Be wary of the power of your words

Be wary of the power of your words

I remember it clearly. Even though it was 32 years ago, I can remember it just like it was yesterday. While the memory has faded into the background of my subconscious, it had a tremendous impact on the person I became.

I was born in Ireland and as you do in Ireland, I was playing Gaelic football for our local team. It was my first year playing and I was completely out of my depth. My cousin was the star of the main team and I was just glad to be playing in his vicinity. As one of the youngest players, I rode the bench. I wasn’t too fussed as I was still more interested in Spiderman than kicking a ball around the place.

The game that shook me to my core was played in Enniscorthy, a little town in the south-east of Ireland. I arrived at the game with no expectations of playing. I hadn’t played a game yet so why would this game be different. We gathered in a cold change room (even for Ireland) and waited for the team to be read out. Back in those days, the jerseys were handed out by the coach out of a large plastic bag. The jerseys looked heavy. I didn’t know as I had never worn one. I sat on changeroom benches and listened.

And then it happened.

I was pointed to and handed a jumper. I was stunned. That thing was on in no time and I stood there proud as punch, smiling at everyone. Wait till my Dad sees me I thought.

And then it all came crashing down.

The coach looked at me and said words that I can still hear.

“What are you doing wearing that. Get it off. You’re not good enough to play.” 

Everyone laughed.

I was 7 years old. I didn’t cry. It cut deeper than that. I watched the rest of the game on the sideline in a daze. Now approaching 40, I remember that day as clear as if it was yesterday. Those words. That tone. The laughter.

Great lessons from poor leaders

You learn as much from poor leaders as you do great leaders. I learnt valuable lessons that day. I learnt how NOT to speak to people. I learn how NOT to be a role model. As a grown man now, I say that no person should be spoken to like this, let alone a 7-year-old. Our words and actions can have a huge impact on the lives of young people. Beyond the interaction, those words are taken inward and stew. The rise in depression in men is evidence of this. To young men, we say “man up”, “harden up”, “grow some balls” but this is wrong. As men, we need to stand up and raise young men who can be open to talking, are respectful and truly value our role in raising good humans. This is done by leading by example. This is done by speaking with respect.

Today, I never speak to students/young people that way EVER. I pay them the courtesy they deserve. I listen with no judgement. I smile and encourage. I value my role in raising good humans. While I am thankful (now) for that experience, there is no place in my world for that type of interaction.

Be wary of the power of your words. Never underestimate the impact your words can have on young people. Break the cycle by speaking with respect and integrity.

I was inspired to write this post after reading Benjamin Hardy’s great post on fears and emotional blocks



Struggling with focus? Strategies to help you sharpen your concentration

Struggling with focus? Strategies to help you sharpen your concentration

Do you struggle to maintain concentration for an extended period of time? Do you find that the length of time that you can focus your attention has severely deteriorated over the past few years? Twelve months ago, I would have answered yes to both questions. There was a melting pot of reasons for this. Environmental, personal and structural tended to be the category headings for most. An open plan office, an inability to say ‘no’ and a daily structure that responded to the needs of others at the sacrifice of my own. I often left work scattered and unfulfilled. The day would start with the best of intentions but would derail and leave me feeling unproductive and to be perfectly honest, really unhappy. I felt like a passenger in my own existence, unable to produce the quality of work that I so desired. In his classic book, Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says

“the mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. And the person who can do this usually enjoys the normal course of everyday life.”

In essence, your capacity to concentrate intensely, to focus your attention to achieve a goal is a major factor in determining happiness. I needed to make changes.

Twelve months ago I made some big changes.

It started with owning my morning. Running and exercise have always been great outlets for me. As I said to my wife, I am a better person when I run regularly (she agrees!). The challenge was that I loved to run after work and this is not easy when you have two kids under six. The routine takes over. So I had to run early in the morning. I started getting up at 5am (otherwise known as stupid ‘o clock) and running in the darkness. You learn to sharpen your focus quick smart when you run in pitch black. I also didn’t let inclement weather deter me. I ran when it was raining. I ran when it was freezing. The benefits for me far outweighed the costs. I also found the weather really helped keep you in the moment.

The next battle was with my attention. In Smarter, Faster, Better, Charles Duhigg states that “to be genuinely productive, we must take control of our attention”. For me, the challenge was that I divided my attention amongst too many things. I needed to be able to prioritise better and to let things slide by. The change happened when I was introduced to meditation. The first introduction was via the Headspace app and is a great space for anyone new to meditation. I used to think that meditation was all ‘oms’ and ‘chakras’ but it is actually just about stopping and being present. Ten minutes a day doesn’t seem like a lot of time but it does when you are meditating. I found my mind wondering and constantly having to bring it back to focus. This is normal! Meditation came and went for a little while but I started a daily habit at the start of this year and I’ve meditated 99.9% of this year. I use Insight Timer as my app of choice. It has a great variety of meditations (short, long, morning, binaural beats, etc…) and is free. You can also earn accomplishments by keeping your streak of meditating going. I meditate every morning and it is a great way to start the day. My mind still wonders but I’m much more conscious of it.

Adam Grant, the author of Originals and Give and Take, is renowned for his quality of work and for his volume of work. He is the youngest tenured professor at Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania). His formula for success is easy.

High Quality Work Produced = Time Spent x Intensity of focus

Having a large block of time with a clear goal is key. You then need to make sure that you work with intensity. In a previous life, I worked as a gym instructor and I would often marvel at the people who would come to the gym for hours and barely raise a sweat. Intensity is what helps you achieve your goals. I guard my schedule now. Morning meetings are really limited. This is the best time for high-quality work. I also try to keep meetings and emails to a minimum. I wrote a post last week on my personal inquiry into where my time goes. I am employed to do great work, not to warm chairs and play email ping pong. Yes, these are essential but a day that only consists of these is, in my opinion, a waste.

To help me focus in an open plan office, I use bucket headphones and is music designed by an AI engine for the brain to enhance focus. I had read lots of binaural beats and power of the repetitive tones on focus. I tried YouTube clips of binaural beats, focus soundtracks on Spotify but eventually locked down on I used multiple email addresses to sign up for the free ten sessions and I have committed to a yearly subscription. It is the best $47 I have spent this year. I find it really helps block out the background noise and focus my attention on the task at hand. I think of it as blinkers for the open plan office. When I am at home, I use a technique called box breathing (or four square breathing) before I start my writing/work. It is brilliant for slowing the breath and helping to start my focus period off in style. I use the BoxBreathing app for this. In combination with, I have seen huge improvements in my ability to focus.

The challenge with work that is digitally based is the click bait. Clifford Nass, a Professor from Stanford who studies behaviour in the digital age, has found that constant attention switching online has lasting negative effects on your brain. In his words, constant switching is making us dumber. A little sensationalist for my liking but still something to be really wary of. Are you constantly starting a task and finding ten minutes later that you are nowhere near that task or struggling to remember what that task was?  If so, take some steps. These steps worked for me. The first step is recognising that it is having an impact.

Take control and find out where all your time goes.

Take control and find out where all your time goes.

Where does all your time go? What has the greatest impact on your daily energy and is it the right use of your time? I have long pursued living a deliberate life. A life where my energy is used in the right places. Where conscious decisions lead to a better home and work life. We are all driven and ambitious. Wanting to live a life that is rich and fulfilling. The challenge is often time. While it is often a legitimate hurdle, sometimes it can be a ‘get out of jail free’ card. There are so many things we could do with our lives if we just had more time. Oh, the skills we could master, the projects we could complete.

So where does all your time go?

I have spent the past two weeks figuring this out. On episode 7 of Design and Play, my co-host Dean Pearman put me on to an app called Toggl. Toggl is a time tracking application that allows you to capture where you spend your energy and time. It is available via a browser, desktop (Mac & PC) download or as a mobile application. It is free but you can upgrade via subscription for some more features. The free version is more than enough.

Toggl’s default screen

To start, you create projects. These are broad categories like Meetings, Ordering, Email, etc…. You then specify the details of the category. For example, if your broad category is Meetings, then your subcategory would be what that meeting is about. When that meeting starts, you press the green play button and a timer starts for that meeting. When the meeting finishes, you press the stop button. It’s that simple. Consciously recording your time for your tasks during the day really changes how you view your time allocation. There are so many times when I reach for my phone while waiting for something. It’s just habit. I recorded all of that time. It was really interesting to see how much time I spent each day looking at social media. It also stopped me many times from just checking it randomly. Instead, I would consciously check it. I would batch check in with my PLN. Instead of constantly responding to messages as they came in, I would wait until I deliberately chose to respond. I would then check all social media. Batching tasks together has been a game changer for me. This deliberate approach allows me to focus my attention and to be more present and productive.

Batch email – Working on taming the email beast

Times can be collected automatically by pressing play or by manual entry. This is a great feature as it allows you to add entries you may have forgotten. As I started using Toggl more, I started to add in categories that I have never logged. Informal meetings and ordering (like you Dean) took up a fair amount of time. The interesting thing about these new categories was when they took place and how often they would cut into a period where I was working deeply. In Toggl, you can see this by enabling the timeline feature. This feature allows you to see when in your day these items took place. Your energy is the best at the start of the day so this is the time that should be devoted to the most demanding tasks. This insight led me to adjust my environment. If I needed to work on a project that required intense concentration, I would find a quiet spot away from my team until that was complete. Once I was back in the office, I was present and ready to chat. This deliberate choice allowed me to feel like I was giving each of these important elements the right attention. Cal Newport calls this the ‘hub and spoke’ approach. Solitary work with large periods of concentration mixed with communal conversations. In David Thornburg’s words, cave time mixed with watering hole time.

Using the timeline to see when you complete deep work

This approach then lead me to utilise another feature of Toggl. Each recorded time can have tags added which can provide another filter to view your data through. I started to categorise each task as shallow work or deep work. I classified items such as email, ordering and social media as shallow work. Deep work examples are daily writing, teaching and staff professional development. Using the Report section of Toggl, I could break down each day into how often I worked in deep concentration on cognitively challenging tasks. I could then compare this to how much shallow work I was completing. This data really does open a Pandora’s box of questions. Deep work needs to be scheduled for the morning and in large chunks of time. Shallow work should be scheduled for the afternoon when my brain is slowing down. Toggl’s timeline feature also allows you to visualise this. You can see where your time goes throughout the day and see if you are setting your day out to fully optimise your body’s natural energy flow.

My deep work for the week
My shallow work

By using Toggl, I am being more proactive in how I decide to use my time. I reflect on the days that work better than others. Sleep is a big factor in how the day will pan out and so I am deliberate in my sleep routine to allow for a good night’s sleep. Measuring where my time goes is a conscious and deliberate decision. I want to feel like I have accomplished something with my day. I want time to work on the projects that make me feel alive. I don’t want the excuse of time to dictate how I live my life.

You have more time than you think.

The first step is to find out where it goes in the first place.

The next is to analyse it.

Are you spending your time wisely?

The power of being present

The power of being present

How do you power down?
What strategies do you use to switch off from the pressures and pull of work?
What conscious steps do you take to transition from work to home?
What routines and habits do you have that allow you leave work at your front door step?
How are you present at home?
What conscious choices are you making to leave work at work?
You decide.
You set the expectations.
You create the precedence.
You set the standard.
You create the habit.
You choose to be where you are.
Take the time to build a routine that allows you to be present at work and at home.
You decide.