Get the basics right first


Executive functions of the brain

Last week I attended the excellent Learning and the Brain conference in Boston. At this conference you get to hear neuroscientists and other researchers talking about their research and how it impacts on learning.

This year one of the key themes that emerged was the importance of‘executive

Planning and executive functions of the brain

Do you need to improve your time management skills?

functions in your brain. These are foundation skills that you need in order to operate successfully in life. They include:

  • Planning
  • Attention
  • Working memory
  • Problem-solving
  • Verbal reasoning
  • Inhibiting undesirable responses


The theory is that you need these skills in order to manage everything else. They are crucial for learning. And it’s hard to think of anything you do in your life that does not demand the use of many of these skills.

As I discussed the many excellent lectures with my old friend Lew, an expert in the field, we wondered why it’s so hard to persuade teachers to spend any time on helping their students to learn these skills. Instead many just dive into reading, getting students to memorise facts and be able to pass tests. Then I realised it’s not just teachers, it’s all of us.


The lumberjacks

You probably know the story of the lumberjacks, competing against each other to cut down as many trees as they could.  (This is an old story from before rain forests and global warming, I think.)

At first things were pretty even. But after a while one lumberjack was steadily pulling ahead of the others. However, no one could work out how.


He kept disappearing into the forest. But in spite of taking this time out, he was steadily cutting down more trees than the others.

So one of them asked him what he was doing when he went into the forest. He was surprised at the question:


“Sharpening my saw.” Was his response.


Executive functions are the vital foundations

These are the skills that help you to improve everything else. So why do people spend so little time improving them? Perhaps it’s because they are so keen on instant gratification. They just don’t realise the benefit of sharpening the saw.



Let’s look at just one of those skills, planning. (We’ll be looking at others in future blogs.)  It’s basic time management. I once asked a client how much time she would save if she never had to chase up any of her colleagues. After a short reflection, she said “About 20%”. (From my observations of that company, she was being very charitable.) However, even taking her conservative estimate, that’s one day a week, spent just chasing others.


Time that is completely wasted.


We looked around the office. There were 50 people in there and I know they all had the same problem. So in effect, 10 of the people there were either unnecessary or could have been spending all their time on things that would add a lot more value than just chasing colleagues.


And it’s all down to the inability of those people (and particularly the ones at the top in that particular organisation) to plan. It may sound like a boring thing, not as exciting as many of the other things you do, but it is unbelievably important.


What do you think the impact of poor planning for your whole life is? For children, poor executive function is the difference between going to college or university and not going. It can be the difference between passing and failing exams and getting a job or not.


How much of your time is wasted through the poor planning of others? I guarantee you it’s much more than you think. And what about your own planning? How does that impact on others?


To get help at improving some of those basic time management skills get my booklet “Time Management Made Easy” or the recording of my teleseminar  on Time Management.


Time Management Made Easy

124 tips and techniques to make your life easier very quickly, by Nancy Slessenger


In this short, simple, step-by-step guide you will find out:

  • How to plan – this will ensure you achieve your goals.
  • How to prioritise – this will help you to work out what is most important to you and make sure you achieve it.
  • How to maintain your concentration.
  • How to deal with unreliable people. These people can really mess up your plans, you’ll find out how to stop that happening when you read Time Management Made Easy.
  • How to say ‘No’ without saying ‘No’. Most people hate saying ‘No’ so I’m giving you a way of doing it without saying it and it really works.
  • How to clear all that rubbish on your desk and make sure it stays clear.
  • And much more…


Get “Time Management Made Easy” now


Time Management Teleseminar

If you are pressed for time, listen to this recording. It includes:


  • The only two ways to improve your time management
  • What to do when you have too much to do and not enough time
  • How to plan effectively
  • How to deal with Interruptions
  • How to save time in meetings
  • How to get long term continuous improvement
  • And lots more…

Get the Time Management Teleseminar recording now.

When do you learn the most?


Difference and Sameness


Which situations do you learn the most from? The comfortable ones or the uncomfortable ones?


It’s very easy to spend all your time with people you like and get on well with. What is much more challenging is to engage with people who are different and have different views.


Recently I was on a workshop run by Paul Scheele and he pointed out that whilst familiarity leads to connections, difference leads to learning.


Since he pointed this out, I’ve been doing my best to notice opportunities for difference and learning. Have you noticed how easily people dismiss ideas that are not the same as your own? Do you think it’s because they don’t want to learn or is it because they don’t want to feel uncomfortable? Or is it because they know they are right?



Many people don’t like being confused. They find it frustrating, yet it is one of the steps you need to go through in order to learn.


Once you know this, you can relax and enjoy it.


To move on from the state of confusion, you need to ask questions. To quote from an old TV series (Babylon 5) “Never fear answers. Only fear running out of questions.”


When you get frustrated, you can end stuck instead of asking questions. But you will find that if you do start asking questions, you will make a lot of progress.


Questions focus your mind and make it easier for you to learn.


Great answers breed better questions

I got this excellent quote from Mel Stephenson of The Data Studio. He’s hooked on

Great Answers Breed Better Questions

One of Mel’s great posters

questions. They are the answer to many situations.


When you come across difference and confusion, instead of dismissing or getting frustrated, try asking some questions.


If you are stuck for questions, you could do worse than trying my booklet:


Questions Made Easy

Used with skill, questions are a very powerful tool at work and in the rest of your life. Most people don’t realize quite how powerful they are.


In this booklet you will find 21 questions that you can use, with small adjustments, in many different situations to make yourself more effective just about every interaction you have with others.


In this booklet you will find:

  • What not to ask in performance reviews and appraisals (and why)
  • 31 questions for Coaching & Problem-solving
  • The questions not to ask when establishing skill levels
  • 10 questions to find out what someone can really do
  • Questions to help learning including a worked example
  • Questions for panic situations
  • Questions for dealing with situations when someone has behaved badly
  • Questions for when you need answers action or help (and what not to ask)
  • Questions to get decisions and persuade others
  • Questions for sales situations (with a worked example)
  • Tips on the easy ways to come up with the right questions and get the right answers
  • A summary of the 21 ‘root questions’
  • And much, much more….

What’s the worst presentation you have ever seen?


Why was it so bad? Was it boring, annoying, infuriating? I guarantee you know it was bad because of the emotions you felt while you were there.



When you are talking to someone else or even presenting to a group, do you ever consider how you want them to feel while you are presenting your information?



Why do you go to see a film or read a book?


Filmmakers and authors are selling emotions. You watch a film to get taken through a set of emotions. If you love thrillers, you want to be thrilled. If you love to laugh you go to see comedies. If you want to be terrified, you go to see horror films or read Stephen King.



But how much do you consciously use emotions in your working life (or even personal life)?



I have run many workshops on facilitating groups and engaging others for clients. Typically not one participant has ever thought about this. They have thought about what they want to tell the other person, and sometimes they have even thought what they would like their audience to do after the presentation or conversation, but never have they identified what they would like their audience to feel.



I met John, a very interesting delegate at a conference this week. He is fully engaged in all kinds of personal development. I asked him what had made the biggest difference to him – he said it was learning to identify the emotions he is feeling. Part of his training involved being given a list of emotions and being asked to identify when he experienced them during his normal week.



He couldn’t. He discovered that he paid no attention whatsoever to his emotions.



Emotions convey information


Imagine you are walking along the street and you see a large black dog the size of a small bear. Would you be able to tell the difference between that dog being angry and that dog being frightened? I bet you would.



The reason I’m so sure of that is that any people who might have been your ancestors and were unable to make that differentiation would have been removed from the gene pool (probably by angry dogs).



Emotions are a very quick way of communicating, both with yourself and others; sadness tells you that you have lost something, fear that you may be under attack.



Do you plan out the emotions for a presentation?


When you see a film, unless it’s really boring, you are taken through a sequence of emotions. A film may take you through suspense, fear, humour and sadness in a few seconds. Should your presentation do the same?



If you want people to be engaged, I suggest it should unless you want everyone to be asleep by the end. This can even apply to one on one conversations, especially when you are trying to sell or persuade.



One of the problems people encounter when they start to think about this they simply can’t think what emotions they would like their audience to experience. It’s rather like my friend John at the conference (who astonishingly was a professional classical musician).



That’s why I developed my ‘cheat sheet’. It’s a list of 500 emotions that I give to participants on the workshop. Once you see them, you recognise many and know what they are (though not in all cases). But it does start you thinking and helps you to plan out a presentation from a completely different perspective.



Here are a few from the list:


Amazed, amused, intrigued, worried, enthusiastic, frightened, jealous, furious, optimistic, overwhelmed, inspired, unwanted, vigorous, refreshed, spoiled, reluctant, reckless, stuck, guilty, happy.



What emotions did people experience in your last presentation or interaction? Did you plan them (or even notice them)? And were they the most useful emotions for that situation or not?



Emotions run your behaviour


Emotions make certain choices more likely and others less likely. So this is a very powerful tool if you can use it. Just noticing what you are getting is a good start.



Set your objective


The best way to use emotions effectively is to make sure you have a clear objective for your interaction or presentation, then work out which emotions will be most likely to help you to achieve your objective.



Once you have done this, you can start working out how to generate those emotions.


For more information about presentation and engagement training


All our work in this area is specifically designed for each client. To find out how we could help you, contact us.


Help with writing objectives


Writing objectives can be difficult, that’s why I wrote “How to Write Objectives That Work” our step-by-step guide to writing your objectives.

Our handy booklet will walk you through 55 simple tools and techniques to ensure that you get your objectives right. It’s short and to the point so you can quickly find the help you need. And of course we’ll show you just what to do with those really difficult objectives that people struggle with.


You’ll discover:

  •     The key steps to take to write any objective
  •     7 key words and phrases you must avoid when writing objectives and what to do instead
  •     How to make your objectives SMART


And much more.  Get “How to Write Objectives That Work” now