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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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Business News

So you were asked an illegal question in an interview, now what?

(BUSINESS NEWS) Interviews are nerve racking enough without having to wonder if your potential employer is playing by the rules. Be aware of these tips in case you find they aren’t.

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Interviews are universally nerve-wracking. You’ve got the resume, the references, the outfit – but you never know what your interviewer(s) are going to throw at you.

You expect questions relating to your skills and your ability to do the job, but sometimes a question comes out of left field and you’ve got to scramble for a coherent answer.

“If you were a pizza delivery man, how would you benefit from scissors,” asks Apple. And Gallup wants to know, “What was the last gift you gave someone?”

Well, when I ordered a pizza last night, I tipped the delivery person with scissors . . .

Unfortunately, some questions that seem just wacky, or harmless and friendly, are not just inappropriate to ask in an interview, but are actually illegal.

Illegal questions are generally those that request information irrelevant to the job description. Here are the most common categories of illegal questions, shared across all states:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Sex/Gender/Orientation
  • Military discharge
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Birthplace
  • Age
  • Disability/Health status
  • Marital/family status

Any of this personal information could be used, intentionally or not, to discriminate against them. A direct inquiry regarding any of these topics is obviously off-limits, but sometimes the question might come from a tricky angle.

“When did you graduate college?” = “How old are you?”

With this information, employers could decide you’re too young or old for the role, no matter how qualified you may be.

“Orizaga is an interesting surname – is it Spanish?” = “Are you Hispanic?” A biased interviewer could use this information to determine that you are or aren’t a “good fit.” Similarly, “Is English your native language?” = “Are you from an English-speaking country or not?”

“Is that your maiden name?” = “Are you married?” And so on.

These questions are often asked innocently, by untrained interviewers looking to make conversation. Nonetheless, you don’t have to answer them, and your best bet is to tactfully avoid the question without demanding your constitutional rights in the middle of the interview.

Tone is everything, but if you respond to an illegal question with something along the lines of, “Is that relevant to this role?” in a calm, mild voice, most interviewers will take the hint and move on.

If the situation allows for it, you can keep your answer nice and vague without avoiding the question.

For example, if you’re asked about your college graduation date, you could say, “It’s been a while, but I still view college as one of the best experiences of my life.”

It’s important to note that asking an illegal question is not equivalent to committing a crime. The information must be used in a discriminatory manner, as determined by a court.

If you believe that an act of discrimination has been committed, you should contact a labor attorney, or file a charge with your local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) office. Then, order yourself a pizza and ask the delivery person about their scissors.

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Business News

10 time tracking tools for productive freelancers, entrepreneurs

(PRODUCTIVITY) We’re all obsessed with squeezing more out of each day, but what if we used one of these time tracking tools to inject more chill time into our lives?

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Part of today’s culture is seeing how much one can get done in a day. We’re always so “go, go, go” and we treasure productivity.

This is incredibly true for freelancers, and, as such, it makes total sense that app and software technology would capitalize on this need. The following apps and programs are designed to help you save time and/or increase productivity.

1. Timeular: This app is designed to visually show you how you spend your time and, as a result, become more productive. Instead of wondering where your time goes every day, you’ll see it visually. This is done through a physical time tracker, where you can define what you want to track and customize your Tracker. You then connect via Bluetooth and place the Tracker face up with the task that you are working on (if you’re taking a phone call, the symbol facing up would be a phone). It then tracks all of your tasks into a color-coded visualization of the day’s activities. Dangerous for people like me who waste a lot of time on Instagram…

2. Bonsai: This bad boy is time tracking for freelancers. You can break down each project and track time individually in order to see where your time is going and how much is being spent on each entity. You then are able to automate invoices based on the time spent. Genius!

3. Tasks Time Tracker: Say that three times fast. This is a phone app that has multiple timers so you can track more than one thing at a time. This app gives you the option to input billing rates to easily track your earning. You can then export all of the info in a CSV format.

4. Azendoo: Everything in one place. This is a time-tracking service that assists your team’s needs and workflow. It puts project organization, team collaboration, and time reporting all in one place. A cool feature on this is you can input how much time you anticipate spending on a project, and then Azendoo compares that to how much time you actually spent.

5. Continuo: Similar to Timeular, you get to see all of your activities in a color-coded format on a calendar. This lets you easily breakdown how much time is spent on each activity and allows you to plan for the future. You are able to see your progress over time, and see how you’ve gotten faster and more productive.

6. PadStats: Described as “a simple app will help you to learn more about yourself”, PadStats will help you track and analyze your daily activities or daily routine. This app includes more quanity-based tracking, allowing data to be more user-oriented and stats to be more accurate.

7. Pomo Timer: This productivity boosting app is a “Simple and convenient pomodoro timer based on the technique proposed by Francesco Cirillo in the distant 1980s made in a simple and clear design,” according to iTunes. For those who like visually simplicity, this app is for you.

8. Blue Cocoa: This program overturns the stigma of a smartphone being a distraction, by turning it into a productivity tool. You start by creating a timer and working on something, and, if you get distracted, the timer senses this and tries to help. This is all in an effort to keep you on track of your task, while tracking the time spent.

9. Timely: A fully automatic time app. This features automatic time tracking, project time management, and team time management. It works to improve timesheet accuracy, increase project profitability, and optimize team performance.

10. Toggl: This is a simple time tracker that offers flexible and powerful reporting. It works to crunch numbers that you’ll need for reporting, all while syncing between all of your devices.

Pick one or two of the above ten, and reclaim your time. No need to “go, go, go,” if you’re a more productive person – this way you can “chill, chill, chill.”

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Business News

This fake company weeds out crappy clients

(BUSINESS) The former CEO of Highrise used a fake website to weed out toxic clients. How can you keep problematic customers out of your business?

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Sorting through your client list to weed out potentially toxic customers isn’t a process which garners the same attention as a company removing problematic employees, but it’s every bit as important — and, in many cases, twice as tricky to accomplish. One innovative journalist’s solution to this problem was to set up a fake website to act as a buffer between unwanted clients and his inbox.

If you’re anything like Nathan Kontny, your inbox is probably brimming with unread emails, product pitches, and pleas from people with whom you’ve never met in person or collaborated; unfortunately, many of these “people” are simply automated bots geared toward generating more press for their services.

Nathan’s response to this phenomenon was to create a website called “Trick a Journalist” in order to see which potential clients would sign up for the service.

Hilariously enough, the trap worked exactly as planned. Anyone signing up for Trick a Journalist was blacklisted and prevented from signing up for Nathan’s CRM software, with Nathan’s justification being that the CRM software in question should never be used for something so egregiously predatory as Trick a Journalist.

By creating a product which sets apart unwanted clients from the rest of the pack, Nathan succeeded in both attracting and quarantining present and future threats to the integrity of his business.

While this model may not be practicable at face value, there’s an important lesson here: determining the lengths to which your clients will go to gain the upper hand BEFORE working for them is an important task, as your clients’ actions will reflect upon your product or services either way.

Ruthlessness in business isn’t unheard of, but you should be aware of your customers’ tendencies well in advance of signing off on their behavior.

Of course, one minor issue with Nathan’s model of operation is that, invariably, someone will connect Trick a Journalist to his brand and miss the joke entirely.

There are less risky routes to weeding out potentially problematic clients than blacklisting them via a satirical website — though one might argue such routes are less fun — but the end result is essentially the same: keeping unsavory clients out of your inbox and off of your product list.

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