RFS Blog | by Karl W. Palachuk – Relax Focus Succeed. Learn more at www.relaxfocussucceed.com

Three Quick One-Liners

Two Antennas Got Married . . .

I Broke My Addiction

Humor: Major Decisions

May/19

25

Leave Gaps

Nothing is important. Um . . . Let me rephrase that: Leaving space in your life for new things is important. Leaving space for “nothing” means leaving space for opportunity.

We modern humans have a natural tendency to over-pack, over-schedule, and over-commit. We stack our day with frenzied activity and act surprised when one domino knocks down all the rest.

A few years ago I wrote a blog post about one of my favorite “Rules for Life.” It’s called Silence Means Nothing. (Read that now.) The gist is that we spend lots of energy filling in the mental gaps when we waiting for communication.

A very common example is when you send a text and don’t get a reply. Is that bad? Did I offend someone? Is silence a yes or a no? More often than not, silence has nothing to do with you. Perhaps the other person had to jump in the car and drive somewhere. Or their mother called. Or something. Once you tune into this, you’ll see examples everywhere.

In my “day job,” I train technology consultants to be better at the business side of their business. Very often, that means helping them to create good processes and procedures. A big piece of this is helping them manage their work load. And the biggest problem I find is over-scheduling.

Think about your average day. Is it filled before you start? Is you entire day booked up by the time you start your first task? If the answer is yes, then you’ve set yourself up for a stressful afternoon. Why? Because “something” will happen. Something always happens. One client has an emergency. Another shows up late. Somebody goes home early.

Whatever it is, something interrupts your nice, tightly-packed schedule.

Another maxim I use in by business is related to project management: Something’s going to go wrong. We don’t know whether it will be big or small, but we’ll find it and fix it. We’ll always be successful in the end; we just don’t know how smooth the path will be.

Accepting that emergencies and interruptions happen does not mean you’re a bad person. Don’t plan your day as if everything will be perfect. When was the last time that happened?

Here’s a challenge to reduce your stress in the next week: Leave gaps. Leave blocks of time un-scheduled. Leave room at the table for an unexpected guest. My guess is that you’ll actually get a lot more done. When the inevitable interruption takes place, you’ll wiggle things around a bit and take care of it without throwing off the rest of your day.

Three great advantages come from leaving gaps in your day.

  • “Stuff” happens that you didn’t expect. Now you have a little extra time to take care of it without making a mess of your whole day.
  • No emergencies or big interruptions happen. Good! That gives you time to finish everything you had scheduled and either start working on tomorrow’s list or give everything you do today a little extra attention and love.
  • In your open time, your brain relaxes and new ideas emerge. You may not have time to work out all the details, but you’ll probably have time to jot down a few notes so you can revisit the new ideas another time.

There’s a lot of great research about the chemical factory inside your brain. When we over-book and over-pack our lives, we place ourselves in a perpetual state of “Fight or Flight” – and that’s not healthy. You need it once in awhile, but as a constant state of operation, it will lead to serious health problems.

Really. Google “perpetual fight or flight” and read any ten of the five millions results that come back.

Yet another of my maxims is Slow Down, Get More Done. When you under-pack your day, you actually have a chance of accomplishing everything you need to do. AND you leave room for opportunity to knock on your door.

Opportunity has probably been knocking for a long time. You just didn’t have time to answer the door.

:-)

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May/19

25

Piano on the Porch

Joe: Why is there a piano on the porch?

Moe: He forgot his keys.

:-)

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Feb/19

20

Working Out Your Whole Brain

At one time, we thought the brain was just one thing. Now we know that the brain is more complicated and miraculous than ever.

You have parts of your brain that are automatic, controlling your basic functions. And you have some you can control. Others more or less lie dormant until we call on them. THOSE are the ones I find most interesting.

There’s an old saying about getting old: Use it or lose it. That refers to your body. You have to remain flexible, or you’ll stop being flexible. You have to keep walking or you’ll lose the ability to walk. You have to use your muscles or you’ll lose your muscles.

How many ways do you use your brain?

The brain works the same way. If you stop doing puzzles, a certain part of your brain basically shuts down. If you stop being artistic, another part shuts down. And on it goes for memory, attention, focus, etc. There’s new research that people who do a variety of interesting things can slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

I recently wrote in my technology newsletter about attending conferences outside the field of technology. I love going to conferences for writers in particular because there’s so much creative energy in the room.

We all spend so much time in our businesses that we end up putting on blinders. We are super focused on the here and the now and the challenges. We are focused on the next payroll and the next marketing campaign.

Conferences put us in an environment where people are talking about other things. Writer conferences are particularly good because only a few people are talking about writing. Everyone else is talking about their book project. And those subjects are as varied as the book shelves at Barnes and Noble:

Science. History. Art. Biographies. Business. Cooking. Health. Lifestyles. Technology. Fiction. Travel. Science. Romance. Everything!

One reason I travel and attend so many conferences is to keep the creative part of my brain engaged. I refer to it as mixing up the mental DNA. I meet a variety of people and talk about hobbies, challenges, the tools they use, and the habits that contribute to their success.

One of the ways people get “stuck” in their personal and professional lives is that they stop doing a variety of things.

Really. It’s as simple as that.

Workaholism is the most visible example. People work and work and work. And then they work at night, on the weekends, and even while riding a bus or train. They don’t garden any more, or take a drive in the country.

Workaholics get obsessed with getting more and more done. They lose sight of the fact that the work will literally never be done. (And it shouldn’t be, because then you have to go get another job.)

When you stop having hobbies, painting fences, meeting new people, reading for fun, or gardening, you shut off pieces of your brain.

Workaholics aren’t the only ones. Some people get completely obsessed with cleaning or knitting or bingo. Whatever it is, they do that one thing all the time and stop doing other things.

A friend recently invited me to a local poker night at a bar. No actual money is at stake, but teams compete and move through a league similar to bowling. She was a little surprised that I said yes right away and jumped right into it. I’m not a big poker player, although I enjoy it. But it was something different to do.

I have another friend I call on to keep a level of weirdness in my life. About once a year I say, “Find us something different to do” – and it never fails. Last year is was superstar midget wrestling. This year, who knows?

But it will be a new thing for me. And I have a strong tendency to not do new things most of the time. So I’ve made a habit of saying yes to lots of stuff simply to include a variety of experiences in my week, month, and year.


What do you do to light up various parts of your brain? Remember: Use it or lose it!

:-)

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Dec/18

23

Only Do Three Things per Day

Most of us have too much to do. We are overwhelmed at work and overwhelmed at home.

And guess what? Most people are even more overwhelmed when they start making to-do lists. Why? Because they write down dozens of items and can see that the list will eventually have hundreds of items.

Most people aren’t good at managing their to-do lists for two simple reasons: First, they’re overwhelmed. So, second, they don’t make lists!

The real problem is not the number of things on your list. The real problem is confusing urgency with importance. Here’s a sad rule of life that is nevertheless true:

Everyone in your life is willing to put items on your to-do list; Only you can decide what actually gets on that list.

So, how do you make such decisions? Well, for starters, you have to spend enough time in introspection to know what’s truly important in your life. This starts with an understanding of your values and guiding principles. Once you focus on what’s most important in your life, it becomes easier to figure out what’s important this year, this month, this week, and each day.

I’m a big believer in meditation or morning quiet time. I know some people find it hard to do, but that’s mostly because they don’t really try. You can’t do anything effectively if you try for five minutes and decide it’s not for you. That includes meditation as well as playing the piano.

With regular meditation, you can identify the most important values and goals in your life. After that, tackling to-do lists and daily activities becomes much more manageable.

The key to success is to identify no more than three “roles” in your life that you will act on today. For example, your role as parent, employer, spouse, or community member. We all play several roles in our lives. But of course we can’t do everything every day!

Here’s how this helps you lower your stress and actually get more done: Choose only three things to do each day. More specifically, for each role in your life, choose one thing. If you’re lucky, you will accomplish those three things. And if you actually accomplish more, you should feel good about that.

But please don’t sabotage yourself. You will be tempted to choose three things per role, or two things per role. That sounds good, but leads you quickly down the road to overwhelm.

As a completely separate project (as more of an intellectual exercise), it is a good idea to keep some big master list of things that need to be done. But only do this if it relieves stress rather than adding more.

In general, you can reduce stress by focusing on the highest priority items in your life. It also helps a lot if you train yourself to stop worrying about all the low-priority stuff. I know: Easier said than done. But remember that most of that low priority stuff was put on your list by someone else.

When I first moved to California, Blue Diamond Almonds had an ad campaign with amond farmers saying, “A can a week. That’s all we ask.” This is sort of similar.

Do three things each day. That’s all I ask.

:-)

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I just finished an excellent book entitled Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr. He starts out by examining Carl Jung’s work on the two halves of human growth or the two halves of life.

“The first half of life is spent building our sense of identity, importance, and security—what I would call the false self and Freud might call the ego self. Jung emphasizes the importance and value of a healthy ego structure. But inevitably you discover, often through failure or a significant loss, that your conscious self is not all of you, but only the acceptable you. You will find your real purpose and identity at a much deeper level than the positive image you present to the world.

In the second half of life, the ego still has a place, but now in the service of the True Self or soul, your inner and inherent identity. Your ego is the container that holds you all together, so now its strength is an advantage.”


I know it’s pretty heavy stuff. But here’s what rings so very true in the modern world: Never before in human history have we been more empowered to project an acceptable view of ourselves to the world. Think of what people do on Facebook. They post up images of their ideal selves. No one posts up their petty fights and selfish actions.

In some ways, this is very good. After all, as people take pride in being kind, loving, cheerful, and good citizens, we expect more of that in the real world (off social media).

For the Rohr, “First half of life” activities include saving money, building a family, securing housing and food, and joining groups that identify you (your family, your sports teams, your country, your party, your ideology). Second half activities are more focused on tearing down all that and defining yourself without regard to family, country, ideology, etc.

Ironically, a lot of the activity of acquiring and identifying in the first half of life is actually an attempt to figure out who we are. We spend a lot of time with “us” vs. “them” activities, because that collection of “us” activities helps us see who we are as individuals. In the second half of life, we begin tearing all that stuff down to see who the real person is inside all those masks we’ve put on for decades. The never-ending search for our true selves involves stripping off those identities of party, ideology, and possessions. If we’re lucky, we also strip off the victim-self.

Rohr’s most important argument, in my opinion, is that we in modern society continue with “first half” activities into the second half of life. Many people never get around to second half activities at all. As a result, they never finish acquiring; they never identify outside of an ideological philosophy or religion; they never take time to try to figure out their true self. And, sadly, they never start the work to find out what fulfills them as individuals. They just keep plugging along as they did for the first half of their lives.

The down-side is two-fold. First, we as individuals miss out on the potential to find out who we truly are, without the trappings of the seeking/acquiring world. In the terminology of Abraham Maslow, we give up the opportunity for self-actualization. Second, society loses because we’re spending so much time fighting each other and focusing on our differences instead of what we have in common.

Yesterday would have been my father’s birthday. But he died at age fifty. He didn’t get to have a second half of life experience. When I think of him, and friends I’ve known who died young, it rings very true for me that we need to take this second half stuff pretty seriously. You never know when your time will be up. So it makes sense to get started today. When you get to mid-life, you should make a conscious effort to stop working on first half stuff, and start working on second half stuff.

As you can imagine, that means a renewed focus on meditation or prayer, quiet time, and self-reflection. Maybe I was just predisposed to like this book from the start.

:-)

 

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Oct/18

8

Do You Need to Be Done?

I realized a while back that I no longer strive to be “done” with a lot of things.

Some things need to be done, of course. But others are never done.

When I’m writing a book or putting together a new presentation, I love the feeling of making progress. I track it on Excel spreadsheets. I post chapters and share milestones. I love finishing the first draft and moving from the “creating” phase to the editing phase. And even though the post-writing phase is a lot less fun, I push through so I can be done. Done done. Really done. Go-do-something-else done.

But there’s a whole different class of things that are never done. For example, I love paying bills. I know that sounds odd, but I’ve always loved paying all the bills and making payroll. There’s a real sense of accomplishment that I can make enough money to pay down all those bills and have money left over. This used to be more fun back in the days when bills showed up as pieces of paper and were paid with checks in envelopes. Now bills show up electronically and area often paid the same way. Money just sort of magically moves around.

Laundry is another thing that’s never done. It’s always nice to be “done” with laundry. But, unless you do laundry naked, you know it’s never done. There’s always another towel, another pair of pants. I knew someone who was so obsessed with having the laundry done that she ran an entire washer and dryer cycle for one single sock. But of course, later that day, there was more laundry.

You can probably think of many things in your life that are never done. Cooking meals, mowing the lawn, cleaning everything, and getting ready for all the stuff you have to do in the next day, week, or year.

We all have never-ending chores. And we like some more than others.

One of the great lessons of my life is that it’s okay to accept that some things will never be done. When I stop mowing the lawn, it probably means my grass is dead. That’s no good. So mowing the lawn forever is a good thing. And, really, paying bills forever is a good thing. The same is true with filing paperwork, vacuuming, and figuring out what meals I’m going to eat in the week ahead.

At some level, I think it’s a universal human trait to enjoy finishing things. I wonder what that sense of accomplishment does to improve our lives or chances for survival. Is there an evolutionary reason that we are motivated to both start and complete projects? I can’t think of any. But I do think this is a universal human trait. I don’t think birds have a sense of accomplishment when they add the last twig to a nest, or fish when they swim to the place of their birth. For them it’s just a thing they do.

So I’ve divided my accomplishments into two types: Those with “Done” as a legitimate goal, and those that will never be done. And I’m at peace when certain things are never done and never will be.

Now, excuse me while I load the dishwasher.

:-)

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Sep/18

24

Your “Before” Picture

Here’s a quick exercise for you. Take a selfie with your cell phone and label it “Before.” How do I know that this is your “before” picture? Because change is coming in your life.

Portrait of a happy young man making selfie photo on smartphone isolated on a white background

You might know what’s coming. It could be the book you’re writing, the goal you’re working toward at work, the new degree, the new child, or a million other things. Or you might not know what’s coming. Life has no shortage of surprises for us. But something’s going to change.

This might be the time before you get a raise, before you make a new friend, or before you get an unexpected day off. Whatever is coming might be large or small. But change is all around us, all the time.

When we look back, we can easily define the before/after moments that affected us the most. Before we learned to read; before we learned to drive; before we got married. And of course, there’s the before and after of all of our family and friends. Before my child was born; before she graduated college; before she bought her first house.

While it’s easy to identify these points after the fact, you can also tune in as life progresses. How is life going for you right now? How about work? And family and hobbies? All those things are going to involve change in the next year. If nothing else, start a “now” journal or a “before” journal and take stock.

It can be very exciting to be self-aware when you’re in the middle of change. So often, we let life happen to us. But if you know you’re in the before time and you choose to tune in to it, you don’t have to be passive. If you tune into change, you can choose to mold that change and affect what it looks like.

One very common way we do this is to create some ceremony around change. We have graduation paries, give greeting cards, and take friends to dinner. We acknowledge certain points in our lives.

The only real difference between responding to change and affecting change is that we choose to do one or the other. We all play both roles, depending on the circumstances.

I encourage you to use some morning quiet time to take stock of how things are going in your life. And then speculate what “after” is going to look like. After all, the more you spend time thinking about it, the more you’ll be able to influence it.

:-)

 

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Sep/18

24

Why does it take pirates so long to learn the alphabet?

Why does it take pirates so long to learn the alphabet?

Because they can spend years at C.

:-)

 

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Jul/18

30

Priming Your Brain – Part 3

In my last two blog posts (Part 1 and Part 2), I introduced the reticular activating system (RAS) and talked a bit about how you can “prime” it to focus on your goals. In this blog post, I want to touch on what happens when you don’t focus your attention.

If you study a lot of self-help and “success” literature, you’ve probably noticed that one of the most common recommendations across all these works is to spend some time at the beginning of each day planning the day. For some it’s prayer. For some it’s meditation. For some it is simply reviewing a schedule. But no matter what form it takes, they all involve spending time just thinking about the day ahead.

Without knowing it, this advice is really about telling your reticular activating system what to pay attention to. In Part 2 of this series I went into some detail how I use this to give lots of attention and focus to something. Today I want to talk about what happens when you don’t do this – when you don’t consciously choose what to put your attention on.

We’ve all had the experience of worrying about something. Sometimes, we get “stuck” worrying. We start to focus on something and then we can’t stop. We get more and more worried until something snaps us out of it. Very often, the thing that snaps us out of worry is simply the passage of time as we realize that the bad thing didn’t happen.

As Mark Twain famously said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

Money is a common worry. The safety of our children is a common worry. Success in business. Fall sales numbers. Grades. Taxes. The list goes on.

Here’s what we know about the RAS: Whatever you choose to focus on, it amplifies. That’s great if you’re focusing on your goals and ideals. But if you’re focusing on “bad stuff” like worries, it’s going to amplify that as well. Here’s why:

The RAS has a primary function of filtering OUT virtualy everthing you could be paying attention to. Hundreds of millions of things happen every day don’t get your attention. You simply can’t process all that. But the RAS has a secondary function of filtering IN the things that are most important to you.

Some important things are reinforced so much over time that one could argue they are hard-wired. For example, if you’re a parent at the State Fair, you will hear your child’s voice say “Mom” or “Dad” through a huge crowd of people. Hearing that voice calling you under any circumstances is important, so it gets filtered IN to the top of the list of stimuli. Years and years of responding to this call have burned it into a pathway that says there’s probably nothing more important for you to respond to – ever.

Worries and fears and problems can be the same way. We choose to pay attention to our children, our spouse, our business, etc. But very often we do not choose to pay attention to worries, fears, and other negative things. They take some of our attention. But they don’t dominate our attention unless we get carried away. If we let them in, don’t push them out, and don’t tell our RAS that we’d rather pay attention to something else, then we end up paying attention to them again.

This pattern reinforces itself. If you don’t choose what to reinforce, the RAS (which has no brain of its own) will automatically choose for you. More and more research is showing that we can break patterns of negative thought. We can lay down new neural pathways. We can change our overall tendencies to focus on certain things and instead focus on more positive things.

One of my mottos is, “Nothing Happens By Itself.” I believe that is very true and applies to every aspect of life.

Positive attitudes don’t happen by themselves. New ideas don’t just happen. New business plans. Renewed marital happiness. Nothing happens by itself. But almost anything can happen if you put your attention on it.

If you ignore your attitudes and your preferred thought pattterns, then you get whatever random stuff other people throw into your life. But if you focus on what you want – the attitudes you want, the goals you want, the friends you want – then your RAS will work hard to help you GET what you want.

For me, the best part about all this is its simplicity. The RAS is like an audio amplifier. You speak into the microphone and a loud voice comes out the speakers. You tell your RAS that you want to focus on something and it responds with massive attention on that thing. And the more you prime it, the more it gives you in return.

:-)

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Jul/18

23

Priming Your Brain – Part 2

In my last blog post, I introduced the reticular activating system (RAS) and talked about it’s basic functions. The RAS helps us filter the world around us. That has two primary features. First, it keeps out millions of things we don’t need to pay attention to. After all, we’re exposed to literally millions of impressions per day. Second, it helps to focus more clearly on what IS important.

That second part is the most interesting to me because we can “hack” our RAS to help us focus even more. Because the RAS helps us decide what is important, we can feed it stimuli. Your conscious brain can literally seed what your unconscious brain pays attention to.

In my book Relax Focus Succeed, I give an analogy between the brain and a filing system. All day long, you go through your day pulling cards out of the filing system and throwing them on the floor. Some cards are problems, some are experiences, some are ideas. And then, at night, your unconscious brain picks up the cards, sorts them, and files them away again. Every once in awhile it picks up a “problem” cards and an “idea” card that match. Your unconscious brain has solved a problem!

But you’re asleep and you’re not aware that you’ve solved a problem. That’s where meditation comes in. It allows your brain to relax and do that background work while you’re still awake.

Of course it’s all much more complicated than that. But here’s how you can use meditation to seed your RAS so that your focus is pointed directly where you want it.

You’ve heard of “mindfulness” meditation. Many people define this as a type of meditation where you try to clear your mind of all thoughts. For example, you just sit there and, when a thought wanders into your mind, you acknowledge it and then set it aside. Other people define mindfulness as simply experiencing what’s going on. In this variant, you sit there and name the things that enter your attention. A truck driving past. A bird. The breeze. Someone walking.

In both variants of mindfulness, you are attempting to NOT think – no not solve problems, not worry about money, not plan the day ahead, etc. It seems miraculous, but this lack of focusing on anything often results in major epiphanies. We’ve all had the experience of coming up with a great idea while you’re in the shower. That’s because it’s just you and your brain with no outside stimuli from radio, TV, the Internet, etc.

Let me suggest a technique that I use. I think you’ll be amazed at how easy it is.

First, choose an object for focus. It might be a poem, an idea for work, a problem with the kids, etc. Anything. Sit quietly and think about the object of focus. If you wish, take notes. The overall idea is to simply fill your mind – your attention – with thoughts and questions about this topic. I generally take anywhere from five to thirty minutes for this. The more time you give it, the more focused you become.

Here’s what’s going on physiologically: You are telling your RAS in no uncertain terms that you have something that needs your focus. You are doing this in a relaxed manner without frenzy or panic. You are, in fact, simply setting its agenda and letting it know that this is important to you.

Second, put an end to that and move into mindfulness meditation. Find a technique that works for you. STOP thinking about the problem you just spent time on. Focus on your breathing. Or do a whole body scan. For beginnings, I think full body scans or Yoga Nidra is excellent. Take as much time as you can. I recommend no less than fifteen minutes. If you can do thirty, that’s even better.

There’s no cheating here. You really are trying to clear your mind of everything. Clean the slate. Relax. Be open. Just experience your breath moving in and out. When ideas float by, acknowledge them and then move your attention back to your breath.

Third, go about your day. That’s it. Just do whatever you need to do. Go to work. Cook dinner. Have a beer. Enjoy some television. Whatever you do, just do that.

Here’s what’s really going on: You have put serious, focused attention on an object (problem, idea, etc.). That has given your RAS notice that you want attention on this. And as you go through your day, you will notice that lots of things seem to be related to the object of your focus. People you meet have ideas that are related. Snippets of news you see on the Internet are related to it. Comments you overhear are related.

It’s as if the world has conspired to help you achieve your goals, solve your problems, help you find funding for a project, or whatever you need. In reality, you have simply applied a filter. You are paying less attention to little, unimportant things, and more attention to the one thing you identified as needing your attention.

Imagine if you do this every day. Figure out what is the most important thing that needs your attention. And then spend the day finding that thing everwhere you look.

Way back in my college days, I was a camp counselor for the YMCA. Session after session, I had a cabin full of seven year olds. One of my favorite distractions was to give them a basic assignment such as:
– Everyone go out and bring back a red leaf
– Everyone go out and find a stick with a “Y”
– Everyone go out and bring me a small, smooth rock

These were simple assignments and everyone was always successful. This exercise with your RAS is basically the same thing. You’re telling your unconscious attention span to go focus on a specific object . . . and it does just that. – “Go find me a solution to this problem.”

The best part about priming your attention span is that it just works. The simple fact that you put your attention on something creates the focus that stays on that thing all day.

Try it! I would love to hear your results.

:-)

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