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Personal productivity, IBMs (not the company), and NUTs: Some surprises about the brain

In my research to make myself the premier personal productivity consultant in the northeast (hey - think wild success!) I've come across some very interesting ideas relating stress, aging, and unfinished tasks. What kicked this off was the article ABC News: '20/20' Busts 10 Body Myths, and this quote in particular:
"For one nagging unfinished task, it puts on about eight years on your life. So if you're 30, it makes you 38," said Roizen.
The connection to modern time management methodologies like GTD seemed clear: By getting control of those nagging tasks, we may actually be extending our life spans (in addition to the more commonly-discussed - and important - benefits of gaining relaxed control, maintaining focus, etc.)

This led me to check out the author's book YOU: The Owner's Manual: An Insider's Guide to the Body that Will Make You Healthier and Younger by Michael F. Roizen, Mehmet Oz, which provided a bunch of fascinating ideas. Following are some of them, which I hope you find stimulating.

First, consider this question from a quiz at the book's start:
1. Which of the following ages you the least?
  • a. Smoking one pack of cigarettes a day
  • b. A HDL (good) cholesterol level of 29 mg/dl
  • c. Consistently avoiding "cleaning grout" on your to-do list
  • d. Eating steak twice a week
You might be surprised to learn the answer is d:
Eating steak twice a week makes you less than one year older compared to smoking a pack of cigarettes (eight years older), an inadequate healthy HDL cholesterol of 29 (about four years older), and the stress of avoiding a nagging task makes you eight years older.
They go on to differentiate between Important But Manageable events (IBMs), and Nagging Unfinished Tasks (NUTs), with the latter being what adds to the aging:
These Important But Manageable events do not cause us to age, because they are problems we can solve. Instead, illness comes mainly from events that constantly stress you, and do so for a prolonged period. For example, the nagging stress of sitting on a wobbly toilet seat and never fixing it will age you, if it is one of those things that just gnaws at you every time you use it.
A few other surprises:
  • Myth or fact? You use only a portion of your brain. This one comes up regularly in New Age circles (remember - I went to massage school), with 10% being the typical amount cited that we actually use. The authors argue that you use all of your brain, but different parts for different times. (Otherwise, why would we have evolved such big ones?) See also Urban Legends: The Ten-Percent Myth.
  • Depression is a chemical-related problem: Which means you can't will it away. (We have family members who suffer from it, and looking at the disease from physiological perspective is helpful.)
  • Take aspirin to fight dementia and Alzheimer's disease: They recommend taking two baby aspirin a day if you're over 40, because it apparently helps keep arteries from being inflamed and blood from clotting, as well as increasing blood and oxygen flow to the brain. My wife is an RN in an Alzheimer's unit, so this definitely caught my attention. (Note: There are risks taking this much aspirin regularly, so do some research first.)
Finally, the book goes into a little detail on brain anatomy, which I won't cover it here, but the importance of the frontal lobes has come up other places, including Edward Hallowell's book CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD. That book discusses how overloading the frontal lobes leaves no room for the creative work, which in turn causes mediocre performance and leads to becoming stressed out.

I first came across Hallowell's work in the excellent January 2005 Harvard Business Review article Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform. (It's subscription only, but you can find copies if you google it.) Some other points from the article:
  • He says it's "a very real but unrecognized neurological phenomenon that I call attention deficit trait (ADT)".
  • The core symptoms include distractability, inner frenzy, and impatience, which in turn lead to difficulty staying organized, setting priorities, and managing time. These can undermine the work "of even gifted executives." Sound familiar?
  • You can use organizational techniques (!) to keep your frontal lobes in control, including:
    • break down large tasks
    • keep desk clear at all times (at least one part)
    • have "e-mail hours"
    • start the day working on a critical task
    • keep short lists (<= 5) - forces you to prioritize and complete your tasks
    • handle once, don't pile
    • discover and use your prime time (perform best)
Some work-arounds: Create a positive emotional environment (negative emotions shut down frontal lobes, which makes rely on more primitive behaviors, costing us our natural sophistication and creativity), or engage your frontal lobes in a simple task - e.g., writing a memo with little complex content (bypasses the limbic system).

In sum, I think these kinds of links between how our brains work and our goals of being productive and happy, help to explain why modern personal productivity systems have benefits at such deep and surprising levels. When I tell my story to clients, I talk about how getting and staying on top of all my commitments, communication, and information led to surprising higher-level payoffs, including losing 15 pounds, curing my insomnia, and making major progress on an old back problem. I joke that it was either a mid-life crisis, or a great system. I truly believe it's the latter.

Reader Comments (4)

Thanks, this is great stuff!

I was able to find the article online in the "Business Source Elite" database through my public library's website.

August 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Rice

Thanks for the comment, Adam - I'm glad you liked it. Regarding teh library, accessing articles like this is awesome - our local university (also my employer) provides on-line access, which is just amazing. Good show!

Thanks for reading.

August 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Ok, so you've given me a reason to think procrastination is bad. Seriously, this makes sense to me. When I've got something to do and don't do it, I am both bothered and irratated by it. I spend more energy not doing something than if I ACTUALLY did the darn thing. Thanks for pointing this out.

August 22, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMcK

Hi, McK. I think you've nailed the concept! Thanks for reading.

August 23, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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