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Tired of not taking action? Give your brain a good workout!

Tired of not taking action? Give your brain a good workout!

With all of the excellent tips you can read on the web, I would bet that you could probably write your own blog article on how to get the body, relationship, or career you want.

 Drink lots of water. Praise more, scold less. Visualize. Don’t be afraid to ask. Practice gratitude.

And yet, you may still feel stuck in certain areas of your life. Why? Because you are not taking the actions you know you should take.

Maybe you vow that you will spend 10 minutes each morning meditating. When the time comes to actually sit down and close your eyes, however, you just don’t want to. You find a dozen other things that you just have to get done instead, like check one more email. Sound familiar?

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You can wrestle with “self-discipline” all you like, but the truth is that there are very real mental processes in your brain that keep you from taking action. So today, I am going to delve into (a simplified version of) what these processes are, and how to design more beneficial ones so that you can take action and have the life you want.

On one hand: Your voice of reason

One of the regions of your brain responsible for making rational decisions is the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is like your voice of reason. It is great at understanding the consequences of our actions, like “if I eat this cake tonight, I will feel terrible tomorrow.” If you gave the megaphone to your PFC, you would likely be closer to living your dream life by now.

On the other hand: The fear monger

But not so fast. There is another part of your brain that is the champion of fear and annoyance, called the amygdala. Whenever something comes up that scares or annoys you, the amygdala raises a raucous. It tells you “don’t ask that girl out, she will just reject you!” or “I don’t feel like getting out of bed!” If you gave the megaphone to your amygdala, you likely wouldn’t get as much done, but you sure would stay safe and sound.

Their relationship

The PFC decides when you should listen to the amygdala (“yes, back away from that rattlesnake.”) and when you shouldn’t (“no, get out of bed NOW.”). When it comes to our dreams, a strong PFC “calms down” the amygdala and makes sure that we take the right actions; a weak PFC does not, and the amygdala gets to call more of the shots.

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So the key to taking the right actions is to strengthen your PFC. Pretty simple and cool, huh?

How do you do that? Here are a few ways:

1. Label it.

Acknowledge what the amygdala is saying, like “I feel scared because…” This improves your objectivity about the situation, giving the PFC a helping hand, and it also doesn’t confront the amygdala in a way that will “aggravate” it further.

2. Dismantle fear in steps.

Maybe a certain action, like giving a presentation, scares you tremendously. Instead of jumping into the deep end by volunteering to speak at the next all-division meeting, which would trigger an all-out amygdalar upset, break the journey into steps. Start by speaking up more at group meetings. Then present to a small group. Bite off pieces that keep your amygdalar response small and manageable by the PFC.

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3. Don’t remember.

Stop using your mind to store To Dos, like “get eggs on your way home,” or “remember that tomorrow is Jen’s birthday.” They cloud your thinking, and will deprive your PFC of the energy and focus it needs to properly regulate the amygdala.

4. Exercise.

Yes, that magic cure-all. It’s been shown that attention and self-control increase after strenuous aerobic exercise.

5. Meditate.

Like #3, meditation clears excess chatter from your mind so your PFC can make decisions in peace and quiet. Granted, this is a bit of a Catch-22 if you are having a hard time “making yourself” meditate in the first place. But even a small step here can yield big dividends for your PFC.

If you want to be living your dream life, it’s time to make your PFC work up a sweat and assert its dominance over your amygdala. Just like any other part of our bodies, it really doesn’t have to be any more difficult than, say, working out our leg muscles to become a better runner. You just need to practice it to master it!

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What mental exercises will you take on to strengthen your PFC so that you can take action? Write me a note and share!

Featured photo credit: Brain Machine in Newcastle, Apr-2013/Mitch Altman via flickr.com

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The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

It’s a depressing adage we’ve all heard time and time again: An increase in technology does not necessarily translate to an increase in productivity.

Put another way by Robert Solow, a Nobel laureate in economics,

“You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

In other words, just because our computers are getting faster, that doesn’t mean that that we will have an equivalent leap in productivity. In fact, the opposite may be true!

New York Times writer Matt Richel wrote in an article for the paper back in 2008 that stated, “Statistical and anecdotal evidence mounts that the same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.”

There’s a strange paradox when it comes to productivity. Rather than an exponential curve, our productivity will eventually reach a plateau, even with advances in technology.

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So what does that mean for our personal levels of productivity? And what does this mean for our economy as a whole? Here’s what you should know about the productivity paradox, its causes, and what possible solutions we may have to combat it.

What is the productivity paradox?

There is a discrepancy between the investment in IT growth and the national level of productivity and productive output. The term “productivity paradox” became popularized after being used in the title of a 1993 paper by MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson, a Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the Director of the MIT Center for Digital Business.

In his paper, Brynjolfsson argued that while there doesn’t seem to be a direct, measurable correlation between improvements in IT and improvements in output, this might be more of a reflection on how productive output is measured and tracked.[1]

He wrote in his conclusion:

“Intangibles such as better responsiveness to customers and increased coordination with suppliers do not always increase the amount or even intrinsic quality of output, but they do help make sure it arrives at the right time, at the right place, with the right attributes for each customer.

Just as managers look beyond “productivity” for some of the benefits of IT, so must researchers be prepared to look beyond conventional productivity measurement techniques.”

How do we measure productivity anyway?

And this brings up a good point. How exactly is productivity measured?

In the case of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity gain is measured as the percentage change in gross domestic product per hour of labor.

But other publications such as US Today, argue that this is not the best way to track productivity, and instead use something called Total Factor Productivity (TFP). According to US Today, TFP “examines revenue per employee after subtracting productivity improvements that result from increases in capital assets, under the assumption that an investment in modern plants, equipment and technology automatically improves productivity.”[2]

In other words, this method weighs productivity changes by how much improvement there is since the last time productivity stats were gathered.

But if we can’t even agree on the best way to track productivity, then how can we know for certain if we’ve entered the productivity paradox?

Possible causes of the productivity paradox

Brynjolfsson argued that there are four probable causes for the paradox:

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  • Mis-measurement – The gains are real but our current measures miss them.
  • Redistribution – There are private gains, but they come at the expense of other firms and individuals, leaving little net gain.
  • Time lags – The gains take a long time to show up.
  • Mismanagement – There are no gains because of the unusual difficulties in managing IT or information itself.

There seems to be some evidence to support the mis-measurement theory as shown above. Another promising candidate is the time lag, which is supported by the work of Paul David, an economist at Oxford University.

According to an article in The Economist, his research has shown that productivity growth did not accelerate until 40 years after the introduction of electric power in the early 1880s.[3] This was partly because it took until 1920 for at least half of American industrial machinery to be powered by electricity.”

Therefore, he argues, we won’t see major leaps in productivity until both the US and major global powers have all reached at least a 50% penetration rate for computer use. The US only hit that mark a decade ago, and many other countries are far behind that level of growth.

The paradox and the recession

The productivity paradox has another effect on the recession economy. According to Neil Irwin,[4]

“Sky-high productivity has meant that business output has barely declined, making it less necessary to hire back laid-off workers…businesses are producing only 3 percent fewer goods and services than they were at the end of 2007, yet Americans are working nearly 10 percent fewer hours because of a mix of layoffs and cutbacks in the workweek.”

This means that more and more companies are trying to do less with more, and that means squeezing two or three people’s worth of work from a single employee in some cases.

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According to Irwin, “workers, frightened for their job security, squeezed more productivity out of every hour [in 2010].”

Looking forward

A recent article on Slate puts it all into perspective with one succinct observation:

“Perhaps the Internet is just not as revolutionary as we think it is. Sure, people might derive endless pleasure from it—its tendency to improve people’s quality of life is undeniable. And sure, it might have revolutionized how we find, buy, and sell goods and services. But that still does not necessarily mean it is as transformative of an economy as, say, railroads were.”

Still, Brynjolfsson argues that mismeasurement of productivity can really skew the results of people studying the paradox, perhaps more than any other factor.

“Because you and I stopped buying CDs, the music industry has shrunk, according to revenues and GDP. But we’re not listening to less music. There’s more music consumed than before.

On paper, the way GDP is calculated, the music industry is disappearing, but in reality it’s not disappearing. It is disappearing in revenue. It is not disappearing in terms of what you should care about, which is music.”

Perhaps the paradox isn’t a death sentence for our productivity after all. Only time (and perhaps improved measuring techniques) will tell.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

Reference

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