Relax. You'll be more productive.

It seems that running from task to task only makes us feel more productive.

Not long ago, the New York Times featured a fascinating article by Tony Swartz titled “Relax! You’ll Be More Productive”.  I often feel like I have more to do than my time and energy allow, so I was drawn to the idea.  There is mounting evidence in studies done at prestigious institutions that our habit of working at all hours, skipping lunch and not using vacation days is making us less, not more productive. Here are some main points from the article.

1.       To accomplish work we use time and energy. While both assets are finite, only energy is renewable. If we’re careful to consistently renew our energy, we’re able to accomplish more in the same amount of time. A study done in the 1950’s established that we sleep in cycles of roughly 90 minutes, shifting between light and deep sleep cycles. A decade later, one of the authors, Professor Nathaniel Kleitman found that our waking lives work the same way. We move from alertness progressively into physiological fatigue every 90 minutes.

2.       Professor K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues at the University of Florida followed performers in the fields of music, athletics, acting and chess. In all these fields the best performers practice in sessions of no more than 90 minutes. The most efficient and effective performers start in the morning, rest between work sessions and rarely work for more than 4 of these 90 minute intervals each day. Dr. Ericcson notes, “To maximize gains from long-term practice individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.

3.        One of the most damaging results of our penchant for working as many hours of the day as we can is a lack of sufficient sleep.   A recent study found that sleeping too little, defined as less than six hours per night was one of the best predictors of job burnout. A Harvard study estimated the cost to US companies of lost productivity because of insufficient sleep could be as much as $63.2 billion a year.
This sounds counter intuitive but it’s worth exploring.  Using more hours for work doesn’t mean we’re accomplishing more. Our bodies are not meant to go full steam until we fall exhausted into bed.  The quality and quantity of our production will increase if we allow ourselves time, even in the middle of a work day, to renew our physical, mental and emotional selves. But how do we use this information while fitting into our office/corporate environment? What do you think? How do you manage your time and energy stores? Share some of your thoughts and methods.

Tony Swartz is the CEO of The Energy Project. You can find them on the web.

Read the entire article: Relax! You'll Be More Productive 


The Immovable and Everlasting

In June, I crossed ‘a close up view of the Rocky Mountains’ off my bucket list. They are the perfect antidote to the crazy way we live.
On the Pearl Street Mall, a pedestrian-only space in Boulder, you can stand amid the stores, gelato stands and restaurants and look up at the Flatiron Mountains. A constant presence, they reminded me there are things we can count on, like the beauty of creation.

It takes a few days to become accustomed to the altitude, so on our first day we took an easy trail into the Flatirons. The murmur of the breeze through the pines was the only sound and their scent was heavenly.
On our third day we drove to Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s worth the ride and a good place to start your relationship with the Rockies. We climbed a well-marked trail to Alberta Falls. You can go further into the back country but we were still not acclimated enough.

On our fifth day we drove through narrow canyons, between steep peaks to Roosevelt National Forest, to Brainerd Lake. We walked 2.5 miles in to get to the lake and along the way, wonderful things happened that reminded me again of things you can always count on, love and friendships.
“Can I ask you a question about taking pictures with an I-Pad?” a sweet-faced lady asked my husband. We began to walk together. Her husband joined us and so began our journey together. Pat and Marty met in Colorado in the sixties and they return every year in the month of their anniversary to re-visit and remember. When we started to tire, they encouraged us to continue to the lake. They knew there was something there we could all count on.

After walking for twenty minutes, in a clearing close to the road, we met a group of gray-haired ladies who were watching a mama moose and her calf. They have been friends since their children were young, and they have been hiking the mountains together for years. Lifelong friendships cultivated in the sight of those glorious, ever-lasting peaks.
We talked and watched for a while then said good bye, and the four of us continued on. Talking and getting to know Pat and Marty helped us to keep going. Two hundred feet down the road we saw the papa moose, a majestic bull with full antlers. You can only watch in silence and marvel.

Then, in a second, around a bend in the road, there they were. “Wow! Look at that!” I exclaimed. “I’ve never seen anything like that!”
Straight ahead of us, in a semi-circle were the Indian Peaks, snow-covered and jagged, the tallest rising to 13,000 feet. After we took some pictures, including one for a bicyclist from Denmark, I sat on a rock that seemed to be put there just for contemplating the mountains.

The sense of serenity, permanence and strength were overwhelming. Those mountains have fostered relationships that have lasted for years.  Pat and Marty invited us to join them for a hike to the Isabelle Glacier next year. They’re there every June. So is the glacier.


The Writer's Life and Some Who Live It

For a little bit of something different, this post is part of a writing process blog tour. It’s a chance for writers to network about the writing life. I want to send out a big ‘thank you’ to Lisa Vogt, a fellow ReadWaver for turning me on to this tour and inviting me to participate. I urge all of you to check out the blogs of the writers I’ve profiled.

First let me answer some questions about how the process works for me…or how I work for it.

What am I working on?

Warming Up was such a personal story. Writing parts of it was wrenching. I decided to write something completely different for my second book. About that time I reconnected with my best friend from childhood who was the model for the character Rosie in Warming Up. We recalled that, as children, she wanted to pursue her drawing and painting and I wanted to write. We always dreamed that one day I would write a story and she would do the illustrations. We’re working on a children’s book set in the marshes we used to play in as children.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

If the genre is literary fiction, I think the one thing we all have in common is that the stories are personal. It’s the courage to mine those personal histories and emotions that makes the writing worth reading. That also means that every story is unique because it comes from the mind and heart of each writer.

Why do I write what I do?

I’m convinced that we all have stories to tell, and that the best of them come from family experiences. I’ve talked to people whose family histories rival anything you’ll ever read in classical or contemporary literature. I try to mine the stories and experiences I’ve been hearing about since I was a child.  These stories, so grounded in reality, are the best place to start.

How does my writing process work?

While working on Warming Up I had about four months to write full time. What a joy! I found the best thing was to wake up early, grab a cup of coffee and set to work before the ‘inner critic’ woke up. After 3 or 4 hours I would go for a walk to the center of town and watch the people and traffic go by. Then I would go back and edit what I had written that morning. That was ideal but it’s not always possible. Mostly it’s carving out blocks of time and having the discipline to push everything else out of my mind and write.

And now I'd like to introduce you to some writers I have admired.

Aaliyah Miller is an award-winning screenwriter who believes the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams. Miller has a passion for storytelling and enjoys writing for theatre, film, and her blog, In the Mix.

Her film credits include After the Headlines, a short film she wrote, directed and produced (official selection of the Kent Film Festival, Action on Film Festival, and the Los Angeles Women’s International Film Festival), The Anniversary (short film), and Moonshine (feature film). Her script Finding Patience was the recipient of the Sir Edmond Hillary Award and her short screenplay, After the Headlines won ‘Best Dramatic Scene’ at the Action on Film (AOF) International Film Festival and was an official selection at the Urban Mediamakers Film Festival.

She holds a master in Communications and Leadership from Gonzaga University and a master of fine arts in Professional Writing with a focus in screenwriting and public relations from Western Connecticut State University. She currently works as a communications professional in Connecticut.

Sid Schwab is a native of Portland, Oregon and has lived in Seattle for the past 32 years. He attended Amherst College, went to medical school in Cleveland, Ohio and did his surgery training at the University of California, San Francisco. He is retired from his general surgery practice, although he still assists on complex cancer surgeries.
He has written a book about his days of surgical training titled “Cutting Remarks, Insights and Recollections of a Surgeon.” It is available on Amazon.
His “Surgeonsblog” was mentioned in the New York Times as a worthy medical blog. He says of the blog, “My aim was to bring the lay reader into the life of a surgeon, to get a feel for what it’s like to operate on fellow humans, as well as to provide information on various surgical illnesses, and to tell a few good stories.” His most recent post is a sampler of sorts, with links to several of his favorite and representative posts.
He also wrote a year-long column on various issues for a local newspaper.
He and his wife Judy are expecting their first grandchild any minute now.
Thanks for reading and special thanks to Aaliyah and Sid for taking part.


A Summer Evening in the Piazza del Popolo

The singer’s deep and throaty basso floated on the wind of the orchestra, bouncing off the sides of the 16th century Piazza del Popolo. The orchestra, seven violins, two cellos and a double bass were joined by a lead and bass guitar, drums and a keyboard. It all combined for the soaring, operatic genre of popular music Italians have always loved. The Festa di Pesaro was under way in all its sound and color.  

Young families with small children, teens, grandparents and every age in between strolled the cobblestone piazza, enjoying the moon lit night. We were impressed by the sight of teenagers, walking in pairs and groups, as they stopped to converse with elderly ones. There seemed to be no problem communicating across the years. It happened a few times and we realized it wasn’t a fluke. Grandparents were not separated away, not in housing developments and not in the life of the community or the minds of young people.

Earlier in the evening, at dinner in a local restaurant, we had begun to adjust to the slower pace of everything. As in many places in Europe, in Italy it is understood that when you sit down for dinner, the table will be yours for the entire evening. Turn-over is like take-out, it simply doesn’t exist. When the food arrived it was worth the wait.  We finished our delicious meal, asked for the check and noticed the waitress looked a little put off. What had we done? When she returned with a bottle of limoncello, the wonderful and popular lemon liquor, we understood. Where were we going before the dinner was complete? The after-dinner drink was just part of the service. It was the owner’s home-made version and it was delicious.   

Amid the sound and bustle of the Festa, at a small stand next to the post office we bought some pignoli gelato. We marveled that the small, sweet nuts had been so delicious in our pasta dinner and here they were, perfect in our dessert. Standing in the middle of the piazza, listening to the orchestra it seemed I had wandered into a movie. If Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianno had been the next two people to glide by, it would not have surprised me at all.

In the fountain at the center of the piazza four white marble pipers held up a clam shell that shot water straight up into the night and in front of each figure a horse fought mightily to escape out into the square. I scanned the scene and willed myself to remember all the sights, sounds, smells and sensations. Two months on, if I close my eyes I’m there. I can hear the music and the splash of the fountain, see the crowds and taste the gelato. The best thing about travel is what you carry away with you. In an instant you can return to those places by memories so vivid and easily summoned.


Under the Roman Arch

Nothing stays with us in quite the same way as the stories we hear from our grandparents. Even as children we realize these stories are important. As they transport us to a different time and place, they make the ground under our feet feel more stable.

My grandmother told me about Fano, the small town on the Adriatic coast where she grew up.  She left there on a September day in 1922, departing from Genoa aboard the steamer Giulio Cesare and arriving in New York October 1. The record of her arrival in her new home is scant, listing her name, age (21), her residence in the US (her brother’s home in Newport Rhode Island) and the fact that she was carrying twenty-five dollars.

She was afraid as she left the harbor that day. Who wouldn’t be? The trip from Fano to Genoa was probably a combination of horse cart and steam train. It was certainly the first time she had been so far from home.

Why did she and so many others of her generation cross an ocean? Why did they leave their homes and families, many times never to see them again? What made them so brave, so willing to venture into the unknown? I thought if I could see the place they left I would understand them a little more.

As we drove along the sea on AS 16, I wondered if changes in the town would make it impossible to walk in her footsteps. It was an unfounded worry. Across the new road that passes at the north of town, entrance to the old part of town is through an arch that dates from Roman times. A few steps in, across from a small café where two gentlemen enjoyed their morning espressos there is a statue of Augustus Caesar. It was at his behest the arch was built in 2 AD.

We passed under the arch onto Via Arco di Augusto. On a Saturday morning it was a bustling scene. Furniture, racks of clothes and tables of food, shoes, linens, hardware, blankets and sweaters lined both sides of the cobblestone street. Following the winding stone road between 17th century buildings, we came to the town center. I imagined my grandmother, a girl of ten crossing the square holding her mother’s hand. A  tower in the square dates from the 12th century, so she could have passed under it on a September morning like this one, and looked up to marvel at its height the way children do.

When we left the main road and ventured onto the narrow side streets, I felt her presence even more. She was at my shoulder as I strolled the narrow lanes. I stopped to watch two elderly women in conversation and realized she was all around me. There she was, the way I remember her, talking with her friends about…husbands, children, grandchildren, the passage of time and the price of groceries.

This is a time of instant everything, which is sometimes a good thing, sometimes not so good. A wonderful byproduct of our right-now society is the ability to see photos you’ve just taken. As my husband snapped photos of it all, we saw them immediately. In a shot of the arch he caught part of a shoulder that looked familiar.  The shape of the arm, the curve of the shoulder, the posture and stride made me think we had caught one her relatives. But how could we ever find that woman again? She must be long gone, swallowed up by the crowd.

With a start, I realized it was my shoulder. The strong presence of hers that I felt as I walked was me. I was her. I had returned with her memories, her genes, all the stories and lessons she had taught me. A circle had been completed.

We drove back to our apartment that morning my head filled with thoughts of how brave and full of hope was the act of sailing away on that September morning so long ago…and how much I miss her.


Clearing a Path Down Memory Lane

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the word nostalgia is derived from the Greek words “nostos” meaning homecoming, and “algos”, meaning pain, grief or distress. In 1688, after observing a tendency in soldiers stationed abroad to focus on memories of home, a Swiss doctor named Johannes Hoffer described nostalgia as a “neurological disease”.

If you’re like me you have no trouble understanding what this discussion is about. I readily admit to spending time strolling down the tree-lined path of those sweet days gone by. Is this an unhealthy thing, as Dr. Hoffer defined it? No, in fact a recent New York Times article lists some distinct benefits to those journeys of heart and mind.

In an article titled “What is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows”, published on July 8, 2013, John Tierney discussed research that has changed attitudes toward time spent enjoying memories of the past. Dr. Constantine Sedikides of the Centre for Research on Self and Identity, The University of Southampton is quoted as saying “Nostalgia makes us a bit more human.”

 In 2011 Dr. Sedikides and colleagues published a study entitled “Nostalgia: The Gift That Keeps on Giving”. Nostalgic feelings are said to typically involve interactions between the self and close others such as family members, friends, and romantic partners. These social interactions occur in the context of momentous life events such as reunions, vacations, anniversaries, graduations, weddings, and childbirths.” Dr. Timothy Wildschut says the stuff of nostalgia is the same everywhere. “The defining features of nostalgia in England are also the defining features in Africa and South America.”

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that music is a good way to induce nostalgia. They can say that again. Who hasn’t heard just the first few bars of something from ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ and been hurtled right back to the summer of 1967? “She’s Leaving Home” is the song that’s most evocative for me.

 So do we have permission to spend our days lost in reminiscence while ignoring the here and now and making no preparations for the future? No. Dr. Sedikides mentioned the need to be cautious about the kind of remembering that causes us to think the past was better. This can rob us of our initiative and hopes for the future. Think of nostalgic thoughts as a little vacation, a long weekend so to speak. Those warm, pleasant memories can bolster our sense of well-being and strengthen our feelings of worth at having our own personal history and roots. “Experience it as a prized possession,” he advises. “When Humphrey Bogart says, ‘We’ll always have Paris,’ that’s nostalgia for you. We have it and nobody can take it away from us. It’s our diamond.”

 And here’s my favorite part. Dr. Sedikides encourages looking to the future. “I don’t miss an opportunity to build nostalgic-to-be memories,” he says. So think about the features of nostalgia, warm memories of family, friends and special occasions; and lay the foundation for tomorrow’s nostalgia. Today’s good times will be tomorrow’s wonderful, sustaining memories. We can delight in the past, enjoy the present and look to the future.


A Mania for the Lads from Liverpool, Times Two

     Mania can be defined as an excessive enthusiasm or desire; an obsession. The one that stands out in my memory was elicited by four young men from the British seaport of Liverpool. If you don’t remember the Beatles, the word mania may seem like a stretch. If you do, you know exactly what I mean.

     Although it’s a sweet and amusing memory now, it was serious business then. My friends and I spent many hours hunched over our transistor radios, just about bumping heads. (Those radios were not very big.) Beatles music was a source of unending happiness, each new song or album convincing us we knew them better than we did before.

As if the music, the fan clubs and the Beatles cards, (which came with bubble gum) didn’t get us worked up enough, in August, 1964 the roof just about caved in. A Hard Day’s Night was released. It was a madcap romp through a few days of their lives, punctuated by song. As soon as we heard it was playing in our local movie theatre, we knew we just had to see it or we would die.

Do you remember local movie theatres? At the Rivoli Theatre on Campbell Avenue in West Haven, Connecticut the tickets were 35 cents if you were under 12 and went up to 50 cents if you were 12 or over. The best part was we could walk. It was a five or six block walk to the theatre so we didn’t need a ride for the 2:00 showing. We were thinking we were about as cool as we could be.

     The front of the theatre was a mob scene. People were pushing and yelling, trying to get in the door to get the best seats. My friends and I clasped hands and pushed toward the ticket booth with all our might. We made it and ran inside to get as close as we could. The place was filled to the rafters with very excited children, and the atmosphere was almost as out-of-control as the sidewalk out front. And then the movie started.
     If you’ve ever seen the shots of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, you’ll know what I’m describing. It was a little hard to actually hear them sing over all the screaming and claims of love everlasting. There was nothing else to do but to join in. We yelled and jumped and sang along like people in the midst of a true mania. By the time it was over, our throats were raw but our hearts were full. We couldn’t have imagined it, but they were cuter in a movie than on TV or in photos.

     When the movie ended we sat for a few minutes while some kids filed out. The manager of the Rivoli, an elderly fellow who, I’m sure had never seen anything like this crowd, came out to see how things were going.
“How did you like it?” he asked those of us who had stayed behind.

 “We loved it!”
“Well, I’m glad. But you made so much noise and commotion I thought the roof would fall in.”

“’But we love the Beatles!”
“O.K. I’ll tell you what. If you promise not to scream and go crazy, I’ll play the film again. How’s that?”

We all started to scream and go crazy. And he really did play it again. That Saturday afternoon in 1964 was Beatle mania times two.