Ready to Boost Your Productivity? There’s an App for That!

As I write this, I’m listening to some special sounds that help me keep my focus on my work and boost good productivity habits. All I have to do is put on my headphones, adjust the settings to my liking and touch the play button on an app installed on my smartphone. You might be surprised to learn these special tones are not my favorite music, sounds from nature or even recorded affirmations urging me to keep going, but are a particular kind of high tech sound known as binaural beats.

Binaural beat technology is becoming increasingly popular and is used in a variety of ways; by students and writers to focus and develop good work and productivity habits, by people who suffer from anxiety to help alleviate distress, by people who want to learn to meditate without practising for years and by others who just crave the sense of peace and well being this new technology can bring. And all delivered without the sometimes dangerous side effects of drugs or alcohol. Plus, this technology is extremely inexpensive.

Sound too good to be true? Let me assure you, the benefits are real, as illustrated by this study from the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Plus there are a variety of excellent binaural beat apps from which to choose. But first, let’s talk for a moment about this technology and how it works. As it turns out, as remarkable as this technology is, it works by using a fascinating and little known attribute of your brain, namely the brain’s ability to manufacture a ‘third tone’ in response to hearing sounds of two different frequencies played separately in each ear.

This third tone, produced entirely by your brain, is only audible to you and no one else. And here’s something even more fascinating: research has shown that your brainwave frequencies and your state of mind are closely related. For instance, if you are deeply asleep, your brain will produce delta waves which have a frequency from 0.5 to 4 Hertz (Hz). If you are awake, but you are resting and in a relaxed, almost meditative state, your brain will produce waves at the 8 to 13 Hz frequency. And when you are wide awake and fully alert, which is exactly the state you want to achieve to be your most productive, your brainwaves are characterized by beta frequencies ranging from 14 to 30 Hz. But unless you are a Tibetan monk, it’s unlikely you are trained to produce these beta frequencies, or any of the other brainwave frequencies, on command.

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Here’s where this new technology comes into play. Whenever you are about to start a task that demands your sustained concentration, such as writing, just grab your smartphone, open your favorite binaural beat app, choose the concentration mode and adjust the settings to your preference. Then put on your headphones, press the play button on the app and turn your attention to your task. Your brain will produce the beta frequency automatically in response to the tones and keep you pleasantly focused on your work.

Almost all of the binaural beat apps let you pick your favorite background sounds, such as crashing ocean waves, gentle rain, a rolling thunderstorm or even pink noise. You can adjust the volume so the actual ‘beat’ of the tones underneath the background sound is minimal or, if you like hearing the beats come though as I do, then just dial up the volume. Also, you will probably want to experiment with different settings as well as different apps, as what works well for me may not be to your liking.

There are many companies that do an excellent job at producing binaural beat apps. For boosting my productivity and focus I really like the apps from Banzai Labs, such as Sharp Mind, which has a menu of productivity programs such as Concentration Boost (my favorite!), Problem Solving, Brainstorming, Creative Thinking and others.

Binaural beat technology is not just useful for increasing your productivity but is also very effective at helping you get into deep meditative states as well as helping you get to sleep. AmbiScience is a good company to try for these purposes. I particularly like their Power Sleep and Nap app for help in the sleep area and their Brain Power app for meditation. Banzai Labs also has another app called Altered States (don’t let the ‘woo woo’ name stop you!) that has some great meditation presets and even some settings to induce dreams.

So the next time you find yourself not being able to settle down and get to work, or you just can’t seem to focus on the task at hand, try one of these apps with their binaural beat technology to improve your focus and concentration.

I’d love to hear what you think about this technology, particularly how these apps have affected your concentration and productivity habits. Just leave me your thoughts in the comments below!

First Impressions Count

If you have an upcoming interview, first date, networking event, or are meeting a client or someone new for the first time—you will want to make a lasting first impression. The average person, consciously or subconsciously, forms their opinion of you in just seconds. Here is how to make every second count.

The Importance Of Looking Presentable

Being authentic must always be a priority, but it’s also important to be suitably dressed for the occasion at hand. The key is to be dressed appropriately, in clothing that is both comfortable and figure-flattering. Also, look for colors that complement your skin tone and clothing that simply makes you feel more confident when you put it on. This is a good time to bring out that navy pinstriped suit that always looks and feels great on you.

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Body Language Speaks Volumes

Your posture, stance, eye contact, facial expressions, and fidgeting (or lack of) all send messages to those around you. One of the best ways to prepare for a meeting or event you are nervous about is to do mirror work. This might feel uncomfortable at first, but is an excellent way to see yourself as others do. Stand in front of a full-length mirror and practice your interview questions or initial greeting. If you have no full-length mirror, your bathroom mirror will do. Be kind to yourself in this process – it’s not about coming across as perfect.  The goal is to deliver body language that is confident, calm, and competent.

Be Authentic

The thing to remember when meeting someone for the first time is that you want to be you. When you invest energy in trying to be whom you think your client, date, or other half’s friends and family want you to be, it you can come across as insincere. Inauthenticity is also a leading cause of fidgeting, nervous sweating, and being unsure of what to say next.  Remember, no one can do you as well as you can.

No More Awkward Silences

First and foremost, silence isn’t always a bad thing—so don’t feel pressured to fill every second with conversation. You do, however, want to do your homework before you arrive. If meeting with a potential client, you will want to research their company history, the background of the person you are meeting with, and what value your products and/or services can offer. If it’s someone personal, look for common topics to discuss, or inquire about their personal interests. Also, equip yourself with a few non-controversial current topics, or general icebreakers.  Asking open-ended questions that require more than a yes or no answer is a great way to keep a conversation going, as well as to learn more about the person you’re meeting.

Finally, sometimes, your first meeting with someone is spontaneous. Since you don’t have time to prepare, you might feel surprised or the timing could be less than ideal. If you find yourself in an unexpected introduction, and things are going south—take a deep breath (or a few)  to regain your composure. Then, if needed, acknowledge or apologize for the rocky start—and  begin again. For example, sharing that you just sat in 30 minutes of traffic this morning, and are running severely behind schedule is something we can all relate to and that’s key – to be relatable. Then, focus on being present, and being you. The more you do this, the more comfortable (maybe even fun!) these meetings will be.

Enjoy today!

Time-Out for Mindfulness – Part II: Cultivating Mindfulness

Most of us wish to be mindful and present in our day to day life.  Between our to-do lists, personal commitments, and professional obligations, we often are electronically connected from dawn till dusk.  I regularly speak to people who feel they live in a perpetual time crunch. It’s been said that it’s the little things that make life worth living, and there is no better way to achieve this than by practicing mindfulness.

The Art Of Being Present

We all know at least one person who, every time you are with them, makes you feel as if you have their undivided attention. This is a shining example of the mindful art of being present. How do they do it?  They may have as equally full a schedule as the next person, but they have mastered the art of setting all else aside but the present moment.

A good way to be more present is simple – silence your phone and step away from the electronics. If you are face-to-face, eye contact is essential. Take the time to engage first. Sincerely ask how their day is, and really listen. Ask questions about previous conversations. Also, take some time to respectfully observe the person —to notice how they present, what they are wearing, the joy or concern in their tone.  This will take practice to achieve, and certainly won’t be 100%, but practice makes perfect.

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Stop And Take 10

Meditation and deep breathing exercises can work wonders in terms of mindfulness. A common misconception is that you need to invest a significant amount of time for both, but 10 deep, mindful breaths can be enough to reconnect. Jon Kabat-Zinn of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program developed the STOP model—which can be practiced anytime, anywhere.

  • S: Stop whatever you’re doing now.
  • T: Take a breath and reconnect to the body.
  • O: Observe what’s happening now in your body, what thoughts and feelings you’re having, what sounds you hear around you.
  • P: Proceed with what you were doing.

Active Mindfulness

Cultivating mindfulness has become so popular, there are endless options of mindful practices to choose from. Knitting, coloring, mindful eating, or mindful listening are just a few that can be incorporated into daily living.  Even, maybe especially, on the busiest of days, we must allow ourselves to be more than our schedule. Ten minutes of listening to meditative music or a soothing guided meditation can work wonders for how we feel going through the rest of the day, particularly on the days we are feeling a bit overwhelmed.

The benefits of mindfulness are many:  reduced stress, improved quality of life, increased immunity, a sense of purpose.  And please remember that you don’t have to do it perfectly.  The point is to make it a consistent part of your life.  I hope these ideas will help you get started.

Should you wish to explore the topic of mindfulness further, I’ve included a list of resources below!

 

Books & Articles

Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Full Catastrophe Living (Revised Edition): Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress… by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment–and Your Life, by Jon Kabat-Zinn

The Mindfulness Revolution, edited by Barry Boyce and Shambhala Sun – Leading Psychologists, Scientists, Artists and Meditation Teachers on the Power of Mindfulness in Daily Life.

Multitasking does not enhance wellbeing and productivity. This article discusses some of the latest research on how it affects the brain, efficiency and performance:   http://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2014/10/08/multitasking-damages-your-brain-and-career-new-studies-suggest/

Useful websites and information:

Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care & Society – University of Massachusetts Medical School; http://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/

Pocket Mindfulness; http://www.pocketmindfulness.com/ Great site for those new to mindfulness practices as well as those more advanced.

UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center:  http://marc.ucla.edu/

Greater Good – The Science of a Meaningful Life: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness/

Time-out for Mindfulness – Part I

Do you ever feel as though you are living on autopilot?  Going through the day without a sense of being present in your daily round?  Having a conversation with a friend or spouse, while thinking of everything that needs to be done by the end of the day?  (Guilty!) Maybe you accomplish everything on your to-do list but still feel stuck in an endless cycle of “busyness.”

You’re not alone. The topic of mindfulness has become popular over the past several years, for good reason. Work and family responsibilities, coupled with never ending communication in the form of calls, texts, emails and the like tend to occupy much of our waking moments, leaving us in a more or less constant state of stimulation. Technology, for many of us, is always on.  Before the internet and email, most of us could leave work at work and just go home.  Now, we can be plugged in to work anytime, anywhere.  And, if we’re not plugged into work, we’re often plugged into something else – our phone, Facebook, surfing the net.  That’s a lot of stimulation that adds to the mix of our hurried lifestyles.

It’s really essential for wellbeing to take time daily to cultivate inner quiet and a positive mind-body balance.  That’s where mindfulness comes in.  And it doesn’t have to be one more thing to add into our day.  Mindfulness starts right where you are.

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Jon Kabat-Zinn is considered a pioneer in mindfulness and MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and started the first MBSR program at the University of Massachusetts.  He says that, although mindfulness can be cultivated through formal meditation, that’s not the only way. “It’s not really about sitting in the full lotus, like pretending you’re a statue in a British museum,” he says. “It’s about living your life as if it really mattered, moment by moment by moment by moment.”

So our working definition of mindfulness is going to be this:  Full non-judgmental attention to what you are engaged in, what you’re working on, the person you’re talking to, and the environment you are in.

Why is mindfulness important?  Studies over the last 35 years or so have shown that practicing mindfulness can have physical, psychological, and social benefits.  Some examples:

  • Mindfulness is good for our bodies. One significant study found practicing mindfulness for just 8 weeks boosts the immune system’s capacity to fight off illness.
  • Mindfulness is good for our minds.  Studies have found that mindfulness increases positive emotions, and reduces negative ones.  It’s also been shown to decrease feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • Mindfulness impacts our brains.  Research has found that it increases density of the gray matter in brain regions linked to learning, memory, emotion regulation, and empathy. Practicing mindfulness can help improve concentration and memory. Mindful awareness helps us to be more aware of our emotional state in the moment and enhances our ability to control our reactions and impulsiveness.
  • Mindfulness promotes compassion and altruism.  Research suggests mindfulness training makes us more empathetic, and increases activity in neural networks involved in understanding the pain of others and regulating emotions.  Data suggests it might boost self-compassion as well.
  • Mindfulness enhances relationships.  Research suggests mindfulness training can help couples feel more satisfied in their relationship, more optimistic and relaxed, and more accepting of and closer to one another.
  • Mindfulness can help us be better parents.  Parents who practice mindfulness describe being happier with their parenting skills and relationship with their kids, and their kids were found to have better social skills.
  • Mindfulness helps health care professionals cope with stress, connect with their patients, and improve their quality of life. It can also help mental health professionals by reducing negative emotions and anxiety, and increasing their positivity and feelings of self-compassion.
  • Mindfulness helps in prisons.  Evidence suggests mindfulness reduces anger, hostility, and mood disturbances among prisoners, by increasing their awareness of their thoughts and emotions.  This can help facilitate rehabilitation and reintegration.
  • Mindfulness training can be used to help veterans. Studies suggest it can reduce the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of war.
  • Mindfulness can help with weight control.  Practicing “mindful eating” encourages healthier eating habits, helps people lose weight, and helps them enjoy their food more.

Practicing mindfulness isn’t at all mysterious.  It’s really about being fully present for your life.

In Part II on this topic, I’ll share some practical ideas and resources for you to start using to be fully present for all of your life.

Book Review – The Little Book of Big Change

T, by Amy Johnson, Ph.D., is subtitled:  The No-Willpower Approach to Breaking Any Habit.  I picked it up recently after it came highly recommended as an insightful combination of spirituality and neuroscience in habit change, all of which I have an enthusiastic interest in, both personally and professionally.

Here’s a partial description, courtesy of Amazon.com:

“Little changes can make a big, big difference! In The Little Book of Big Change, psychologist Amy Johnson shows you how to rewire your brain and overcome your bad habits—once and for all. No matter what your bad habit is, you have the power to change it. Drawing on a powerful combination of neuroscience and spirituality, this book will show you that you are not your habits. Rather, your habits and addictions are the result of simple brain wiring that is easily reversed. By learning to stop bad habits at the source, you will take charge of your habits and addictions for good.”

The premise of this book is that our behaviors become habits because of their repetition which, over time, form neural pathways in our brain that encourage us to keep repeating the behavior.  Since behavior originates in our thinking, the author suggests that by changing our thinking about ourselves and our habit (and not indulging in the habit), over time we can reestablish new neural circuitry, thus rewiring our brain.   As long as we continue to obey the impulse to act on our thinking, we remain stuck in the cycle of our habit.

What interested me about this book is that the author herself was able to end an eight year battle with binge eating and bulimia with this foundation, after many years of seeking help through traditional therapy and other means.

Neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to change throughout the course of life – is a well-researched and accepted scientific finding.  Neurologically, habits are formed through repeatedly responding to an urge or desire by acting on it. Acting on an urge – whatever it may be – strengthens the wiring of the habit in the brain.  The more you act on an urge or impulse, the stronger the habit becomes.  By not acting on your thinking or impulse over a period of time, those urges and impulses will diminish and eventually go away altogether.

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That’s my short and sweet synopsis of the information in this book.  Here’s my personal experience.  Years ago, I was a smoker.  By the time I was in my mid-20’s, I was smoking one or two packs a day.  Mind you, I had committed to a healthy lifestyle years earlier and was a daily runner.  Cigarettes were completely incompatible with my lifestyle, and yet I continued to smoke.  I knew for years I needed to quit, but the habit – addiction – was so entrenched I didn’t feel able to stop.  I made the attempt here and there, but always fell right back into the habit.  One weekend, I attended a smoking cessation seminar with a friend.  Among other things, the seminar leader told us this:  If you have an urge to smoke and don’t act on it, the urge typically goes away in around 90 seconds.  That’s it.  If you don’t act on the addictive urge, it will pass in a matter of a minute and a half, or thereabouts.

That weekend I stopped smoking and haven’t ever smoked since.  In the early weeks and months, I cannot tell you how many times I used that one piece of information to get me through those moments when a cigarette was calling my name.  I would tell myself:  This will pass in a minute or two, that’s all you need to get through.  And it worked.  I didn’t have to do anything.  On the contrary, I just had to do nothing but let the thought -urge – pass.  By not acting on my impulse, by not strengthening that neural pathway in the brain, the impulses gradually faded away. I haven’t smoked in 30 years.

There’s obviously a bit more to the book than what I’m writing here.  That being said, it’s not a long read – it really is a “little book.”  Though the author’s experience involved her eating disorder, the principles of the book can be applied to a wide variety of unhealthy behaviors.  The author’s philosophy and approach may not be for everyone, but for anyone who has struggled with a destructive or unwanted habit pattern, this book could be life-changing.

Stay cozy this month!

What’s Your Payoff?

Happy 2017!  The new year can be an exciting time because it means a blank canvas – a chance to create our lives in a new way.  For lots of us, it also signifies the beginning of a change we wish to make, which is where the New Year’s resolution typically comes in.

Clients usually come to coaching seeking change –  they may feel stuck in their work or personal life, and aren’t sure what steps to take next.  They may have identified habits that are getting in the way of them living as fully as they would like to, or had some type of wake-up call in the form of a health scare or relationship upheaval, and realize that the time has come to face their reality.

Change is difficult, and maintaining those changes can be even trickier.  What’s the saying?  “Anyone can lose 10 pounds.  I’ve done it hundreds of times.”  Ouch.

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What’s the deal?  If we say we want to make a change, and know that it’s good for us over the long haul, why is it so darn hard?  What about the determination and discipline we seem to have in other parts of our lives?  How can we be so successful in our work or other undertakings and struggle so miserably when it comes to changing something seemingly as simple as a habit?

Here’s some food for thought.  If the payoff you get from continuing your bad habit feels better to you, on some level, than the benefit you might get from changing, it’s going to be an uphill struggle.

Let’s say you want to stop smoking.  You know you need to; your family doctor has been on you for years, you know the risks, you want to be around for your children.  You have all the information and  every reason to stop.  And yet, every time you make the attempt, with the best of intentions and all your resolve, you end up in the same place – smoking.  Your abstinence may last a few days or a few months but sooner or later you slide back.  What kind of payoff could you possibly be getting from that?

Maybe you’ve stayed in a relationship that is no longer healthy for you, you know it’s time to move on, but you never do.  What if the doctor has told you you’re a candidate for Type II diabetes and the time to lose weight and make changes in your eating habits is now.  Your well-being, your health is at risk.  You decide to make changes starting tomorrow but before the week is out you’re slipping back into old eating patterns.

In any of these examples, the pain and discomfort of change seems to outweigh the difficulties associated with continuing the habit.

In the smoking example above, more than one factor could be at play.  Maybe you’ve relied on smoking to keep your weight under control over the years.  You’ve heard stories about significant weight gain from some who’ve stopped, and you’re not sure you want to chance that.  You may be at a point where the relationship you’re  in no longer feels right for you.  Still, the idea of having to put yourself out there in the dating world, or risk being alone, doesn’t sound all that great either.  A hoped-for job promotion may create anxiety about losing the camaraderie of your band of work colleague so you end up turning it down.

You get the idea.

Let’s face it.  When we’ve indulged in a habit for a long time – maybe even years – it’s because we have been getting some type of benefit from it.  It’s going to be hard to make a change unless we can begin to see more benefit in the new behavior, the change we are trying to make.  It’s just easier to keep doing what we’ve always done.  When we are able to begin more of a long-term view of the benefits to be gained, it’s going to be easier for us to make the effort.   We might think:  “Yes, I may end up gaining a few pounds if I stop smoking, but I’ll be healthier over the long haul, and have more energy to exercise.  I can always lose the weight and I’ll feel so much better!

There is a quote by Anais Nin that speaks to this:  “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

The next time you find yourself frustrated or struggling in some way with a habit you’re trying to change, stop and ask yourself:  What’s my payoff for staying where I am?  What am I getting out of this behavior that I am afraid to lose?  Asking that question, and listening for the answer, could be the key that unlocks the door to the beginning of real change.

Feel free to comment below with any thoughts you have – I’ll be sure to respond.

Wishing you your best year yet!

Take a Breath?

In conversation with another coach recently, the idea of taking a “think week” came up.  In years past, Bill Gates scheduled a think week twice yearly, taking uninterrupted time away from his usual schedule for idea generation, reflection and future planning.  Businesses hold periodic retreats for the same purpose, assessing where they are and course correcting where needed.

You may not be able to take an entire week, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start with a weekend or even a day.  When was the last time you blocked out space to take stock of your life, your work, what’s working, or not, and created a strategy for change? Taking time away from your normal day-to-day can give you the space needed for this kind of objective evaluation.

A key element to a think week, weekend or day is preparation, and the end or beginning of the year is a great time to do it.  Plan in advance for an undisturbed period – let family and friends know in advance you will not be available during this time – and limit any other input not relevant to the task at hand (texts, email, etc.)  You’ll want to lay the groundwork for making the most of this time by thinking in advance of what you want to cover.    As a framework, you might consider:

  • Your Successes.  What did you accomplish this year, personally or professionally, that you feel good about?   What has worked well for you?  Did you reach an important milestone or goal?  Have you increased your knowledge base or learned a valuable new skill? Starting out with what went well is a good place to begin, because you can build on it.  What has been working well that you want to keep going?
  • Your Challenges.  What didn’t work out as planned.  What was difficult?  What happened?  What might you need to do differently in the future?  Are there any important lessons that were learned and how can you use these to improve?
  • Your Commitments.   Most of us have obligations that we have taken on over time – in our communities, church, business organizations and the like.  This is a good time to think about whether you want to continue in these roles or step aside.   If some responsibilities have become cumbersome or are no longer in line with your priorities, it may be time for a change.
  • Your Environment.  Where you live and work can either support you or drain your energy.  A cluttered workspace or office, mail piled up on a kitchen counter or table, clothes or other belongings strewn about – all of these take up mental space that, whether we realize it or not, impact how we feel and function.  Take a look around you.  If there are things you no longer use or need, donate or give them away.  Sometimes simply getting rid of stuff can lead us to more order.  Being more orderly will free you up to concentrate on your most important tasks, and creates space for creativity and new ideas.
  • Your Future.  Now that you have a clear idea of where you are (and I urge you to do this in writing) it’s time to take a look at the year to come, and what your objectives are.  What do you hope to experience in the year to come – both professionally and personally?  What do you want to prioritize What is your vision?  Write it all down and be as specific as possible.  Research shows that writing down goals makes the achievement of those goals much more likely.
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The gift of time to think.

Setting aside time for this kind of effort will pay off.  Peter Drucker once said, “Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.”  That’s what we’re talking about here.

I once had a teacher who used to say, “The outer is always a reflection of the inner.”   If it’s true that we are the authors of our lives, and I believe it is, make sure the story you are writing is the one you want to live.

I would love to hear any additional thoughts, so feel free to leave a comment below – I’ll be sure to respond.

Wishing you many good things for the coming year!