Monday, August 29, 2011

Tired of Making Decisions?

Regardless of whether you answered 'yes' or 'no' to this question, the latest research out indicates that we all get tired when faced with having to make too many decisions.  The biggest insight though was the discovery that when we suffer from mental fatigue the quality of the decisions we now are asked to make deteriorates significantly.

It seems that no matter how good we believe we are at making decisions, we can't continue to make decision after decision without paying a price biologically.  We know this about physical and muscle fatigue, but our brains apparently get tired too.  The problem is that we typically aren't consciously aware of when we're low on mental energy and therefore we tend to continue to push through, without ever knowing that our self-control (which is the element that tends to over-see bad decision making!) is being depleted.

Decision Fatigue is the term applied to the phenomenon called Ego Depletion - so labelled by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister.  His experiments showed that there is a finite store of mental energy for self-control.  When it is depleted, our ability to resist temptations is also significantly reduced.  This new insight helps explain the dieter's dilemma...  why losing weight can prove to be so hard.  If you are constantly having to deny yourself food that you're craving you are, in essence, having to consistently make a choice between 'cheating' or not.  Each decision continues to deplete your willpower resources until you finally cave-in late in the day.  This is why candy bars at the check-out counter sell so well.  Up until now it was put down to simple impulse purchases.  However, if you have been shopping for a while, making decision after decision about what to buy, the make, model, price...  you are more fatigued by the time you go to pay.  That fatigue results in a loss of willpower and, before you know it, those M&M's are tossed in your cart.

These findings though have bigger, more far reaching implications...
  • Research shows that if you are a prisoner going to a parole hearing, you are 70% more likely to be granted parole if you are on the docket early in the morning than if you are scheduled late in the day.  Although studies haven't yet been conducted, I can only assume that sentencing decisions late in the day would also be affected.  I'm not sure though if it would result in greater or lesser sentencing... which is easier to decide?

  • If you have had to make a lot of decisions (even small relatively inconsequential ones), you will give up more than 50% faster on the next decisions you have to make

  • Once decision fatigue has set in, you are significantly more likely to settle for whatever the 'recommended' options are from sales personnel.  Buying a car?  Researchers had customers wade through a number of additional special features that they could select to add onto their proposed new vehicle.  Although they weighed their choices carefully in the beginning, as decision fatigue began to set in customers started settling for whatever the default option was.  Savvy salespeople of course kept the more expensive options and decisions for the end.  The result?  Car buyers ended up purchasing more than $2,000 in extras.  Decision fatigue can therefore leave you very vulnerable to marketers who know and understand the phenomena and time their sales accordingly.

  • The poor are more susceptible than the rich.  Interestingly, the less money that you have to spend, the more decisions you have to make - constantly weighing your choices over the course of the day.  This leaves you more mentally fatigued and therefore more susceptible to to the effects, making poorer choices for yourself and more easily influenced by others

  • When we exercise too much we feel it and know to relax.  We allow our body some time to shut down and recover.  Our brain though never stops working.  It can't, it's in charge of too many processes that are perpetually ongoing.  Decision Fatigue then doesn't result in a shut down of the brain, but it does result in the brain stopping its activity on certain things and starting doing others instead.  It redirects its focus.  The big shift tends to be a refocusing from long-term prospects to focusing instead on more immediate rewards.  Yes, you know your long-term goal is to lose those 10 pounds, but your brain has now determined that you deserve that candy bar... now!

In fact, in order to recover from mental fatigue your brain requires glucose.  That's why whenever we get exceedingly mentally fatigued we find ourselves reaching for the sweet snacks rather than salty ones.  (again... a tough one for dieters who are likely trying to avoid the sweet snacks)

What to do with this?

Know and understand that there are no telltale signs or symptoms of decision fatigue.  All decisions, large or small, add up to deplete your will power.  Choosing what to have for breakfast, what clothes to wear, what to spend, what model to buy, whether to go out to a movie...  all add up.  Don't delude yourself into thinking that you are immune... we are all susceptible.  Even knowing it happens doesn't prevent it from happening.  It is logical to expect therefore, that the decisions you make later in the day are likely to suffer as a result.  If you have big decisions to make later in the day then ensure that you top up your glucose levels at least a half hour beforehand.

Additionally, studies show that the people with the best self-control are those that have structured a lot of the elements in their lives so as to conserve their willpower.  Actions you can take to conserve yours...
  • try to avoid scheduling back-to-back meetings, allow a little mental recovery time in between whenever possible

  • schedule in moments throughout your day that don't require decisions of any kind, take a mental decision break!

  • establish habits that standardize activities, thus requiring fewer decisions.  (if you set up work out times ahead you don't have to decide each day whether to do it or not)

  • make your biggest decisions in the morning

  • finish each day making whatever decisions you can for the day ahead (plan out your breakfast, your clothing, your route, your evening activities.  If you've got anything left in you, before going to bed (when you will replenish your fatigue), spend it on making some upcoming decisions.  Think of this like 'banking' some decision time.  You don't know how challenging your next day might be, it never hurts to bank a little insurance!

  • when your day has been packed with decisions and choices, know that your brain must be fatigued and avoid making big decisions.  Know when not to trust your judgment. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Presentation Basics - Breathing

Breathing is life.  If you're not breathing, you're dead.  Simple fact that we're all aware of.  However, breathing is also voice.  Without breath there is no voice.  It stands to reason then that the quality of your voice and the amount of voice you have is also driven by the type and quality of breath.  Typically, when working with clients on their personal presence or formal presentation skills, we will need to work on their breathing.   For most of us, as long as we were breathing, people were happy with however we chose to make it happen.

If we want stronger, deeper, louder or more compelling voices though, we may need to relearn the way in which we breath.  Most of us breathe from the upper third of our lungs (called Tidal Breathing).  If we want to increase the depth of our voices, or we want to project them more, we need to learn to breathe from the middle third of our lungs, called diaphragmatic breathing.  To do so requires us to breathe from a different place, not to take in a different amount of air.  Professional singers, actors on stage, deep sea divers, musicians that play a wind or horn instrument all learn to breathe from the diaphragm in order to support their craft.  You can too.

To practice, start by standing up.  It is important that you stand fully upright, with the spine elongated.  If you slump you compress your diaphragm and cannot breathe from it.  Place a hand on your upper chest and one on your upper stomach area, just below the bridge of your ribs.  Take a nice, slow, deep breath in.  Watch which hand moves.  (Breathe out!)  Instead of seeing the upper hand rise and fall as you breathe (indicating that you are filling the upper third of your lungs with air), try to make the bottom hand (the one on your diaphragm) move in an out.  This will require that you target your breath more, but it will begin to train your brain and body to begin breathing from this area more often.  The more consistently you practice breathing from your diaphragm the more you begin to create the habit of breathing from it.

Breathing from the diaphragm also has a number of additional benefits.  Let's face it, most of us don't give many formal presentations and, even if we do, we tend to get very anxious and stressed about doing one.  We carry this tension in our bodies, which then influences the way we move and sound - making us appear uncomfortable.  Our presentation suffers.  I offer you two suggestions below to help you deal with some of this tension...

  1. It is not unusual for people, when they get nervous, to feel short of breath or sick to their stomachs.  This is because the nerves that control your digestion and your respiration attach to the C3 and C4 vertebrae, which are in the middle of the back of your neck.  When we get nervous and tense, we tend to tighten and bunch up these muscles (how many of your feel stress through the muscles of your neck and upper shoulders?).  As we tense these muscles up, we impact the nerves controlling our breathing and digestion.  The solution then is to relax those muscles, release the tension.  Certainly getting someone to massage them for you would work.  When at work or at other times you don't have access to someone willing to give you a neck massage, try the following exercise.  Stand comfortably and bend over, letting the head hand freely.  Really make an effort to fully relax the neck muscles.  You can test this out by taking your fingers and gently pushing on your head (while it's hanging).  If you feel resistance your haven't fully released it.  Allowing the neck to hang freely, and using the weight of the head (much heavier than you realize!) to pull and extend the vertebrae of the neck, helps relieve the tension and release the pressure on those nerves.

  2. Practice your breathing!  Take a couple of quiet moments periodically throughout the day to breathe deeply and fully.  Sit fully upright and put a hand lightly on your diaphragm to serve as a target for the muscles you want to engage.  In addition to practicing breathing from the diaphragm, concentrate on the breath you take.  Breathe through the nose only since breathing through the mouth tends to signal to your brain that you are in distress.  Not the effect we're after!  Deepen your breathing by elongating your exhalations, not your inhalations.  Your lungs will adjust naturally and automatically to replace the air you have lost through your exhalations. Therefore, you don't have to focus on your inhalations, they will take care of themselves.  Additionally, when you're nervous, trying to inhale more could result in hyperventilation.  Focusing on the exhalation is what will prove calming.  Try to extend and lengthen the number of outward counts of breath each time.  Although you could certainly start and end your day with 15-30 minutes of controlled breathing, most of my clients don't tend to find, have or make the time for this.  Instead, using this technique periodically throughout the day, for 3-5 breaths, will serve to help you maintain a greater sense of calmness, well-being  and will help keep your stress in check.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Take a Break!

I'm on vacation this week.  Okay... so I wrote a blog this week but, overall... I had a lot of downtime, visiting with friends, swimming in the lake, hosting a pig roast... minimal work.  We all recognise the value of a vacation and, indeed, seem to build our lives around the opportunity  for our next big break.  However, the same arguments that could be applied to why taking a vacation every year is so valuable to our health and well being could apply to the need to take regular breaks throughout our workday.

We live in a world that rewards and celebrates 'busyness' like it is a commodity in and of itself.  We wake up to an alarm and race from one activity to another until we collapse in our beds preparing ourselves to do it all again tomorrow.  Think back over your typical work day though and ask yourself where the periods for recovery and renewal were, if at all. 

Technology has helped us to engage more fully, but it has also served to prevent us from being able to disengage  We are always available, always connected.  However, being constantly on and focused brings with it a cost.  In fact, research shows us that our ability to be fully engaged at work depends in good part with our ability to periodically 'disengage' successfully.  It seems that building moments of recovery into your work day ensures that you are able to engage in tasks more fully and passionately.  Even though you may be breaking more frequently than those working flat out, building in periods of renewal over the course of the day typically increases overall productivity.  You may spend less time on tasks but you are more fully present in the time you do spend, thereby getting more done, in less time, while retaining your health and well-being.

Just like any muscle in our body, our energy capacity decreases with both over or under use.  Therefore, we need to balance any energy expenditure with time for energy renewal.  Pushing through tasks, moving immediately from one task to another, leaves little time for recovery.  However, our energy stores are not limitless and, as we deplete them, it requires more energy to maintain the desired level of output.

How often are breaks ultimately needed?  Although it was long known and understood that Circadian rhythms, which work on the cycle of 24 hours, dictated our activity and rest patterns, in the 1970's it was determined that these rhythms were actually broken down into smaller/shorter cycles of 90-120 minutes - which operate throughout the day.  These are known as our Ultradian rhythms. It is these rhythms that account for the rise and fall of our energy throughout the course of our day.  Although our focus, energy and alertness may be high at the beginning of each of these cycles, by the end they are low.  Despite our efforts to continue to persevere and concentrate, our systems go into a marked decline.

Our body will attempt to communicate the need for a break by yawning, stretching, losing focus, hunger pangs, etc.  Although our response is to typically override these signals, we would do well to listen to them instead.  These are the perfect moments to  integrate in a period of renewal, a small break that helps you to recharge and refocus.  These breaks don't need to be long in order to be effective.  Einstein himself was a strong advocate for the benefit of catnaps.

Suggestions for possible renewal activities might include...
  • plugging in your ipod and listening to a favourite song or two

  • read a chapter from a fictional book or a magazine article for interest sake alone

  • watch a short video on the internet that is of interest (my favourite of course is where you can even key in the number of minutes you have available and it will find a TED talk in that length for you)

  • close your eyes and 'nap' for five minutes

  • meditate

  • do some deep breathing exercises

  • do some body stretches

  • take a walk

  • drop by someone's work area and touch base with them quickly

  • file or tidy something (only time it gets done for me!)

  • do a self-neck massage

It doesn't matter the activity, as long as it offers a chance to recharge, renew and refocus.  With so many demands to juggle and so much on our plates clamouriing for our attention, learning to manage our energy, such that we are able to accomplish more in less time, is an asset beyond measure.  Who knew that working smarter meant breaking more often? 

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'll recover from the stress of writing this article by taking a nap for a minute or two!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Are You Listening?

I was thinking about our listening abilities the other day.  No, this didn't just come out of the blue.  Like so many thoughts I have this one was spurred by two incidents, both of which happened while up here at the cottage (yes, I'm looking out over the lake as I type this...)
  1. I was sitting reading on the front porch beside my husband when I turned to him, commenting on something that I heard the neighbours say while they were out swimming, maybe two-thirds of a football field away.  Bear in mind that sound travels amazingly well over water.  My husband was stunned that I could hear them clearly from that that distance... although he could tell they were speaking he couldn't decipher any of their conversation.

  2. As with many cottages, we have had issues periodically with mouse invasions.  A friend recommended that we try the sonic mouse deterrents they had installed in their cottage - having had great success with them.  These are small devices that, when plugged into an outlet, emit sonic noises that are uncomfortable to mice and deter them from setting up home anywhere near them.  This noise is apparently undetectable to humans.  As soon as they were plugged in though, I commented on the low-level hum that they emitted.  No...  I don't think I have the hearing sensitivities of a mouse, but the device does have a small motorized sound to it that is constant and a little irritating at first.  My husband of course... hears nothing.

These two incidences are what got me started thinking about our hearing.  Given that I don't possess 'super' listening powers, why the differences in our abilities?  The one conclusion I reached was that our jobs are very different.  Much of the work that he does is in his head... analyzing, computing, reporting.  It is a very one-sided form of communication. Certainly he has meetings and speaks with people, but the level and type of listening is very different from my own. 

In my role as a coach and trainer, certainly in my role of 'reading' others, I am paying close attention to the nuances of messages.  Tonal shifts in speaking voices are telling, as are shifts in volume, pace and pitch.  My conscious listening habits while at 'work' I supposed, meant that my listening skills in general were more enhanced.

In researching this further (and yes, I really do go look this 'stuff' up!) it appears that although 60% of all communication time is spent listening, we only retain less than 25% of what we hear.  In our modern world, which is becoming more busy, more noisy... it seems we are losing our listening skills. 
  • We are bombarded by noise and sound, which is leading us to develop more selective hearing, unconsciously electing to not hear more and more sounds.  Just as people living close to airports for instance no longer consciously hear the planes flying overhead, we too unconsciously learn to ignore certain repetitive sounds in our lives.  Although we can consciously attend to and hear them when directed to, we learn to cancel out repetitive noises to increase our own personal comfort

  • There are now so many ways and means for us to record and play back conversations and information that we no longer feel the need to pay as close attention in the first place, knowing we can 'listen' later

  • So many people walk around with headphones plugged into their ears that they are creating their own little personal sound bubbles.  We are therefore teaching ourselves that we can only attend to minimal and directed sound

  • As the demands on our time increase we are becoming more and more impatient in our listening, requiring people to get to the point.  Twitter, Facebook and email communications have taught us that we need to communicate in sound bites, thereby reducing the need (and perhaps desire) to communicate messages through conversations

  • There are increasing demands for our attention as well, with media alone bombarding us with constant messaging, such that we are becoming desensitized to these messages.  Ads are now becoming more graphic - bigger, bolder, more blatant - in an effort to get noticed.  As a result, we are missing the more subtle pieces and forms of information and communication.

As a result of the above though, we are developing into a nation (if not a world) of poor listeners.  We are missing much of what is happening in the world around us and increasing not just the odds of miscommunicating but of misunderstanding and misinterpreting the messages we are receiving..  If listening is our access to truly understanding, then learning to listen more consciously represents our path back to increasing our understanding of the world, and people, around us.

Julian Treasure, sound expert, offers the following five suggestions for increasing your ability to reconnect yourself to the world of sound...
  1. Practice 3 minutes of silence a day in order to recalibrate your ears.  If you can't manage silence, go for three minutes of quiet.  Use this time to allow your hearing to once again tune into the smaller, more subtle noises around you.

  2. When you find yourself in a mixed-noise environment (like a coffee bar, cocktail party etc.), sit back and listen, trying to isolate the sounds.  Try to focus on only one sound in particular. When you've isolated it from the noise around you, select another to attend to.  Challenge yourself to decipher as many separate channels of noise as you can.

  3. Learn to hear, savour and enjoy the mundane sounds around you.  (such as the dishwasher, car engine, sonic mouse repellent)  This helps you to break through the unconscious filters you have placed on your listening, allowing you to more consciously select and choose what you wish to listen to and hear.

  4. Play with your listening positions, in order to hear differently.  Julian emphasizes that the position that we take in a conversation very much determines the outcome of what we've heard.  To change the content of the messages received, change the listening position you have adopted.  For example... switch from active to passive listening, reductive to expansive, critical to empathetic.

  5. Use the Acronym RASA (sanskrit for Juicy or Essence) to help you be a better listener.

      • R - Receive (pay attention)

      • A - Appreciate (provide supportive behaviours and sounds to the speaker)

      • S - Summarize (to demonstrate and validate understanding)

      • A - Ask questions

Learning to listen better and more attentively can open you to significantly more information in your communicative processes.  There are a lot of messages delivered through more subtle systems than we might otherwise catch.  Opening ourselves to hearing them may provide us with a wealth of information that would enhance our relationships and decisions.  Now... if they would discover a sonic mouse deterrent that was as quiet as the proverbial mouse... I'd be a happy woman.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Reach Out and Touch Someone

Most of us would agree that a gentle touch on the forearm, by someone that we know and care about, can bring us comfort, warmth, a sense of well-being, understanding, caring...  It can communicate many positive and heartfelt emotions, depending upon the situation and other outward signals of the sender.  Did you know though...  that the same touch, given by a stranger, can be surprisingly persuasive?

Consider the following research findings...
  • Diners are more inclined to give their wait staff larger tips if they have been touched casually by them
  • Strangers are more likely to perform small mundane tasks for others if they were touched on the forearm when the request was made
  • Women are more likely to dance with you if you touch them lightly and briefly on the arm when asking
  • If you touch a library user lightly on the arm when they register for your services they are more likely to rate your service favourably than those not touched when registering
Behavioural studies have certainly demonstrated, over and over, that we are much more favourably responsive to the other party (either them directly, or their requests) when we are touched casually (on the forearm) in conversation with them.  New research out, (A. Shirmer and colleagues) has shown that the source of the touch doesn't matter at all, it is the sense of being touched that enhances the brain's response.  Their study indicated that emotional information, when presented concurrently with touch, may be more motivating to the individual's brain, which then devotes more processing resources to that information.

Implications?  Certainly it's clear from an influence standpoint.  If you have developed enough rapport with the other party to enter their personal space, touching them briefly on the forearm when making a request of them will enhance the likelihood of gaining their agreement or support.  You could even forego making a request, simply use touch as a means of building and cementing the positive rapport you have been establishing, creating a stronger sense of relationship and good will.

Bear in mind...  I am talking about a brief touch, on the forearm.  Touching longer, anywhere other than the forearm is going to give you a reaction other than the favourable one we're after here!  I think that in our touch-phobic business world, we have swung so far onto the side of complete touch-avoidance that we have likely increased the impact and effect that appropriate touch would have.  I have definitely noticed a greater emphasis on the handshake in recent years, perhaps because it is our only remaining 'appropriate' form of physical contact within the realm of the business environment. 

Perhaps there is a small psychological advantage for those who do implement a small touch here and there.  Such an innocuous gesture may provide an even more significant positive effect when used with an audience that is now missing any form of physical connection with their audience.  A subtle way to stand out and enhance your likability and promotability?  It would seem so.

My final piece of advice for you regarding touch and the workplace.  Are you confused by the definition of forearm?  Not sure what the definition of a light gentle touch is?  Still trying to distinguish in your mind the difference between a touch and a grasp?  Then... don't.  Just... don't!