Productivity Tip: My Best Way to Take Notes

Growing up, my dad was a big note taker. From the calendar in the barn with upcoming farm appointments to 3M pads in the house with reminders for the day to a journal of rain and crop results, he believed in the power of the pen.

I too capture thoughts and memorialize meetings with a pen and paper. But, there’s a twist. I use something not available in dad’s day called Livescribe. Livescribe uses a smartpen and a tablet, that looks like a “normal” pen and tablet. But, there’s an upside.

Everything is OCR’d, so handwritten notes are searchable. More importantly, the OCR’d notes are instantly synced through the cloud to Evernote. Evernote is where I keep all my thoughts, important emails, pictures, or really anything I may want to reference in the future.

I have no financial interest or upside in Livescribe.

Time for Life Planning

In The 100, I dedicate a section to life planning. Similar to using this time of year to plan next year’s business goals, this is a good time to plan next year’s personal goals.

Goals transform vision into reality. Practical goals are SMART: Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. While many of us make long-term goals; specific short-term goals drive us to achieve our long-term goals.

Writing goals down is essential.  A study by Dominican University professor Gail Matthews found writing down goals, making an action plan, and communicating to others results in being twice as likely to accomplish the goal.

Here are some goal setting tips:

  • Write down your goals.  Then, wait a few weeks to test your conviction.
  • Break your long-term goals into short-term goals backed up by a plan
  • Look at your goals every day
  • Include dates. A goal without a deadline is just a dream.

Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and The Magic of Thinking Big by David Schwartz are a couple of great books on goals.

Here’s a goal setting template.

Increasing Employee Engagement

Last month, I delivered a conference keynote. My talk was on engagement. For the 400+ attendees, I started by sharing what engagement means and finished with the eight areas of engagement and shared specific, actionable ideas to increase engagement.

Employee engagement results in a few major things… employees who advocate and promote your organization, who do more than the job requires, and who stay.

When you see the “Best” or “Great” places to work lists in magazines or newspapers, they are based on engagement. Engagement surveys are measured by:

For an engaging job, this is what employees look for:

For a manager that drives high engagement, they don’t focus on weakness:

Engagement results in more productivity, profit, safety and less absenteeism:

Engagement is not gimmicks or expensive:

Avoiding the Downside of Too Much Focus

In a previous post, Train Your Brain, I shared ideas on focus and productivity. On this post, let’s pivot (a very popular word in today’s biz world) 180 degrees and address too much focus.

Sound like an oxymoron? Not at all says Srini Pillay, an executive coach, author, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and CEO of the NeuroBusiness Group. With those credentials, I decided his thesis deserved consideration – even though I’m a big believer in focus (see my last post!).

Writes Pillay in “Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus” in a special edition of Harvard Business Review, “. . .excessive focus exhausts the focus circuits in your brain. It can drain your energy and make you lose self-control. This can make you more impulsive and less helpful. As a result, decisions are poorly thought out, and you become less collaborative.”

Yikes.

Before you throw out all the deadlines and head to the beach, listen to the rest of Pillay’s message: “The brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus, allowing you to develop resilience, enhance creativity, and make better decisions.”

In other words, balance!

 Pillay’s thesis goes on to encourage this healthy brain balance with a few tips (I’ll spare you the technical details):

  1. Use positive constructive daydreaming or PCD. – Unlike the garden variety goofing off or simply tuning out, PCD is intentional and, when done consistently, trains your brain to pull out the bits and pieces you may have forgotten but that can contribute to your creativity and ability to solve problems. This sounds a lot like lucid dreaming, which also involves consciously using your mind while you’re in an unconscious state.
  • Take a nap – There are a lot of theories about napping, but here is what Mr. Pillay has to say: “Not all naps are the same. When your brain is in a slump, your clarity and creativity are compromised. After a 10-minute nap, studies show that you become much clearer and more alert. But if you have a creative task in front of you, you will need a full 90 minutes for more complete brain refreshing to make more associations and dredge up ideas that are in the nooks and crannies of your memory network.”
  • Pretend to be someone else – Ok, I have to admit this last tip seems a bit far out to me. But on reflection I realized it’s just a slightly updated version of the old advice to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” to get a new perspective. The author playfully calls this “psychological halloweenism” and advises imagining yourself as a “eccentric poet rather than a rigid librarian.” In other words, find a way to get out of your own head and into someone else’s. It just might unlock your thinking and help you to find new ideas and ways out of problems you had not imagined previously.

According to Pillay, most of us spend nearly half of our days “with our minds wandering away from a task at hand,” but he adds, “if we build PCD, naps and psychological halloweenism into our days, we can preserve focus for when we need it and use it much more efficiently. Most important, unfocus can allow us to update information in the brain, giving us access to the deeper parts of ourselves and enhancing our agility, creativity and decision making.”

Train Your Brain

If you’ve read my book, The 100: Building Blocks for Business Leadership, or just read my posts here from time to time, you know I highly value work-life balance. In fact, that’s the topic of the very first chapter in The 100. Achieving balance means working efficiently, having discipline and knowing how to prioritize and focus.

A recent special edition of Harvard Business Review (sort of an HBR “Best of”) includes an intriguing article, ‘Train Your Brain to Focus” by Paul Hammerness and Margaret Moore (co-authors of the book, Organize Your Life, Organize Your Mind: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less Time).

I read it with relish and indulged in a bit of guilty pleasure when some of my own long-held views were validated by research. Chiefly, multi-tasking is a myth. Sure, you can try to do multiple things at once, but there’s a price. As Hammerness and Moore report “. . . (multi-tasking) makes us more likely to make mistakes and miss important information and cues, and less likely to retain information in our working memory, which impairs problem solving and creativity.”

So when you tell your kids to turn off the video games while doing their homework, you’re not being a curmudgeon – you’re teaching them an important lesson in training their brains to focus. When it comes to your team, you can insist on distraction-free meetings—ban laptops, mobile phones, tablets and other gadgets. They might resist, but when creativity and thoughtful input increases you’ll know you’re on the right track.

Easy enough, right? Sure, when you control all the variables. But life often throws us—and our employees—curveballs: events that trigger emotions like anxiety, sadness, anger and more. Functional brain images reveal that these negative emotions make it extremely difficult to solve problems or do other cognitive work.

But the authors offer a useful exercise to help keep our brains on task when negativity threatens to derail our focus and it’s as easy as A-B-C. They advise:

  1. Awareness of your options. You can stop what you’re doing and address the distraction, or you can let it go.
  2. Breathe deeply and consider your options.
  3. Choose thoughtfully: stop or go?

Only a monster boss would expect any employee to keep cranking when a loved  dies or similarly devastating news is received. But less drastic negative events can be managed, the authors argue, by taking the time to decide how to react, versus simply reacting.

I also appreciated their practical advice to start meetings with a bit of humor (not that I’d ever tell a joke myself of course!). Turns out “positive emotions improve everyone’s brain function, leading to better teamwork and problem solving.”

Who knew?

Next time: Avoiding the Downside of Too Much Focus