailed or commented on my Facebook post? My social status and craving for stimulation is just too much to ignore after hours of being deprived due to my body’s ridiculous demand for sleep.

I have found that a short warm up lap is exactly what I need before I dive into a full day of mental Crossfit. I get my daily Texas Rangers updates, check out my inbox, take a shot of coffee, then get to the work of setting the day’s priorities. The key? I limit my time to a ten minute warm-up. The bell goes off and the sprints and metaphorical burpees begin.

The battle for attention

We are in a cultural  battle for attention with a built-in faulty set of brain wiring. I have found these strategies to be particularly valuable for me. If you’ve read this far, odds are high you are in the top one percent in your focus skills. If you don’t mind, take one more minute to offer your solutions in the comments below.

Curt Steinhorst loves attention. More specifically, he loves understanding attention. How it works. Why it matters. How to get it. As someone who personally deals with ADD, he overcame the unique distractions that today’s technology creates to start a Communications Consultancy, The Promentum Group, and Speakers Bureau, Promentum Speakers, both of which he runs today. Curt’s expertise and communication style has led to more than 75 speaking engagements in the last year to organizations such as GM, Raytheon, Naval Academy, Cadillac, and World Presidents’ Organization.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Sacha Joubert

    July 17, 2013 at 5:59 pm

    Great advice! I love the idea of seeing the red line moving, counting down the time. Now that’s very motivating!

  2. Michael Bray

    July 19, 2013 at 11:45 am

    Do you realize how ridcuosly difficult it was to actually read straight through tbis wonderful article without clicking on all of the enticing links!? I am proud to say “I Did It” thanks to ….this wonderful article. When I went back through I only ended up clicking one link. Less loss of focus, but more rehab is still indicated! Sorry, gotta go…

  3. doodlebug2222

    August 4, 2013 at 3:17 am

    I arrive to work early so I can review things from the day before to ensure I closed them out properly. I use Outlook to mark and categorize mail that comes in, I teach persons that send me incoming mail to ensure they have a “request for action” less I will consider it a FYI instead.

    I also insist on email requests and refuse to take them over the phone, and I do not allow “parking” in my office or “question and answer time” w/o a 30 minute-1 hour meeting > which is also never counter as “request time”. They still need to make a formal request via email for the purpose of being tracked.
    I have a shared calendar (SharePoint) and I echo my availability for meetings as well as times I block out and have no meetings – no disturbances.

    I listen to music, close my office door almost all of the way shut and when persons do come into try to park or unofficially meet, I am kind and indicate I have a hard deadline I am trying to meet and can they send me a meeting invite so we can discuss it at length and I can then give them my undivided attention and I had them a request form so they can jot down if this is an official request.

    Yes I insisist on all requests being on paper.. and I ensure it follows a specific format so all necessary information is there. This is to be sure what they are requesting is captured, completed and tracked.

    My days go smoother – less distractions and everyone understands I can pull out old requests they made months ago if they need it… so.. they begin to see verbal requests are… a bit more shakey to work with and recall later. Fact is – I keep control and in this, I control my time and of course distractions.

  4. Pingback: Procrastination expert shares advice on overcoming procrastination - The American Genius

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How the Lean concept can have the biggest impact on your bottom line

(BUSINESS) Using the Lean business concept and asking the non-sexy question of “What’s dumb around here?” your business will outpace your competitors in no time.

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Entrepreneurs love solving problems. That’s what they’re good at doing. In fact, the more complex, difficult and messy the problem, the more the entrepreneur will enjoy the challenge. Entrepreneurs are especially good at solving problems that nobody knew were there. Think about Steve Jobs: He knew that we needed a pocket MP3 player before we even knew what it was.

While entrepreneurs are coming up with the next “big” thing, we need the non-entrepreneurs in our organizations focused on solving the small problems in our company with the same enthusiasm. Imagine if every one of your team members were consistently looking for opportunities to improve your systems, processes and service delivery. Those subtle changes made in the non-sexy parts of the business usually have the biggest impact on the bottom line.

This is a business concept called Lean, in which a company changes their processes to create the most benefit to the customer using the least amount of resources possible. Lean is commonly used in the manufacturing industry, but its principles can be used in any business to change the way of thinking and doing things.

I recently witnessed a great example of how Lean principles were used to improve one of my clients, LuminUltra – a leading provider of microbiological testing hardware, software and services. The company serves industries that need to know quickly and accurately what’s living in their water. At a recent quarterly planning session at the LuminUltra offices in Fredericton, Canada, COO Charlie Younger shared a powerful story about the company’s manufacturing facility and challenging the status quo.

During the expansion of the company’s manufacturing facility, one of the team members was lamenting to Charlie about how much time it took to complete a lengthy step of the manufacturing process – one specific quality check that was very time-consuming. He remarked that in the history of the company they never had a single machine fail the test. Charlie’s first thought was, do they even need to perform this specific test again?

After more discussion with colleagues, the team realized that the other quality checks performed earlier in the manufacturing process would always identify a defective unit. With this knowledge, the manufacturing team asked for permission to perform minimal testing to still provide assurance with less work. When presented with the information, the company leadership agreed that it was a great idea and would save time and money as well as improve the employee experience. But the bigger question was: Why hadn’t anyone ever questioned this lengthy step of the manufacturing process before?

Charlie, having run Lean programs in the past, has seen this issue before: People continue to do what they’ve always done even if they think there is a better way. He thought this would be a great opportunity to use a fun, simple but elegant technique to capture other status quo breakers – in other words, he decided to use the same principles for changing the company’s production process to make other company decisions.

With that, he posted a whiteboard in the manufacturing room with the title “What’s Dumb Around Here?” and encouraged team members to capture possible “dumb things” to add to it. These topics are discussed and vetted during their Lean process meetings to determine if they can be improved.

When I discussed the new process with Charlie, he noted, “First, you have to create an environment where people are willing to question the status quo. We have always been highly focused on quality and accuracy, so the team thought it was outrageous to openly question a quality check we had been performing for years.”

He continued, “You have to help your management team be open to receiving ideas that might seem crazy and not overreact to the suggestions. Instead, simply ask them to explain their logic. More often than not, the front line knows a better way to do things but does not know how to navigate the change. The beauty of using Lean techniques is that you now have an easy navigation path to discuss, approve and roll out changes. Suddenly, you have an energized front line solving problems with minimal involvement from management – how great is that?”

While LuminUltra continues to grow their product line and expand into new markets, it expects that its implementation of Lean principles will help it make subtle but important modifications to processes that will positively affect its bottom line. The CEO, Pat Whalen, remarked, “If we can produce our products faster and more cost effectively and get them into the hands of our customers faster, we can have an even bigger impact on the water sector with our microbiological monitoring products. I need all of our team members thinking how we can improve every single day. The water sector needs us.”

Every visionary, big-thinking entrepreneur needs a team that challenges the status quo. How are you encouraging your team members to identify, “What’s Dumb Around Here?”

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The 7 communication hurdles stifling your company’s efficiency

(BUSINESS NEWS) Whether communication is too little or too much, or delivered poorly, every company has room for improvement.

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company communication

One of the biggest sources of inefficiency in your company is going to be communication. It underlies almost every productive action within your business, whether it’s conveying instructions to a subordinate or disclosing your results to a client or investor; accordingly, even a small inefficiency in your lines of communication can result in a major loss of time/money.

Fortunately, knowing the key hurdles to effective communication—and learning to overcome them—can help you smooth out these problem areas and build a more efficient business.

How Communication Affects Your Efficiency

Ultimately, your business’s efficiency is impacted in three key ways:

  1. Message accuracy. If you convey the wrong information, or the right information in a confusing way, it can lead to errors and misunderstandings.
  2. Time consumption. Every message you send and receive is going to cost time from both the sender and recipient. If that time is excessive, it could result in waste.
  3. Cost. You also need to consider what you’re paying for your communication solutions, and whether each solution is worth it.

The Biggest Hurdles

These effects tend to manifest in response to these seven major hurdles:

1. Obsolete or unreliable tech. If you’re trying to save money by relying on old devices, or platforms that haven’t been upgraded in years, it could have a substantial negative impact on how you communicate. You might experience delays when making phone calls, missed messages in your chat logs, or a serious lack of mobility. Thankfully, making upgrades can make most of these problems go away. For example, investing in newer devices can dramatically improve your connection speeds and mobility, and switching VOIP providers can be a relatively easy transition to prevent delays and hiccups from interfering with your phone calls.

2. A lack of clear communication standards. How are your managers expected to relay instructions to subordinates? How are your subordinates expected to communicate progress to managers? How are your meeting recap emails supposed to be structured? If you aren’t sure of these answers, it’s a sign that you don’t have clear communication standards within your business. Formally documenting these expectations can keep communication clear and consistent for all your employees, in virtually all areas.

3. Inefficient modes of communication. If your employees aren’t using communication mediums correctly, it can also lead to problems. For example, if they frequently call meetings that could have been communicated in the span of a single email, it could waste hours of company time. If they use email instead of having a conversation over the phone, it could lead to confusion and unanswered questions. Each type of communication requires a different approach.

4. Departmental silos. Another major problem is departmental silos, which can make communication more difficult or nonexistent between two groups of people within the company. These silos tend to develop when different departments have different standards and expectations for communication, and when those departments rarely intermingle. You can correct this by integrating your departments more frequently, and getting everyone on the same standards for communication.

5. Unstructured meetings. Meetings are a major source of time waste in companies, since they involve many people at the same time, and often recur on a consistent basis. All your meetings should have a designated leader to keep the meeting on track, a specific intention or goal, and a time restriction to keep things tight and concise.

6. Poor listening. Listening is a vital skill for effective communication — and we aren’t doing enough of it. Too often in business environments, participants in a meeting or conversation are more focused on talking than listening, but listening is more effective for understanding and collaboration. To develop better listening skills, avoid distractions (like checking your smartphone during a conversation), allow time for the other person to speak, and use active listening tactics, like rephrasing what you’re hearing.

7. Overload. Too much communication can be a bad thing. If your employees are sending emails back and forth constantly, or if you’re paying for so many communication apps that you can’t keep track of them, it’s only going to result in confusion. In many ways, fewer, more concise messages are superior modes of communication than message bombardment—and you’ll pay less if you have fewer apps to worry about.

If you can overcome these seven significant communication hurdles, you can make your business far more efficient. While some of these changes may take a few weeks to settle in, others may grant you a positive change immediately — so inspect your company’s internal and external communication, and work hard to make things as streamlined as possible.

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Remote work program offers $10K, free coworking, free housing

(BUSINESS NEWS) Remote workers are being lured out of tech cities, but will they stay gone for long?

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Although Amazon’s new HQ announcement has the internet world clamoring about the utility of recruiting companies, the mid-size city of Tulsa, Oklahoma is also making headlines. Only, it is forgoing the act of wooing corporations entirely and focusing on the new workforce of remote and freelance professionals.

Oklahoma isn’t the only place to pursue this kind of idea. Vermont announced a similar program earlier this year, where they’ll pay enterprising individuals $5,000 a year for two years to find a home among the Green Mountains with a state-sponsored grant.

Tulsa is offering a new program called Tulsa Remote that will pay remote workers $10,000 to relocate to the city and work for a year, in hopes of attracting young talent. Those selected have the option to live in a furnished apartment with discounted rent for the first few months of the program and have free access to a coworking space with other new Oklahomans.

As the cost of living continues to rise in many tech-savvy cities like Austin, Seattle, and San Francisco, more and more workers may end up looking to programs like these. Not only to help ease the transitional pain of moving to a place that can offer them more bang for their buck, but for the built-in community of other digital nomads that they offer.

It will be interesting to see how this remote-recruitment trend develops, especially in the Midwest.

Employment opportunities are only one of the many reasons that rural areas experience brain drain; there are social forces surrounding deeply rooted conservative politics that often drive young populations to seek more open-minded locales.

The basic premise behind these remote-recruitment programs seems to be that once these highly skilled technical workers get a taste of smaller-town America that they won’t want to go back to the megacities that they came from. In order to fully turn these transplants into locals, these smaller cities and states will have to consider the true quality of life that they are offering.

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