Archive | October 2014

Let the Body Rest, for the Sake of the Brain

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Sleep deprivation can take a heavy mental toll.

I’m sure a lot of subway riders are skilled nappers, but this car seemed to be particularly talented. Going over the Brooklyn Bridge on a recent morning, just as the sun was coming up, a row of men in nearly identical black suits held on to the straps with their eyes closed. Their necks were bent at the slightest of angles, like a row of daisies in a breeze, and as the car clanged over the tracks and the sun pierced through the grimy train windows, it finally dawned on me they were all sound asleep. Not even the bumps and the light could stop them from sneaking in 15 more minutes of shut-eye before work.

We take it for granted, but most people have to wake up for work (or school or other morning obligations) long before they want to. Sleeping in is treated as a cherished luxury—it’s somehow become normal that people wake up still exhausted, and anything but is a notable exception.

But rising before the body wants to affects not only morale and energy, but brain function as well.

“The practice of going to sleep and waking up at ‘unnatural’ times could be the most prevalent high-risk behavior in modern society,” writes Till Roenneberg, a professor of chronobiology at the Institute of Medical Psychology at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munch.

In fact, according to Roenneberg’s groundbreaking study in Current Biology, about one-third of people living in first-world countries are required to wake up two hours before their circadian clocks, or “natural waking times,” tell them to, and 69 percent of people have to wake up one hour before their bodies would like them to.

Of course, different people require different amounts of sleep and although there’s no universal rule for how long we should all be sleeping, it’s becoming increasingly clear that working late and waking early can cause serious problems. It’s not just repeated sleep deprivation that does people in, either. Just one restless night can seriously affect us in the morning.

Getting less than five hours of sleep a night makes people dumber and less able to concentrate, and it can make people more susceptible to false memories, according to a new study published in the September issue of Psychological Science. Led by Steven J. Frenda of the University of California, Irvine, the study found that of the 193 people tested, participants who slept for less than five hours a night were significantly more likely to say they had seen a news video when they in fact never had. The sleep-deprived group was also more suggestible. While recounting a personal story, 38 percent of them incorporated false information the researchers had given them, whereas only 28 percent of those who had more than five hours of sleep accepted the researchers’ false information in their story retelling. Frenda and his researchers postulate that not sleeping significantly disturbs our ability to encode information.

They also question the legitimacy of eyewitness testimonies in a court of law since, in this study, a good deal of people—especially those who didn’t get enough sleep—were susceptible to false memories. If someone goes on the stand after a sleepless night, it seems the chances are higher that he may misremember events.

The importance of sleep goes beyond courts and companies though. In the classroom, students who sleep more tend to be better at remembering what they’ve learned in the previous day than those who slept less, according to a 2001 study published in Science, and a 2014 study confirmed that more sleep leads to higher exam scores as well. Students who slept seven hours the night before an exam that tested them on economics, languages, and math, scored an average of 9 percent higher than students who only slept six hours the night before.

Getting less than five or six hours of sleep has also been connected to the inability to learn motor sequences. So before learning to play piano, first focus on getting proper sleep.

But there is the possibility of overriding the mind and body’s desire for sleep. By simply telling themselves they’ve slept well, studies show that people can temporarily trick their brains. Of course, continually getting too few hours of shut-eye will eventually cause problems, but telling yourself you got more sleep and that you feel refreshed (even if you don’t) leads to increased cognitive functioning in the morning, as evidenced by self-dupers who scored significantly higher on verbal fluency and neural processing tests.

The sleeping subway riders were also on to something. Even after a terrible night’s sleep, a 10-minute nap can significantly increase short-term alertness and improve problem-solving skills.

As we reached the Chambers Street subway station, the row of suited men and women seemed to instinctively know that they had arrived at their stop. In unison, they began to open their eyes and force themselves awake. Some gave themselves little slaps on their cheeks; others rubbed their eyes and temples. Then, like marionettes on a string, their spines straightened, their gazes turned straight ahead, and they clutched their briefcases and stepped out the door, onto the quay, up the stairs, and out onto the street, already noisy and awake.

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How to Be a Better Listener

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By: Ximena Vengoechea

For the past year, I have been experimenting with building new habits. Sleeping better, rising earlier, eating better, writing more – 2014 has been a journey of self-improvement and creative discipline.

In September, I wanted to focus on improving my listening skills.

When was the last time you had a really good conversation?

People spend 60% of conversations talking about themselves. That’s a lot of “me” time. Not only do we love to self-disclose (it’s part of what makes social media so popular), but we want to be good at it, too: we read up on improving our storytelling skills and take mental notes on great Ted talks because we aspire to be memorable and leave a good impression.

But think back to the last great conversation you had. Maybe you can remember what you talked about, maybe not: think about how you felt at the end of that conversation.

If you’ve ever left a conversation feeling energized, inspired, or enlightened, you’ve been in the presence of a great listener – not necessarily a great speaker.

The best conversationalists are the best listeners.

Great listeners allow you to work things out and chip away at something you might not reach as quickly (or ever) on your own. They are patient bearers of conversation epiphanies: talking to them teaches you something new about yourself and the way the world works, every time. (It’s no wonder talk therapy is so popular.) Their earnest listening makes you feel great about the conversation, too – it’s clear that your insights and opinions are genuinely valued and appreciated.

I wanted to bring more of that to my conversations. Here’s what I learned in my quest to listen better and harder last month.

How to be a better listener: 8 steps

1. Be comfortable with silence. Humans instinctively want to fill silence and close gaps in conversation, but part of being a good listener means getting comfortable with that silence and ignoring the pressure to fill the void.

Why is this important? Some people process their thoughts internally, but many people process out loud: waiting a beat gives your conversation partner a chance to simultaneously think and talk through whatever they’re working on. If you give them an opening and they don’t pick up the thread, carry on; there’s no need for you both to sit in silence. But do give them that option first.

2. Stop multi-tasking. Doing your dishes, filing papers and clearing clutter, painting your nails, or somehow other occupying your time while talking to someone else are all roadblocks to listening well. If you want to truly engage with someone, focus on them and them alone. Show that you’re listening by making eye contact, opening your body language, and giving signs of encouragement throughout the conversation. Over the phone, smile.

3. Repeat what the other person has said. This does not mean you should parrot your conversation partner and repeat everything they say. Instead, reaffirm key points you’ve understood: this shows you are invested in understanding the other person’s point of view, and also allows the other person to clarify and refine their story where necessary.

4. Listen for what hasn’t been said. Past history, previous personal experiences – consider how your conversation partner’s life context informs the story being shared with you. Listen for perspectives both stated and implied. Try and understand why and how they think the way they do. If you’re not sure, ask.

5. Ask good questions. Your mission is to put the other person first: ask good questions that engage with your partner’s story and help them express themselves more fully. Try not to lead or judge in these questions; look for open-ended questions instead. These allow you to dig a level deeper, and show you are actively committed to understanding their story.

6. Let the moment pass. Often when other people tell their stories it reminds us of a story we want to share immediately. Tempting though it may be, try not interject with your version of the tale: trust that a good story will return, when the time is right.

Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean waiting to pounce with your story as soon as your conversation partner finishes speaking: the point is not to think ahead. Listen to their story without anticipating the telling of yours. Be aware of thoughts and stories that arise, then let them pass.

7. Don’t change the subject. People start conversations to work through ideas and challenges they can’t work through alone. Unless your conversation partner redirects the conversation, assume that changing the subject means cutting a topic short, and skirting the goal of arriving at a conclusion. Don’t divert a fruitful discussion to follow a tangent.

8. Except…Know when to change the subject. Some discussions just don’t go anywhere productive. If a conversation is going off track, wait for an opening, then reel it in. Ask summarizing questions to redirect the conversation back to its original thread, or make pointed suggestions to return to an earlier point. Be kind, but firm. Chances are your conversation partner will be grateful: as speakers, we often don’t realize how far down the rabbit hole we’ve stumbled until someone reaches out to guide us back.

The same goes for conversations that have reached a repetitive note – if you can now anticipate what the other person will say, it’s fine to gracefully interrupt to reach a more productive stage of the conversation.

With these steps in mind, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a better listener. Just remember not to run through this checklist during your conversations: you can do that afterwards. In the moment, stay focused. Mastering the art of listening isn’t about you at all: really, it’s about the other person.

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Quote of the day

Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavour. – Truman Capote.

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Trying to Live in the Moment (and Not on the Phone)

There’s a scene in the movie “Her,” a love story between a lonely writer and an artificially intelligent software program, that shows dozens of people riding the subway, deeply absorbed in their smartphones, oblivious to the world around them. They all seem much more comfortable interacting with their devices than with one another. That scene was disturbingly familiar — and seeing it from afar cast it in an unsettling light.

Since seeing the film, I’ve been more attuned to how often I use my phone. But it’s hard for me to tell whether I’m using it too much. True, it’s usually the first thing I reach for in the morning and the last thing I use before bed, but I also make a point of putting it away during meals and while hanging out with friends.

My phone has transformed my life for the better. It has made me a more efficient worker, enabled a healthy and loving long-distance relationship and allowed me to keep up with friends.

Even so, I’m as guilty as anyone of using my phone as a crutch, either to avoid talking to people I don’t know at a party, or to stave off boredom while waiting for a friend in a bar. I’m also easily distracted by the various pings and vibrations coming from my iPhone, and often find myself drawn into an endless loop of checking alerts, reading my social media streams and replying to non-urgent email and text messages. Often, I can’t resist sneaking a peek at the screen during movies or other outings. And as much as I hate to admit it, I’ve occasionally been so preoccupied by a text message that I’ve almost bumped into someone on the street.

There is evidence that resisting the pull of your device can lead to healthier living. For example, a recent study by researchers at Kent State University found that students who were heavy cellphone users tended to report higher anxiety levels and dissatisfaction with life than their peers who used their phones less often. Another study, from the University of Worcester, found a correlation between stress levels and an endless barrage of alerts and notifications.

Given my concerns, when I heard about a couple of new applications that let you monitor your mobile phone use, I immediately downloaded them.

These applications are part of a much larger genre of activity trackers that aim to help people collect data and information about their lives, analyze it and, in theory, change it. I already track my exercise habits as well as my menstrual and sleep cycles in an effort to know more about my body and how my behavior affects it. It seemed to follow that I could do the same for my digital behavior.

One application, called Moment, keeps tabs on how many minutes of screen time you are using and pings you occasionally to let you know how much time you’ve spent on your phone each day.

Kevin Holesh, a programmer living in Pittsburgh, decided to build the application after seeing technology chip away at the time he spent with his wife. “We would spend our evenings on our phones, and distracted in some way from interaction,” he said. “I just wanted to be more in the moment.”

Mr. Holesh said that most people didn’t realize how much time they spent on their phones, and that while he didn’t build the app to “call anyone an addict,” he believes that having access to data about phone use can help people adjust their habits.

It seems to be working. After installing the application, he said, Moment users spend 25 minutes less on their phone per day than before: an average of 71 minutes on their phone over all and mostly in the evening after 6.

The application, released in June, now has hundreds of thousands of users, he said. Originally it was free, but Mr. Holesh recently started charging $4.99 for it.

I also downloaded an application called Checky, created by Alex Tew and a team in San Francisco. Checky, which keeps tabs on the number of times your phone is opened each day, has had almost a quarter of a million downloads in a few weeks, Mr. Tew said. The application is free, like his company’s other flagship product,, a site that promotes relaxation. The company also offers meditation seminars and classes aimed at people looking to de-stress and de-connect. “There’s an irony in using a smartphone app to check how often you check your smartphone,” Mr. Tew said. “But it brings your attention to your usage, and that alone can help you make changes.”

On a recent Saturday, I learned from the applications that I had checked my smartphone 70 times during the day and spent more than 180 minutes on it.

It was hard to know whether those numbers should feel high or low, especially because I was rushing around the city, meeting friends for lunch and a screening of “Gone Girl,” which meant that I looked at my phone more often than normal. But realizing that I’d spent part of a gorgeous fall day obsessively staring at my phone was certainly illuminating.

So far, the data from Checky and Moment has been difficult to parse, largely because I use my phone for so many things. The applications aren’t able to differentiate between time spent reading, shopping or texting. Nor do they provide much insight into what time of day various activities occur, making it tricky to understand the intricacies of my behavior.

But the first step in understanding our relationship to technology is to become aware of it, said Michael Harris, author of “The End of Absence,” about life before and after the Internet. Our dependence on technology “is so ubiquitous and omnipresent and there’s no getting out of it,” he said. “The point is that you can’t escape it; you can only try to see it clearly for what it is.”

Using Moment and Checky has helped me realize just how often I reach for my phone and how long I stare at it. I will probably have to go beyond these applications if I want to change my habits — perhaps by taking more drastic measures like deleting certain time-consuming applications from my phone, for example, which I’m not quite yet ready to do.

Still, I feel that I have taken an important step toward balance, and toward introspection about how I use my devices and why.

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Business leaders would benefit from studying great writers

Philosopher kings

IT IS hard to rise to the top in business without doing an outward-bound course. You spend a precious weekend in sweaty activity—kayaking, climbing, abseiling and the like. You endure lectures on testing character and building trust. And then you scarper home as fast as you can. These strange rituals may produce a few war stories to be told over a drink. But in general they do nothing more than enrich the companies that arrange them.

It is time to replace this rite of managerial passage with something much more powerful: inward-bound courses. Rather than grappling with nature, business leaders would grapple with big ideas. Rather than proving their leadership abilities by leading people across a ravine, they would do so by leading them across an intellectual chasm. The format would be simple. A handful of future leaders would gather in an isolated hotel and devote themselves to studying great books. They would be deprived of electronic distractions. During the day a tutor would ensure their noses stay in their tomes; in the evening the inward-bounders would be encouraged to relate what they had read to their lives.

It is easy to poke fun at the idea of forcing high-flying executives to read the classics. One could play amusing games thinking up titles that might pique their interest: “Thus Spake McKinsey”, or “Accenture Shrugged”, perhaps. Or pairing books with personality types: “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” for a budding Donald Trump and “Crime and Punishment” for a budding Conrad Black. Or imagining what Nietzschean corporate social responsibility would look like. Or Kierkegaardian supply-chain management.

Then there are practical questions. Surely high-flyers are decision-makers rather than cogitators? And surely they do not have time to spend on idle thought? However, a surprising number of American CEOs studied philosophy at university. Reid Hoffman, one of the founders of LinkedIn, was a philosophy postgraduate at Oxford University and briefly contemplated becoming an academic before choosing the life of a billionaire instead. Anyway, executives clearly have enough time on their hands to attend gabfests such as Davos, where they do little more than recycle corporate clichés about “stakeholders” and “sustainability”. Surely they have enough time for real thinkers.

Inward-bound courses would do wonders for “thought leadership”. There are good reasons why the business world is so preoccupied by that notion at the moment: the only way to prevent your products from being commoditised or your markets from being disrupted is to think further ahead than your competitors. But companies that pose as thought leaders are often “thought laggards”: risk analysts who recycle yesterday’s newspapers, and management consultants who champion yesterday’s successes just as they are about to go out of business.

The only way to become a real thought leader is to ignore all this noise and listen to a few great thinkers. You will learn far more about leadership from reading Thucydides’s hymn to Pericles than you will from a thousand leadership experts. You will learn far more about doing business in China from reading Confucius than by listening to “culture consultants”. Peter Drucker remained top dog among management gurus for 50 years not because he attended more conferences but because he marinated his mind in great books: for example, he wrote about business alliances with reference to marriage alliances in Jane Austen.

Inward-bound courses would do something even more important than this: they would provide high-flyers with both an anchor and a refuge. High-flyers risk becoming so obsessed with material success that they ignore their families or break the law. Philosophy-based courses would help executives overcome their obsession with status symbols. It is difficult to measure your worth in terms of how many toys you accumulate when you have immersed yourself in Plato. Distracted bosses would also benefit from leaving aside all those e-mails, tweets and LinkedIn updates to focus on a few things that truly matter.

Looking for answers

The business world has been groping towards inward-bound courses for years. Many successful CEOs have made a point of preserving time for reflection: Bill Gates, when running Microsoft, used to retreat to an isolated cottage for a week and meditate on a big subject; and Jack Welch set aside an hour a day for undistracted thinking at GE. Clay Christensen of Harvard Business School was so shocked at how many of his contemporaries ended up divorced or in prison that he devised a course called “How will you measure your life?”. It became one of HBS’s most popular courses and provided the basis of a successful book.

“Mindfulness” is all the rage in some big corporations, which have hired coaches to teach the mix of relaxation and meditation techniques. Big ideas are becoming as much of a status marker in high-tech hubs as cars and houses are in the oil belt. Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley investor, holds conferences of leading thinkers to try to improve the world. David Brendel, a philosopher and psychiatrist, offers personal counselling to bosses and recently penned a blog for the Harvard Business Review on how philosophy makes you a better leader. Damon Horowitz, who interrupted a career in technology to get a PhD in philosophy, has two jobs at Google: director of engineering and in-house philosopher. “The thought leaders in our industry are not the ones who plodded dully, step by step, up the career ladder,” he says, they are “the ones who took chances and developed unique perspectives.”

Inward-bound courses would offer significant improvements on all this. Mindfulness helps people to relax but empties their minds. “Ideas retreats” feature the regular circus of intellectual celebrities. Sessions on the couch with corporate philosophers isolate managers from their colleagues. Inward-bound courses offer the prospect of filling the mind while forming bonds with fellow-strivers. They are an idea whose time has come.

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4 Ways to Keep Learning Beyond the Classroom

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By J.D. Roth
“The moment you think you know everything about your business is the moment you lose your competitive edge,” says Pat Flynn, a San Diego-based writer who focuses on online entrepreneurship. “Top athletes continue to train and learn in order to improve; a smart entrepreneur does the same.”

I know you know that intuitively, but it can be hard to convince yourself that adding to your education is worth the time and money. Often the hang-up is seeing how those new skills can pay off in an existing business–and that’s where I believe many small-business owners miss the mark. Learning a new skill can open up completely new avenues of growth and income for you and your business.

Take Lisa Lessley Briscoe. When her kids were old enough, the Portland, Ore., freelance technical writer returned to school at a local university to learn graphic design, taking one class per term. Today her business, Tappity Communications, attracts a wider range of clients.

“Going back to school gave me flexibility,” she says. “Over the past year, I’ve done everything from branding to logo design to writing installation guides for dental chairs.”

I can look to my father, a serial entrepreneur who didn’t have a college degree, for evidence of the value of continuing education. While selling health-food products in the 1970s, he took a marketing class at a community college. After he’d implemented what he learned, his sales skyrocketed. When he started a manufacturing firm in 1985, Dad taught himself computer programming. The software he wrote gave his company a competitive advantage, allowing it to carve out a niche in a crowded marketplace.

But attending classes or picking up another degree or certificate aren’t the only ways to boost your knowledge base. The methods below are small learning opportunities that can pay off big.

Mentors. When Briscoe met a man who owned a small letterpress studio, she asked to become an apprentice. He agreed. She spent one day a week learning the trade, and her added skills helps her attract new clients.

Tutors. I hired a Spanish tutor I found on Craigslist. After working with her for 18 months, I was proficient enough in the language to do volunteer personal-finance counseling at a nonprofit for migrant workers.

Conferences. Each year I speak at a handful of conferences where attendees glean targeted information while expanding their network of contacts. I’m able to connect with experts who might otherwise be unapproachable, as well as speak with and learn from other entrepreneurs who wrestle with similar problems.

Books. To get myself out of debt, I read dozens of books about saving and investing. On a whim, I created a website to share what I was learning. Within five years, I’d built a booming business and published my own book, all because I used the resources of the public library to learn something new.

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A Guide to Drinking Wine at Home


CreditEmily Berl for The New York Times
People who love wine generally consume more of it at home than anywhere else. And regardless of the quality of their glasses or the extent of their cellars, those who most enjoy wine at home share one attribute: a commitment to drinking it.

Many people who profess to value wine break out bottles only on special occasions, or on weekends. But people who really love wine think of it as an ordinary part of their meals, like salt or bread. Regular consumption is the single most important characteristic of the confident wine lover.

The benefits of commitment far outweigh a primer on proper glassware or schematics for pairing food and wine. Drinking wine regularly develops your critical ability and your sense of your own taste. And it helps answer the crucial question: Do you like wine enough to want to learn more about it? If you do like it, the repetition of pouring a glass with a meal becomes a pleasurable learning experience, which in turn leads to a greater sense of confidence. That, more than anything, improves the experience of drinking wine anywhere.

Regular wine consumption does not mean you need to drink a lot. It could be just a glass with dinner. Or a couple could share a bottle, which, like the 90-foot baseline in baseball, is just the right proportion: Two people can generally finish a bottle happily rather than woozily. Either way, or anywhere in between, regular drinking renders wine ordinary in the best sense rather than extraordinary.

Some people may shy away from regular wine drinking as self-indulgent or hedonistic, and they would not be wrong. Good food is pleasurable, and good wine enhances that pleasure. But wine is not the end itself. Adding wine as an ingredient of a good meal diminishes the need to focus on it.

For regular drinkers, wine is no longer a novelty. It’s simply a supporting player in an ensemble cast that includes food and those with whom you share it. You want good wine, of course, but good wine does not have to be profound, attention-grabbing or expensive.

Exciting bottles are not hard to find for $10 to $20, although most are closer to $20 than $10. If you are sharing the bottle among several people, it does not add up to a great deal. Still, if drinking well at home requires commitment, part of that commitment is financial.

But the investment does not have to be great, especially with equipment. You could drink wine out of juice glasses if you wish, though the experience improves greatly with good stemware, which doesn’t have to be expensive. Similarly, you can spend hundreds of dollars on meticulously engineeredcorkscrews, but a basic waiter’s tool for about $12 will reliably open anything.

Don’t worry that wine will be ruined if you leave it in an open bottle for two or three days. Wine, especially young, fresh wine, is sturdier than we imagine, and so doesn’t require special pumps, stoppers or other knickknacks marketed as preservers. Older wines are more fragile and should be saved for occasions when they can be consumed in one sitting.

The time may come when, having decided that you love wine and want it to be part of your life, you begin to buy a lot of bottles.

The wine itself is the most important investment, but to care properly for the wine, especially bottles that you want to age, you will need long-term wine storage. If you have a house with a cool, damp cellar, you’re in luck. Just keep your wine there in whatever sort of shelving you choose. If you live in an apartment, it will be worth getting a wine refrigerator (or two), or off-site storage. Inevitably, loving wine costs money. But if you love it, the money is well spent.

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