Reflections On Unexpected Downtime

Last week we were in the path of Winter Storm Stella and I wound up with an unexpected snow day. I was struck by the amount of articles I saw about how to stay productive when you are stuck at home. I found that idea to be opposite to what I believe and wanted to write a counterpoint article.

I’m all for taking advantage of found time such as when you are sitting in a waiting room. Catch up on some reading, write in your journal, etc. But when you have an entire day of unplanned downtime, as was the recent case with a snow day, I believe it is time to rethink what we mean by staying productive.

If by staying productive we mean to keep doing the same things as if we were going about our normal day we are doing ourselves a disservice. First off, you probably won’t get as much done. There are many factors that affect how much we get done, but unless you were expecting to work from home you might not have everything you need to get your task list accomplished. Most of all, however, is that we are missing a golden opportunity to unplug and recharge.

In the case of a snow day, no one is expecting any “work” from you. So why squander your time producing something that can be done at an expected time? Why not rethink productivity and tackle a wish-list project? Or spend the day playing games or binge-watching that show you’ve been meaning to check out?

We spend so much of our time trying to “get things done” that when we have the opportunity to step away and do something different we might not know what to do with ourselves. We might feel guilty about not doing “work” or being “productive.” But by taking the time to do something different we give ourselves a chance to come back to our work with a refreshed perspective and renewed energy.

Why I Don’t Multitask

The book we are discussing this month in the Personal Development Book Club is The Myth of Multitasking: How “Doing It All” Gets Nothing Done by Dave Crenshaw. The idea that multitasking could be inefficient was a new idea for me. My brain seems wired to flit from idea to idea and activity to activity and multitasking is one of those buzzwords you hear in the office or in job postings.

However, since our brains are only able of focusing on one task at a time, multitasking is a lie. We are in fact rapidly switching between tasks, and that switching takes a toll on our efficiency and effectiveness. When was the last time you were doing something, let’s say writing an email, when the phone rang. Did you keep writing your email as you talked on the phone? How did that work out for you? Whether you realized it or not, the person on the other end of the conversation could tell you weren’t giving them your full attention. And perhaps you had to go back and change part of your email as your typos increased or maybe you even started typing what you were saying instead of what you wanted to type.

I realized that I felt more frazzled and had more errors when I attempted to multitask. I also noticed that my time for completion (with no errors) was less if I focused on one thing at a time. Single-tasking, rather than multitasking, is the productivity enhancing tool we’ve been looking for! By focusing on one task at a time, I can get more done and feel better at the end of the day.

I can hear the skeptics now, “Surely you have more to work on than one thing at a time? You have to multitask in this crazy world!” While it may seem like you have to multitask, you don’t. Of course there will always be multiple tasks that need to be completed, and maybe they have very similar deadlines. This is where prioritizing and focusing come into play. In another post I talked about priortizing and how you can categorize tasks by order of urgency and importance as well as ways to enhance your focus. By focusing on the most urgent and important tasks one at a time you can get more done than if you were multitasking.

Stop in at the Personal Development Book Club Facebook Group and let us know your experiences with multitasking!

How To Build An Engaging Presentation

There are many things needed to create an engaging presentation beyond having a better slide deck. Let’s look at breaking down the process from start to finish. Remember, that although this is written linearly, you may actually loop back to any or all of these steps repeatedly during the process.

Pick your topic – Sometimes I start with an overarching theme, sometimes I start with a catchy title, but however you start, you need to know what you are going to talk about. Maybe you need to start broad and then narrow it down, or maybe you’ve already had it narrowed down to a succinct topic.

Things to consider:

  • Who is your audience? You don’t want to be too general for a room full of specialists and you don’t want to be overly technical to the general public.
  • How much time do you have to speak? You can’t present on “The history of everything ever” in 20 minutes. Make sure your content will reasonably fit within the allotted time.
  • Is your topic interesting to the audience? You might think your topic is super interesting, but will you be boring your audience to distraction?

Brainstorming – Once I have an idea on what I am going to speak about, I start planning. I use pen & paper or sometimes a big whiteboard and jot down ideas, lots of ideas, any ideas that come to mind. This could include themes, references, and quotes among other ideas.

Things to consider: This is not the time to worry about timing, or flow, or anything other than generating ideas. Don’t self-censor and worry about if an idea is good or not. That will come later.

Structure – Think about how you want to lay out your presentation. This is when you start building the framework to contain your content.

Things to consider: You might like to follow a three-act structure or other storytelling structures. What will fit your content, venue, and audience the best? Will there be a question and answer period? If so, think about how you want to incorporate that – hint: don’t end with Q&A. You can put it towards the end, but then leave time for your strong closing. A common structure I follow is – Introduction/Exposition — Problem/Reflecting — Resolution/optional Q&A/Call to Action

Focus – This is the part where you examine your ideas and mold and cut into the story you wish to tell. More than likely, you have too many ideas to fit into your allotted time. What can get cut for clarity? What ideas did you come up with that won’t fit this talk? Set those aside for another time. With the remaining ideas, see what will fit best in what part of your structure. Get your ideas organized so you can begin to envision how your presentation will flow.

Writing / Creating Your Slide Deck – I put these together because I tend to do these simultaneously. If I am going to be using a slide deck, sometimes I will create that first and use that to guide my writing. Other times I will write first and then create my slides. Occasionally I will create a slide and write in chunks. I don’t always write/create slides in the order I will eventually present them.

When writing, I sometimes just write an outline and other times I write a full script of what I plan on saying. I’ve had success with both methods and for me it just depends on the topic. This is where I incorporate all of the ideas left from my focus time into a coherent story. You should allow ample time for rewrites and edits. I find that I often go back and make changes after a rehearsal.

When creating your slide deck, remember to Avoid Death by PowerPoint

Rehearsal – Once you have your content written and your slides created it is time to rehearse. Always use a timer so you can get a feel for how long it will take. Very often after the first rehearsal I’ve noted where stumbling blocks are, what needs to be modified, and whether or not I am going to run too long or too short. After each rehearsal go back and make edits as needed. Then rehearse again. Once you’ve reached the point where no more edits are needed, you can rehearse as if you were presenting. Go over it enough times so that you are comfortable and confident in your delivery. Don’t worry about memorizing a script word for word, but make sure you know your key points and how to get there.

Things to consider: While you don’t have to worry about memorizing a script start to finish, you should make sure you can start and end strong. You don’t want to verbally stumble when you first start off or, more importantly, right before you exit.

Go live – It’s the big day! Make sure you are in a good frame of mind before you go on stage. Give 100% and be optimally present while on site (not just on stage).

How I Prioritize My Tasks

I use a few different criteria for prioritizing my tasks in my day to day activities. As stuff comes in I use a modified version of the 4 D method.

For this example I will talk about email, but it works for other things too. Once I open my email, I’ll scan my inbox and then apply the D’s in this order:

Discard/Drawer – Based on sender and subject I can eliminate a number of emails from my inbox. Maybe it is junk and can be discarded. Or maybe it is something I want to keep for reference but don’t need to do anything with, then I can put in a ‘drawer’ or another folder other than my inbox for future reference.

Do – If something can be done in about two minutes or less, just do it. Why put it off and let things pile up? That just causes stress and mental load. Do it now and move on.

Defer/Date – If it is something I need to do, but will take more time I add it to my task holding area for later consideration. If there is a due date I will add that as well.

Delegate – Is this something that someone else should be doing? If yes, send it along to the proper people.

Once I have processed my incoming information, it is time to prioritize. I like to use an Urgent/Important matrix to help set priorities (you may have seen this called an Eisenhower Matrix, or seen something similar from Stephen Covey). The idea is that tasks can be placed on a matrix based on whether they are important or not, and urgent or not:

You do need to be honest with yourself. Not everything can be urgent and important equally. So the tasks that are most urgent and important would go first, down the list. As you plan out your day based on your prioritized list it is important to remember that you may have more tasks than possible to complete in a day. Do not add them to today’s task list, but rather keep them in a separate holding area list. That way they are easily accessible if you finish all your scheduled tasks early, but they aren’t hanging out on your main list stressing you out.

7 Great TED Talks to Fuel Your Mind

I am a fan of TED (or TED-like) Talks and TED’s mission of spreading ideas. Getting ideas and then using them in a unique way to your benefit is one of the ways we grow. Here are seven of the TED talks I have personally found to be inspiring and enlightening. I hope they are the same for you!

The happy secret to better work – Shawn Achor

The 3 A’s of awesome – Neil Pasricha

Why we do what we do – Tony Robbins

How great leaders inspire action – Simon Sinek

Your body language shapes who you are – Amy Cuddy

How to gain control of your free time – Laura Vanderkam

The tribes we lead – Seth Godin

Persistent Optimism in the Face of Change

We are faced with varying levels of change every day. Some change is positive and some is negative. How we look at things can have a large impact on how we are able to cope. If we choose an optimistic lens to look through, and persistently hold on to the hope and confidence that instills in us, we can achieve the abundance we desire.

We can use persistent optimism as a change-agent in our lives and in the lives of others. When we select a worthy goal and persist in our commitment to see it through, regardless of rejection and self-doubt, we can overcome almost any obstacle and limitation. As we know, this is not easy. Along the way, setbacks may tempt us to lose confidence. Naysayers may convince us that we cannot achieve our vision. We may simply decide that we are too tired to continue. However, the force of optimism will always overcome that of pessimism, if we can only consistently muster the determination to keep going.

One way we can view this is through the struggle we may encounter between keeping the status quo or facing change, between our desire to try something adventurous and the lure of playing it safe. We may struggle to overcome the inertia of safety as we are faced with something new; something that we may actually like; something that will change the way we view the world. However, our resistance is not based on facts or experience, but is a stubborn refusal to respond to this call—a refusal to enter the unknown and accept the risk that comes with changing our old habits. Once we do overcome the resistance, and step outside of our comfort zone, we may be delighted to find that what we were uncomfortable with is actually good for us and helps us to grow.

“In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins. Not through strength, but through persistence.”

By keeping ourselves as persistent agents of change, hope, and optimism, we can overcome what may seem like impenetrable rock and find that through this persistence our resistance was worn down and we became open to change.

How To Enhance Your Focus

There are two main points about focus that I want to touch on, the first is mentioned in the quote by Tony Robbins, “Focus on where you want to go, not on what you fear.” Frequently we may find ourselves thinking about, or focusing on, the negatives in our lives; the things we fear, bad things happening in the world, mistakes we may have made.

When we focus on our fears we magnify their power over us. So what can we do to focus more on where we want to go in our lives? First we should examine what we have control over. If there are things that we are focusing on that we can’t change, the first -although difficult- step is to eliminate those things that we can’t control from our focus. This isn’t to say we should be ignorant of larger issues, but unless we can actively do something about them, any focus on things outside of our control is wasted. Second, we can make sure we know what our goals are and have a plan to achieve those goals. Set your goals based on aspiration, with positive intent, and with an abundant mindset, not out of fear or with a scarcity mindset. Once we know what we want and how we will get there it is time to ensure we have the tools to get where we want to go.

The second point is that of everyday focus, the focus that gets stuff done. If your mind is split in several different directions you may eventually complete a task, but you will be less efficient and more stressed in the process. 100% focus on the task at hand can be difficult to achieve, but in the long run will give you better performance.

So what can we do to increase our focus? The first thing is to mentally prepare and make a commitment to focusing 100% on the task at hand. If you are working on a computer or mobile device, turn off all notifications and other pop-ups and sounds that will distract you. Turn off sounds on your phone as well. Check your physical environment for distractions and eliminate what you can. Is you chair uncomfortable? Get a new chair, or if that is not an option at least get a pillow or some other way of making the chair more comfortable. In a noisy work environment, get some headphones to block out the sound. Can’t work in complete silence, use a background noise generator or listen to non-distracting music. Make sure your desk is set up in a way that is ergonomic and functional. Everything you need should be readily available to you, you shouldn’t have to spend time looking for a file or piece of equipment.

Set a timer and commit to working until the timer runs out. If you are new to this, set the timer for a short period of time such as five minutes. Concentrate on working on your task until the timer is done. If you can’t do five minutes, try two. If five minutes is a breeze, up it to 10 or maybe 15.

The long term goal would be to work up to being able to focus for longer stretches without a break. The Pomodoro Technique encourages us to work in 25 minute periods, then take a short break. I use this for things like handling email or catching up with phone calls/messaging.

For tasks that you may find yourself in a state of “flow”, where you are hyper-focused and don’t notice time passing, such as writing, reading, or coding, you may not want to interrupt your flow every 25 minutes. For these I set my timer for 50 minutes or sometimes 100 minutes. I generally don’t want to go longer than that, especially while sitting, as it can be uncomfortable on your body which will negatively impact the rest of your day.

When the timer is done, take a break to move your body and give your mind something different to do. Take a walk, get some water, look out a window, anything to briefly relax. In the long-term these breaks will allow you to get back to focusing easier.

With practice you can eliminate distractions and focus fully on the task at hand!

Avoiding Death by PowerPoint Without Being Too “Out There”

Boring presentations are almost the de facto standard when it comes to business and academic presentations. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are some simple tips you can take to avoid “Death by PowerPoint” without going to the extreme of making your presentation a keynote worthy event that a professional speaker would perform.

Preparing a conference presentation or keynote is a significant undertaking, one that it is recommended to spend 36-90 hours of preparation for every hour of presentation. But how about those “mini” presentations, those ones that aren’t career defining? Maybe you need to make a presentation at a business meeting or update a working group and while you don’t need to spend a ton of time preparing it, you don’t want to send your audience into a PowerPoint induced coma either.

Here are a few tips to make your slide deck more interesting.

Finding My Resilience

On April 12, 2016 I received very shocking professional news. Without warning or discussion I was immediately transferred out of a position I considered my calling to a job that was, well, just a job. This is the story of how, although it took me many months, I found my resilience and began to thrive again.

Very often we define our identity based on our profession, and clearly at that time, so did I. I felt betrayed – hadn’t I been doing excellent work with exciting programming? I felt dehumanized – who moves a person around like a piece of furniture? I felt set adrift – what do I do now, who am I?

There are many reasons why I was able to regain my balance and find my resilience, but first and foremost I have to thank my fabulous wife Karen and the rest of my family. They gave me strength, love, and support and helped me rediscover myself. Two of the foundations for building resilience are self-esteem and connections with others. Although my self-esteem was shaken, my connection to my family and friends provided the support needed for me to get back to a strong state of mind.

Thankfully, I have done a lot of studying on topics such as positive psychology and growth mindsets. So imagine my surprise when the chips were down how hard it was to globally apply these concepts to my life in the moment. I knew I could, and should, frame things differently, but was really unable to. It was at this time that I looked to my family, friends, and church community for support. I knew what I needed to do to move on, but was unable to. My social support got me to a mental place where I was ready and willing to move on.

One of the most important reminders is that each individual is responsible for how they look at the world. We might not be able to control everything that happens to us, but we can control how we react to it. For example, I may not be happy with my situation or how it was handled, but now that I am beyond the grieving period I am able to make the best of it. I could choose to be negative and grumpy and focus on every little fault I find in my day. But that will just make me miserable, and I don’t want to be miserable. So instead, I focus on what is good and what I am grateful for.

There are 168 hours in a week. On average we only spend 25% of that time at work. So why should work take up more than 25% of our overall focus? Certainly when you are at work you should give work 100% of your focus. But when looking at your life as a whole, you need a more balanced approach. When we find ourselves out of balance it makes it more difficult to recover from unexpected changes. That was the situation I found myself in. I was devoting way more of my focus to work, so when that went away I was affected far greater than I needed to be.

Another way that I learned to build resilience was to change my self-talk. The language in which we speak to ourselves changes our thoughts. For example, using milder language can lessen the effects of negativity: use “dislike” instead of “hate”, something is “not to my taste” rather than “awful” and replace “always, never, everyone, no one” with “sometimes, some people.” When negative thoughts happen see if you can reframe them to neutral or positive ones.  So instead of thinking “That idiot cut me off in traffic, I hate when people do that to me!” perhaps you can instead think “That person might be distracted by something important to them, I dislike getting cut off, but it was not against me personally and I don’t want to ruin my day by getting angry over something so small.”

One of the biggest demands on our resilience is the everyday stress of our lives. Some ways we can address our stress are to Avoid, Alter, or Accept. Avoid by limiting time with people who cause stress and by better managing your time. Alter by reframing problems and changing your environment. Accept by learning to forgive and to stop trying to control the uncontrollable. To help manage your stress you can engage one of your senses, perhaps by going for a walk, listening to music, petting a dog, etc.

A big cause of stress is change and how we react to change. There are four main types of personal responses to change: No – you are actively against the change; Slow – you reluctantly participate in the change; Flow – you go with the flow, as the change happens you go with it; Go – you actively promote and help achieve the change. Each type has their own ways of proactively adapting to change, but everyone should look at the consequences of not changing, figure out what you can and can’t control, make peace with what you can’t control, and make a plan for what you can control.

Building your resilience is not a quick fix, but in the long run it is worth it. Remember that resilience is the process of bouncing back after adversity, not preventing adversity. We will encounter challenges every day, some big and some small. Everyone can learn to build their resilience and be better equipped to bounce back after encountering adversity.

6 Steps to Better Time Management


Everyone has the same 24 hours in a day. Here are some ways you can better make use of the time you have:

  1. Set Goals
    If you don’t know what you want how will you know how to best spend your time?
  2. Create a Plan
    Once you have a goal, you need to figure out how to achieve that goal. This will be your plan. Figure out what steps you need to take and realistically estimate how long each step will take to accomplish.
  3. Set Priorities
    You probably have several goals and many tasks to complete to accomplish them. Which ones are more important? Which ones are more urgent? Is there a particular order certain tasks must be completed in?
  4. Set Daily Tasks
    If you are scheduling an 8 hour day for example, you should only schedule 6 hours worth of tasks. There will be interruptions, things will take longer than you estimated, and/or something unavoidable will come up that needs attention immediately. Do not put more on your daily list than you can reasonably accomplish! If you consistently end your day with tasks left over that will be demotivating.
  5. Review and Evaluate
    Schedule time to review and evaluate each step to make sure you are still working towards your goals. Perhaps a goal has changed or you’ve added new goals. Now is the time to adjust your plan, priorities, and daily tasks.
  6. Celebrate
    Congratulate yourself for working towards and achieving your goals! Yay you! You’ve got this!