Connect Consulting Group

Why and how to declutter your mind

by Liz Guthridge on June 27, 2016 · 0 comments

Marcel for June CreationsThe dog’s unofficial code of conduct is: “If you can’t eat it, play with it or pee on it, leave it alone.”

Meet Marcel. Even though he’s just 7 months old, we’ve noticed he’s intuitively adhered to this code ever since he came to live with us.

(Granted, as a puppy, he defines “toys” very broadly. Until recently his “toys” included all human shoes left unattended on the floor. He also loves most dog toys, especially those that aren’t his. When we’re walking by a neighbor’s home, Marcel always wants to stop and check out any toys left on the lawn, as pictured here.)

The dog’s code of conduct runs against our human nature to worry and stew; however, we can still learn valuable lessons from how dogs behave.

For example, while at first blush, Marcel seems to be exhibiting what we humans would refer to as admirable self-control, he’s actually more concerned about self-preservation.

To him, there’s no need to expend energy on things he can’t control or don’t matter to him. Unless it’s edible, enjoyable or otherwise necessary for his well-being, he’s ignoring it.

He and other dogs don’t agonize over others who might have insulted them, don’t bother with negative self-talk, and don’t rewind and replay incidents in their mind–as humans often do.

This difference between canines and homo sapiens is due to the brain’s pre-frontal cortex. Also called the brain’s executive function, it governs our impulses as well as takes responsibility for abstract thinking, goal setting, decision making, social behavior and other tasks humans do well.

The pre-frontal cortex makes up just 7% of a dog’s brain, compared to 30% of the human brain, according to Emotions in our Pets.)

The human’s much larger pre-frontal cortex allows you to think creative thoughts and do innovative things, which is not the specialty of dogs and cats except for their performance on viral videos.

However, your pre-frontal cortex also has plenty of room for clutter, especially if you let yourself ruminate over hurtful or other unpleasant thoughts or when you overtax it by not taking rest breaks, eating or exercising.

This clutter can consume so much of your “cognitive load” that you can have trouble thinking clearly, much less creatively. You get tired, which makes it harder to control your emotions and other impulses. You even can reduce your ability to experience pleasure.

For more about the challenges of a cluttered mind, see the recent New York Times article Think Less, Think Better by the neuroscientist Moshe Bar. The article includes a link to his latest research on this topic.

To declutter your pre-frontal cortex and re-charge yourself, you can practice mindfulness.  When you’re mindful, you’re in the moment. You’re conscious of your thinking. For more about this, see What your brain needs for optimal performance.

You also can embrace the dog’s unofficial code of conduct as appropriate.

For example, one of my clients who’s just adopted a puppy is discovering how much he can learn and benefit from canine behavior.

As background, with my help, this leader has been working to talk less in meetings in order to open up more air time for diverse voices to speak and be heard. Before, he would just blurt out what he thought in the moment and as a result, he often irritated his peers and his team members. Now, his colleagues are pleased that he’s listening more to them and when he speaks, he’s offering cogent comments.

But learning to practice more self-control takes a toll. By the end of a meeting, he’s often exhausted. Controlling his impulse to talk as well as making the effort to carefully edit what he says consumes a lot of energy for his pre-frontal cortex.

Yet, when he asks himself “What would my puppy do?” he’s able to better regulate his energy. He’s leaving others’ comments alone when they’re random things out of his control that don’t advance the priorities of his team or function.

Will this dog’s code of conduct help you declutter your mind?

Stop suffering from bad meetings

by Liz Guthridge on June 21, 2016 · 0 comments

meeting-mastery-book-c7e22af94e1c56d936b23573c8fc8b09Life is too short to suffer through bad meetings.

More times than I like to count, individuals contact me about meeting difficulties that they’ve been grappling with, sometimes for years.

Almost always their meeting problems stem from bad meeting habits, based on these three root causes:

  • No standard processes or poor processes that are mostly ignored.
  • Dysfunctional behaviors of meeting participants that have festered over time.
  • Assumptions that new team members will figure out on their own how the meetings run. (This is even more problematic when meeting processes and team relationships are broken.)

Bad meetings don’t solve themselves on their own. They’ll continue to suck up valuable time, energy and resources, unless you intervene and take action.

In situations like this, it’s best to start building new good meeting habits, rather than try to break the old, based on what social scientists and neuroscientists have learned about habits. In a nutshell, because of the brain’s plasticity, it’s easier for the brain to create new wiring rather than rewire the old.

So if you’re dealing with painful bad meetings, where do you start?

One helpful resource is the new book Meeting Mastery: The Coach.me Leader’s Guide to Meetings with Impact and the companion online program, Meeting Mastery Certification.

Some background first. If you’re not familiar with Coach.me, its mission is to make coaching “the dominant form of self-improvement in every field from business to education to fitness.” Coaches provide targeted, structured support by phone, text and email.

Founder/CEO Tony Stubblebine is a former programmer and engineering manager who built Coach.me out of Lift, an online habit tracker app. (I used Lift successfully for several years. See Making SCARF a daily habit. And in the interest of full disclosure, I’m affiliated with Coach.me.)

The Meeting Mastery book and online course benefit from the technology roots of Coach.me and Lift. Technology is all about systems thinking and design, including processes.

This orientation works well for improving your meetings, especially for building good, consistent and repeatable meeting habits.

The technology roots help in another way too. Many in the technology industry pay attention to what others do, and incorporate those learnings in their products, services and businesses. That’s happened here as Meeting Mastery is built off of meeting practices that many cutting-edge companies like IDEO, Apple and Amazon use.

After a short introduction, the Meeting Mastery book starts with a short useful checklist for running meetings. These tips are for working meetings—getting people together to collaborate on creating, planning, implementing and anything but presenting static information to one another.

The checklist and the easy-to-use tools that follow help you with all three critical meeting stages: preparing, conducting and debriefing.

In my experience, many leaders and participants focus primarily on the meeting itself. They short change both the prep time and the follow-up.

Yet, if you carefully prepare, including developing an agenda, and then vigilantly track action items holding people accountable for their commitments, you exponentially improve the quality of your meetings and your work.

Take the meeting preparation. Meeting Mastery features the GAP methodology, which comes from Tim Roberts, an executive at Fitbit. GAP stands for goal, agenda, and preparation.

GAP is simple and powerful. Meeting leaders set the meeting goal and create the agenda, which they share in advance with the meeting participants. The leaders also let the meeting participants know ahead of time what they need to do before the meeting. Everyone shares some responsibilities.

And by the time you meet, you’re well on your way to getting the right things done.

If you’re willing to try — and continuing practicing — this book’s many other useful tools, it’s easy to build good meeting habits.

These other tools encourage action, accountability and recognition for jobs well done, in and out of meetings.

By the way, recognition is a great addition to meetings because praise helps rewire the brain to repeat the action. (For more about this, see Making celebrations a habit.)

Considering the number of hours most of us spend in meetings and the amount of time we complain about bad meetings, it’s time to do something about it.

Are you ready to start building new good meeting habits?

Second that emotion with precision

by Liz Guthridge on June 13, 2016 · 1 comment

emotional statueThe business leaders I coach are thoughtful, high achievers. They make impressive professional and personal improvements while we work together.

One area, however, remains a challenge for us.

I often struggle to get them to express a one-word emotion they’re feeling toward each of the three goals they’ve set and are working to accomplish.

Rather than share emotions, they tend to rush to explain the progress they’re making. Like many of us, these leaders would rather talk about their actions than their feelings.

Yet, when they jump into telling what they’ve been doing rather than stop and reflect on what they’re feeling, they may miss out on some opportunities to improve their thinking and their health ─ and you may be too.

Here’s why you want to be more in touch with your specific emotions for yourself and your team. 

When you pause and consider how you’re feeling in the moment, you’re able to dampen your brain’s limbic system. This brain structure deals with emotions as well as other functions related to memories and instincts, such as your desire to flee, fight or freeze if you’re threatened.

When you dampen your limbic system, you apply a type of hand-brake to your unconscious brain so you can stay in control of your thoughts. When you’re in control, you literally improve your ability to think clearly plus increase your capacity to hold more thoughts in your working memory.

For purposes of a coaching session, reflecting on emotions helps you gauge how you’re feeling toward your goal. Plus, you’re able to concentrate more clearly on the conversation that will follow.

Outside of coaching sessions, naming the emotion or emotions you’re feeling has other benefits too. When you name an emotion — or label it, as the experts call it ─ you increase your self-awareness.

Increased self-awareness helps you regulate your emotions and behavior, especially when you’re aggravated, annoyed, or anxious.  So rather than lash out at others or do something else that you may regret later, you can figure out better ways to relieve your angst. (For more about this, see Leading people through day-to-day living.)

And if you are able to label with “emotional granularity,” you can experience even more positive benefits ─ which I’ve just learned.

As described in the New York Times article, Are You in Despair? That’s Good, people who experience more emotional states and can describe them more precisely (especially negative emotions) enjoy both mental and physical benefits.

Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett’s research shows that when you are able to expand past every day emotional words, such as “sad,” “angry and “afraid” and describe with precision the emotions you’re feeling, your brain actually begins to construct your emotional states.

Even better, your brain also starts regulating your body’s energy needs more proactively, as Feldman Barrett describes. You may still feel like you’re on an emotional roller coaster, but you can better control the ups and downs. The sense of control you gain contributes to both your improved mental health as well as physical well-being.

So can you acquire emotional granularity?  

Yes, it’s a skill you can learn. Here are three ways to improve your emotional granularity.

  1. Expand the number of emotional words you use. For example, don’t just say you’re stressed. Say you feel scattered, frazzled, or like you’re walking on a high wire without a net underneath you. You can consult this list of feeling words to help you diversify your emotions.
  1. Pause throughout the day and check in with yourself. For instance, after you take a sip of your water, coffee or tea, ask yourself, “How am I feeling now?” Be as specific as possible, avoiding plain vanilla words.
  1. Find a buddy to practice emotional granularity together. By teaming up with someone, you can help each other describe emotional experiences as vividly as possible. Keep in mind the point is not to have the biggest vocabulary, but instead to define your emotions more precisely and concretely.  

 Are you ready to take on this small skill that can exponentially improve your life?

Yes, I recognize you may be agitated with me for assigning you another task, but keep in mind I’m doing it for our better good, including the improved performance of your team and organization.

Maybe this is virtuous accountability I’m feeling…. Will you second that emotion?

magnet that triggersWhat’s the power of the retro magnet in the picture?

It’s a physical trigger to help you remember to take action in the future.

Remembering what you want (or need) to do in the future is much more difficult than recalling what you did in the past, according to neuroscientists and others who study memory.

Why? The main reason is that you don’t have strong contextual triggers to help you recall your intentions. That’s why so many of us use calendars, alarms, to-do lists, special apps and other reminders to jog our memory.

Judging by the number of missed calls, meetings and deadlines, the workplace could benefit from more aids to help people follow through on their intentions. That’s just scratching the surface though.

Following through is more than just showing up, checking off the box or throwing something over the proverbial cubicle wall.

Acting on your intentions also involves setting aside time to think deeply and act deliberately.

Throughout your crazy, busy days, much of your work depends on you using prospective memory, not just retrospective memory.

You use your prospective memory when you remember to do something you had planned or intended to do, such as researching a question from a colleague, reviewing a team member’s presentation, starting a new project that’s in your goals, making a decision, and anything else that’s future oriented.

By contrast, you call on your retrospective memory when you remember events, people and places that you have already experienced. Retrospective memory also includes drawing on information you already know.

As Carmen Simon explained in her thoughtful LinkedIn post Use Brain Science to Create Memorable Content about memory and business, “Memory’s main purpose is not to help us keep track of the past, but to help us navigate the future.”

That’s why you can do yourself, your colleagues and your customers a big favor when you provide tangible triggers to traverse the environment and prepare for the future.

For example, look at that magnet pictured above. Its sole purpose is to remind customers to call SCE&G when they need to replace their current water heater.

If you’re an SCE&G (South Carolina Electric and Gas) customer, you’re getting help from your utility company to keep your clothes, dishes and body clean with hot water from a working hot water tank.

For this peace of mind, the immediate action you need to take is very tiny. SCE&G’s only request is for you to put this magnet in a spot that you’ll see it when you start to worry about having enough hot water. You’ll then have the SCE&G’s phone number handy to call.

In the workplace, common external triggers to help you and others to remember your intentions include electronic meeting invites, reminder emails, texts, pop-up alerts, special apps, posters, checklists, etc.

Challenge yourself to do more, especially providing customized cues and tools that can help people take timely, simple, and purposeful actions that help them succeed with their intentions.  

Yes, you may have to spend time, money and other resources to help them; however, if you can increase the speed and improve the quality of their actions, which will also advance the organization, you’ll enjoy a positive ROI.

And you all will be taking the road to good intentions for a better future for yourselves and your organization.

The road to good intentions is often paved with hell. Consider heavy workloads, distractions and last, but not certainly not least, the fact that our brain is hard-wired for inattention and inertia. (See How to encourage action among your employees for more about this.)

The field of behavior design is all about helping people do what they already want to do ─ or in many cases feel a need to do. As the father of behavior design and my mentor, Dr. BJ Fogg advises that effective behavior design is to make things as simple as possible for people.

“You help them redesign the world around them to make the new behavior easy to do,” explains BJ. Simplicity changes behavior.”

A physical trigger combined with a request to take a tiny, simple step now can help people remember to take a future action that will have a big impact.

What’s a good trigger to remember and prompt the future intention?

Use concrete with intention

by Liz Guthridge on May 24, 2016 · 2 comments

concrete stepsThe 72-72 rule.  

It’s succinct, specific and gets stamped into your memory—once you learn what it is.  

The 72-72 rule says that the City of Charleston should be “as good a place for tourists who visit for 72 hours as it is for residents who live here for 72 years.”

When he took office, Charleston City Council member Mike Seekings invented this rule as his governing principle.

Precise phrases like the 72-72 rule are better for the brain than glittery generalities. That’s because it’s easier for us to picture concrete things in our mind. We also have a simpler time of explaining them to others and building a shared understanding.

By contrast, glittery generalities and abstract ideas are subject to our individual interpretations.  For example, consider the phrase “enjoyable experience.” One person’s pleasure could be another person’s pain.

Concrete words and phrases express what we know through our six senses, explains Cheryl Stephens, the plain language writer, editor, and trainer at Plain Language Wizardry, in her insightful LinkedIn post, A Slab of Concrete Words.  Anything concrete exists in a material or physical form.

Time tends to verge between concrete and abstract. Time isn’t physical matter yet if you’re a Westerner you have a strong understanding of time periods, such as 72 hours and 72 years.

And there’s the rub to quote Shakespeare’s character Hamlet.

Concrete phrases also can serve as a type of concrete barrier, dividing people and things into categories, with possibly unintended consequences.  

For example, when one of my neighbors and I heard Councilman Seekings explain his 72-72 rule at a community meeting, we both determined that he wasn’t speaking to us. Nor for that matter was he probably governing with our interests in mind. And as a result, we felt like outsiders, marginalized compared with the tourists and the long-time residents.

We reached the same conclusion, but for slightly different reasons. My neighbor splits her time throughout the year between Charleston and Cincinnati. I moved to Charleston as a middle-aged adult so it’s unrealistic I’ll live here 72 years unless scientists make major strides in increasing life expectancy.

What’s the point of this rant?

Concrete words and phrases are better than glittering generalities with this exception: Unless your intent is to be exclusionary, don’t be so specific that you end up accidentally eliminating people who could be vital stakeholders for you and your initiatives.

Now how do you prevent people from feeling like they’re on the outside looking in?

Use these three questions as stepping stones the next time you’re crafting concrete language:

  1. How large and inclusive do you want or need your tent to be? For example, President Lyndon Johnson probably considered this question or a version of it before he famously said about FBI Director Herbert Hoover: “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.”
  1. What’s your downside risk of excluding individuals or groups? For example, if you’re explicitly excluding individuals or a category or department of people, such as IT or HR business partners, think about whether you will want to leverage their skills, expertise or relationships in the future.  If they feel like they’ve been assigned to your out group, they may resist helping you when you seek them out.
  1. How would you feel if the tables and chairs were turned and you lost your seat at the table? Keep in mind that social pain is as real as physical pain, and can last longer, as discovered by Dr. Matthew Lieberman, Dr. Naomi Eisenberger and other researchers.  (See What’s your tolerance for pain at work for more about this.)

You need to step carefully when you’re trying to communicate clearly and concretely as well as be open and inclusive.  

That’s why it’s important to be intentional. Think first, act carefully and when in doubt, test to determine how others may perceive your ideas.

Are these steps concrete enough for you?  If not, comment and let me know.