Tools for getting mentally fit

This past few weeks I've been challenging myself to lose a few kilos, get a little fitter and consume more wisely.  It's a sort of advance New Year's resolution and maybe by getting ahead of time there is a chance of avoiding the over indulgence that seems to go hand to mouth with the festive season.  Along with the physical challenges, I've been keen to exercise my brain more in a bid to get sharper on that front too.

One of the ways I've been doing that is through word puzzles.
We're keen fans of crosswords in our house and, although we sometimes share answers to clues, each of us likes to treat the crossword as a personal challenge. Respecting that individual approach we've even taken to photocopying the crossword so that we can each have a clean copy.

Over the past weeks of this fitness regime I've begun to notice that the solutions are coming much more quickly and so I've started to keep a record of how long each puzzle has taken to complete.  It's not anything formal and certainly not for competitive purposes in the family; it is simply to be able to prove to myself that progress is happening.  

Remember that point about clean copy? 
Now, when I do the crossword I note start and end times and record how long it has taken to complete on a clean copy.  Then - days or weeks later - the task is to do it again completing it faster than the first time. A double, personal challenge.
You might be thinking, well it's bound to be easier second time around. And sometimes, you would be right but sometimes it can take longer.  Why is that?
It can have a lot to do with the "form" or mood we are in; time of day; level of stress or tiredness.  My experience of doing and repeating the crosswords suggested that I should practise more to get my brain fitter.  Then I spotted something that my brain just might appreciate.

Online brain games
I was scrolling through a website when I noticed an advertisement for Lumosity. Don't worry! I am not trying to rope you in and the link isn't one of those affilaite things for me to earn a commission.  I tend to avoid ads and as you can see don't have any on my site but you know the saying.. when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.  I looked at the list of scientific research projects and opted to join and yes...there is a fee.

So what happens? 
Each day I get an email prompt to remind me to do that day's selection of brain games. Some aren't easy and I've gone back over several to improve my score. Certainly a few cross words have been spoken.

One of the things I like is that alongside each game is a series of suggestions from other users on how to improve your score and one of the tips I liked is that accuracy is more important than speed.

For each of the elements (speed, memory, attention, flexibility, problem solving and so on) there is a running score and by clicking through your profile you can check your precentile placing against others of the same age group. Mixed reports for me there but I'm there to do better.
There is also an overall Lumosity Performance Index (LPI) and over the past week despite a couple of steps backwards, at least I can see that I am making progress.

Lumosity has one thing in common with the crossword copy.
It repeats the test expecting ongoing training to improve performance.
Now where is that crossword?

What has happened to Starburst dares?

What has happened to the tasks and dares that used to be printed on Starburst Wrappers? They weren't included in two recent purchases.
As explained in this earlier post I use the sweets in icebreaker sessions for meetings I facilitate. The tasks are fun and lift energy in the room.
Hope they are brought back, meantime: Mental note to call their marketing team!

Teaching: Touching the past and the future

They've gone, what a pity!
It has been great working these past two days with student teachers from Stranmillis and St Mary's University Colleges.  Memories of my own student days came flooding back, especially so today as I had some time by myself to wander around my old College of Education and see rooms used for new purposes. Technology is an obvious difference although alongside the electronic whiteboard in the lecture room was an overhead projector.  I was a big fan of the OHP and still think its a useful tool even though it isn't much used these days.
Much was familiar and it was surprising to recall faces and events from over 40 years ago.  I well remember those aims and objectives, the lesson plans and visual aids - collages of magazine cut-outs pasted onto sheets of coloured manilla card.
I reflected on the hopes, dreams and ambitions of the class of '73. Many of us, intent on changing the world, have now retired after lifetimes dedicated to the service of education.
We've run the curriculum course.
The baton has been passed on many times and is now with this generation of student teachers - and those in the group I facilitated joined wholeheartedly in the tasks set and contributed fully to discussions.  They are an impressive cohort and it was lovely to be able to share in their enthusiasm. 
Someone once wrote that "teachers touch the future" - seems they can touch the past as well.

Different uses for old iPods

You know how it is, new technology comes along and replaces the older stuff. Problem is that the old stuff was once new and even though its operating system cannot be upgraded or it doesn't have the new bells and whistles, it still works.
So what to do with the previous generations of stuff? What I've done is added a selection of driving tunes to the little shuffle. An audio lead connects with the car's radio and there you go a playlist for the road. The shuffle is tiny so can be left in the glove box.
The old nano is set up to hold podcasts of favourite shows and sits in the study/office close to a supply of pens and paper. That way any useful snippets, quotes, suggestions or links can be jotted down and filed for future reference.
Then there's the trusty iPod Touch. That got so much use in the past but the collection of music eventually exceeded capacity and these days it serves as a repository for audiobooks. Yes it sometimes travels in the car, especially for long journeys but it is great for browsing titles and chapters.
Surely the point, you'll argue, is to hold different types of audio files on the same device rather than lugging different ones around. Maybe. But for the moment a different item for different purposes is working for me and keeping older gear in service.
What do you think? Do you keep old equipment up and running?
And if not, why do you still have it?

Reading on purpose

All these books on the go at the same time?  Yes and many more too.
At first glance it hardly seems to be a productive way to approach the matter of reading.... but if you can watch many different tv series over a week or a month - you can have several books on the go at the same time... Can't you?

That all depends on our purpose for reading.  I read for pleasure, information, ideas and inspiration and reading for these purposes necessarily means having several books on the go at the same time.

Take The Goldfinch there for example.  Now that's a BIG read and naturally involves a good investment of time.  I've cheated a bit with this one though to create room for others.  I've done that by downloading the Audible version as well. The "talking book" recording lasts a total of nearly 32 and a half hours! The audio version means that I can keep the book on the go while driving or doing other things and can resume the pleasure of reading again when I get the chance. Mind you, sometimes I find myself reading the same sentence, paragraph and even page again and on those occasions I will sometimes read along with the recording. That's a useful technique by the way to help absorb information and to develop the pace of reading.

That said, novels like the Goldfinch are best read one at a time.  I wouldn't usually have two reading concurrently.  Even though they too are "stories" I am a big fan of biographies and especially autobiographies. There's June Brown's, The Year Before Dot up there... I haven't got through that too quickly and I guess when a book charts the course of a life it is probably not something to be rushed. I turn to biographies because I am interested in the qualities and resilience people demonstrate in face of life's challenges. You can learn a lot about and from people who have overcome or accepted what life has thrown at them.

There's a book too that appeals to my spiritual side, Paula Fredriksen's, Sin - the early history of an idea. Shelves at home are full of texts and the ones that impress me most are those that back up their opinions with notes and references. This one is in that category and has clear academic credentials. Books like this are go-tos when some controversy or other has been aired and you're left questioning a position or wanting to follow something up.

That's the case too with Karima Bennoune's book, Your Fatwa doesn't apply here. I simply had to get this book after watching her presentation on combatting fundamentalism at a TED conference.  You can watch that presentation here and check if you too are minded to get the book.  You see how that happens? Something comes along, grabs your attention, you want to learn more and you get a book! It does not matter how many other books you have on the go this one needs your attention.

And my final book? It speaks to my francophone/francophile self. It's Helene Gestern's Eux sur la photo.  Yes it's a novel and an exception to the rule I noted above about not reading two at the same time... because this one is in French and therefore serves an additional, linguistic purpose... keeping my second language up-to-speed.  It's a fascinating book, narrated through a series of letters and I've read that it has been translated into English as The People in the Photo.

So there they are... my five on the go and then there is the Kindle library of business and management books and several more audiobooks. Finding the time and creating the space to engage with them all is quite a challenge, but a pleasant one.

I wonder if you agree...

Do you have more than one book on the go at a time?
Do you read for different purposes? What purposes?
What book are you reading now?  Do you have a favourite author?
What's the best book you've ever read?
Hope you'll share!

Notebooks. Analogue tools for a digital world

Planning out this post in my Moleskin Notebook

At a recent exhibition, hosted in the Queen's University Belfast Naughton Gallery, I was taken by the inclusion of the notebook pictured below in one of the gallery bookcases. It was one of 47 kept by the engineer Peter Rice (1935-1992). The exhibition, entitled Traces of Peter Rice, included dozens of photographs and models of many of the projects worked on by this gifted and talented creative.  I needed to know more and purchased the accompanying book, Traces of Peter Rice,  Barry, K. (ed) Lilliput Press, Dublin, 2012. Towards the end of the text J. Philip O'Kane has provided an essay, On first looking into Rice's engineering notebooks.  It's a fascinating read that has preserved in my mind's eye an enduring image of a simple, black, A4 notebook.

Notebook belonging to Peter Rice, engineer

On the pages selected for display there are preparatory notes for a video-recorded lecture given to young architects.  See YouTube video here.
If these two pages are representative of the remainder - how I would have loved to leaf through it - the notebook is both personal and personable to the point that I can imagine him flicking back through its pages, noting anecdotes, calls to make, ideas. All captured in a style that perhaps was never meant for sharing but as an aide memoire to self, recording the flow of ideas at some productive period or other.

A habit developed at school

Ever since primary school I have loved and kept notebooks. Whether it was a new jotter or exercise book I always took particular care when writing on that pristine first page. I have used many different kinds over the years and for a while favoured small pocket-sized ones. I still have several and reviewing some for this post see that I have notes of meetings, addresses, ideas for various projects and reflections on a nice meal or an event I attended.  Most entries are dated but many are not. Several have neat diagonal lines across them showing that action was taken or an idea followed up.

For the past 3 years I've been using large, plain, Moleskins. They can seem expensive at over £10 but there is something special about writing on quality paper - each new leaf as pristine as the previous, primary page. They are brilliant for confiding thoughts, ideas and developing strategies. In these busy, wired-up times sometimes what you need is a time-tested simple way of keeping track.  For me, notebooks are my analogue tools for a digital world.

Write your own story

Last year I attended Sandi Toksvig's My Valentine show. As a prize for some audience participation, instead of offering her then latest book, Valentine Grey, she gave a Moleskin encouraging the grateful recipient to start writing their own book!  And you do have a sense of keeping a personal biography with these high quality, durable products.

Ideas to actions

For me though, the notebook is more of an action device. You cannot be sure when an idea comes so having pen and paper to hand is one sure way of making sure it doesn't disappear into the ether.

Richard Branson is a big fan of notebooks and encourages us in his blog to always write down ideas. On one occasion the only paper he had to hand was his passport so he used that to record what was on his mind.

So here's the thing...

Was there anything in this post that was worth noting? Do you take notes? And if you do how do you take and keep them? What kind of things would we see recorded in your notebook?  Maybe you use electronic devices - is there still a place for pen and paper in your digital world.

Heat control for office behaviours?

The automatic thermostat for our electric frying pan is labelled self control.
If that could be plugged into our behaviours in the workplace, I wonder how often it would need to self adjust.
What behaviours in office life raise the heat?
Setting deadlines? Not getting recognition? Unreasonable expectations or demands? Dealing with difficult colleagues? Abrasive management style?
What cools things down?
Feeling appreciated? Getting recognition? Being kept informed? Getting meaningful feedback?
What raises your self control setting to red?
And what ensures an optimum position for effective working? You know that setting don't you? It's the one that's neither in the frying pan nor in the fire.
Continued success!



Metaphors and Metaphorms

It has been fun going through old digital photos, retrieved from the hard disk of a previous computer. They are now transferred to my laptop, curated through Picasa and backed up to Google+.

Many of the photos belong to 2 ongoing album collections that from time to time I share on Facebook. The largest is called "Closed Openings" - some of my favourite pictures of closed windows, doors, gates and other openings.  The other is called "Postbox Read", a collection of the various pillar and wall postal boxes that are so common place we sometimes miss the fact that many date from the time of Victoria.

Other photos were taken for use in some presentation or other. Pictures are worth a thousand words and a well chosen image can make a presentation by reinforcing a point.  Same goes for blogposts and articles.  Just check how many writers use visuals from professional picture galleries.

Using attributes of one thing to describe an unrelated something else is the business of metaphor.  Shakespeare was master of this:  Think of Hamlet and "taking arms against a sea of troubles".  Lovely image that.  Metaphors are powerful tools in story telling.

So too are Metaphorms.  I first came across that term in a book by artist, Todd Siler.  It had a powerful impact. I recall that there was a call to action near the end of the book where the author/artist invited readers to share with him their own observations. Ahead of its time, I think.

Sadly, I cannot track down a copy of the book but have found that it dates from the late eighties. I was pleased then to find this blogpost on Metaphorms. Please check it out.

Back then to the pictures.  I wonder whether you think the picture shown in this post relates to organisational life today.

And if so, how?

Lunchtime learning

Years ago one of my cousins who had worked in the United States brought back an idea called the "brown bag" lunch.  Essentially in a busy workplace with inherent difficulties of finding time for meetings and updates, his colleagues met over lunchtime to share learnings from work they were engaged in or industry conferences and seminars they had attended.  It was workplace learning shared by and for professionals.

I suppose a more recent development is the growth of "meet-ups" where other professionals organise activity or learning sessions online, agree on topics and speakers and then meet at a convenient venue to share expertise. A quick look at the meet-up website shows that there is plenty going on around Belfast.

Isn't it interesting how some people extend their professionalism to learn more about the things that interest them?  It reminds me of way back in my career when I was seconded as an assistant organiser to a Teachers' Centre. In those heady days of virtually on demand in-service training it was possible to organise short, sharp-focused INSET on a give-an-hour/take-an-hour basis. Using that model, colleagues would be facilitated to leave work an hour ahead of finishing time provided that they stayed on for an extra hour at the training session.  I know these sessions were valued, perhaps because of their quid pro quo nature and also because the values of cooperation and mutual support underpinned the process.

FastCompany magazine runs a section called Work-Smart. In a recent piece on encouraging employees to be entrepreneurs as a means to "create an incredible place to work" writer Laura Vanderkam lists the brown bag lunch as one HR problem solved. It is, she suggests, a means of showing people that they are valued not just for the stuff they do 9 to 5 but outside those hours as well.

I think it's brilliant to demonstrate that value in workplaces. I vividly recall being in two where staff's interests and passions were on display. In one case the organisation had put on display in its lobby items created by its people - paintings, models, tapestries, dresses, fashion accessories, photos of staff in various hobbies and pursuits, poems, books and music written and performed. Brilliant.
In another example much closer to home the organisation organised a poetry week and encouraged staff who wrote poems to submit them for circulation. The pieces were collected, framed and displayed on landings and walls all over the building. You really got to know staff members after that.  Their creativity was there for all to see; an open invitation to bring it into the workplace. No such thing as thinking from the neck down or leaving part of you at home.

Food for thought?
So have you ever experienced learning through a brown bag lunch? What topics did you consider? Would you do it again?  And if you haven't experienced one, could you be the catalyst and organise one for your workplace?