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Three Ways Multitasking is Killing Your Productivity

Afew weeks ago I was interviewing a candidate for an important office position for one of my clients. I asked the person to describe their strengths.  
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  One of the first answers out of their mouth was, “I’m really good at multi-tasking.”   When you hear that, what’s your first response?   Mine used to be a very positive one. After all, we live in a high-demand, fast-paced, globally-connected world. Who wouldn’t want someone who is a great multitasker on their team?   But the science is increasingly making clear the dangers of multitasking. Studies are showing that multitasking actually impairs our cognitive ability and reduces the speed with which we are able to accomplish tasks.   That means a remarkable decrease in the quality and quantity of output from those who are “heavy multitaskers.” Professor Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, Rules for Focused Work in a Distracted World, tells us that even a glance at another media stream creates what he calls “attention residue,” which can significantly decrease cognitive ability for 10-20 minutes. As he put it, heavy multitaskers are regularly “working with a serious, self-imposed cognitive handicap.” When we’re multitasking we’re actually shooting ourselves in the foot. How do you feel about it now?  

A New Economy

For many of us, who are increasingly involved in a “knowledge work” economy, this could be disastrous. In this type of economy Newport states that there are two core abilities that are needed in order to thrive: 1) The ability to quickly master hard things and 2) The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.   Unfortunately, with the rise of multitasking, many of us are operating from a place of severe disadvantage and deficit that we’ve brought upon ourselves.   Here are three specific ways that multitasking is killing our ability to thrive.

Falling Into Our Own Trap

Multitasking, for our purposes, involves the rapid or (apparently) simultaneous intake of various forms of media. Imagine the scene below. Given our current environment it shouldn’t be all that unfamiliar.   You are sitting at your desk. On your laptop you have three different windows that are currently open. Just a few feet away, two of your team members are discussing a situation that involves one of your key clients. In your hand is your mobile phone with which you are currently receiving multiple texts. At the same time, notifications are popping up to let you know that the Cubs just took a 3-1 lead over the Cardinals and that a press conference regarding the latest hurricane is starting in any minute.   As scary as it is, the scene I just described above is not uncommon.   Based on the research done by Clifford Nass and two of his associates at Stanford University, here are three abilities being negatively affected by multitasking.   1. The ability to filter. This is the ability to ignore irrelevant information and focus on relevant information. In other words, the ability to avoid distractions and concentrate on what is most important at that moment.   According to Nass, for those who are highly involved in multitasking, “everything distracts them.” In another interview he said, “Multitaskers are suckers for distraction and suckers for the irrelevant, and so the more irrelevant information they see, the more they’re attracted to it.”   Because they’re inundating themselves with so much input, they are actually training their minds to not be able to focus, even when they’re not multitasking.   One of Nass’ colleagues from Stanford added, “When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal,” said Anthony Wagner, an associate professor of psychology. “That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.”   2. The ability to manage your working memory. This refers to our ability to keep our memories neatly organized, including the information we gather. As a result, this relates to our ability to access that information when and where it’s needed, and then relate it to other pieces of information in ways that make sense.   According to another one of Nass’ colleagues, Eyal Ophir, “The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.”   Nass spoke about one outcome of this in a lecture series he gave at Stanford in 2011 where he stated that writing samples from freshman multitaskers showed a tendency toward shorter sentences and disconnected paragraphs. He said that they were seeing less complex ideas expressed by the students. This was likely due to this inability to manage all the information that was being stored.   Unfortunately, in our knowledge economy, the ability to think creatively and solve difficult problems quickly is essential. This requires a high degree of skill in managing our working memory, which involves drawing upon what we’ve learned previously.   3. The ability to switch from one task to another. For the researchers this was the one that surprised them the most. This was the one thing they assumed these heavy multitaskers were good at, because it certainly appeared as though they were.   Wrong again, the study showed. According to Ophir, “They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing.”   So, while from the outside it looks like multitaskers are talented at switching from one thing to another, they’re actually not doing the next task as well or as quickly as they could if their brains were better trained to focus.   According to Cal Newport, the ability to focus is actually a skill that can be learned and mastered.  
By doing less, you might accomplish more.

Clifford Nass


A Change of Tune

Interestingly, instrumental music, seems to be the one modality that doesn’t seem to lead to problems with multitasking. In some cases, it actually improved cognitive performance.   According to various studies, the style, tempo and volume can all have an impact on your level of energy and ability to concentrate. Baroque and classical music seem to be the best for those who need to perform at high levels in the knowledge work arena.   Question: What’s your reaction to this research? [question]multitasking-killing-productivity[/question]  
Seize the day!

Do You Have What it Takes to Be Truly Successful?

Have you ever wondered why there are some people who are wonderfully talented and possess solid skills, but just can’t seem to find a way to succeed, especially over the long haul?


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Usually we associate hard work and great skills, or competence, with big success. But you and I both know people that work hard and are incredibly talented, but who always seem to fall short of their full potential. Why is that?


It’s because there’s something else that is truly the lynchpin of great, long lasting success. There’s something even more important that prevents people from tripping up or fizzling out, but it’s missing in their case.


Here are some questions that will help us move closer to the answer:

  • How do you respond when things around you are falling apart?
  • How do you handle it when others give you feedback on how you can improve your performance?
  • When was the last time you made a significant personal sacrifice for the good of the team?


All of these questions speak to the issue of character. In last week’s post I began sharing with you the qualities of people who possess a fully integrated character. In other words, these qualities represent what it means to truly be a person of integrity.


We typically associate honesty and follow-through with the word integrity. But it’s much more than that. Last week I shared with you the first three qualities from Dr. Henry Cloud’s best-selling book, “Integrity.” This week I’m going to share the other three.


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Personal Development

Are You Really A Person of Integrity?

It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, and typically means slightly different things to different people.  
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  A lot of people use it as a synonym for honesty. Many others look at it more in terms of follow-through – does a person do what they say they’re going to do. Both meanings are common and closely related.   I’ve worked with a lot of CEO’s and leadership teams to identify their core values. I’ve also interviewed hundreds and hundreds of candidates in the hiring process and have consistently asked them what values guide the decisions they make and how they live their lives.   Integrity is the one word I hear more than any other from these exercises. There’s rarely a leadership team or an interviewee that leaves it off their list. After all, who wouldn’t want to be known and recognized for this quality?   But, the word integrity means much more than just honest or good with follow-through. If we go back to Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary neither of these words is even mentioned. What is mentioned is:  
  • wholeness, entireness, unbroken state, and
  • the entire, unimpaired state of any thing; sound
  Henry Cloud, in his book, “Integrity” states, “When we are talking about integrity, we are talking about being a whole person, an integrated person, with all of our different parts working well and delivering the functions that they were designed to deliver.”   We’re not talking about perfection. Nobody’s perfect. What we are talking about is character. Ultimately your character will determine whether or not you have what it takes to become truly successful. There are plenty of talented people who’ve never achieved true, lasting success because their character was flawed and did them in.   Let’s take a quick look at three qualities that define a whole, sound, integrated person of character.

Being a Fully Integrated Leader

Henry Cloud went on his book to list six aspects of character that define a person of true integrity. Here are the first three, with my brief explanation. I’ll follow up next week with the other three.   1. The ability to connect authentically. This is about connecting with people at a heart level. You can be a nice person, even a caring person, and still not be able to connect.   The popular term today to describe this is “emotional intelligence” (or EQ). Another word might be empathy. It describes a person’s ability to understand how others are feeling and what they are experiencing. In other words, they get it.   When people feel understood they are more likely to trust. When people perceive that you care but don’t understand, they won’t feel as though you truly have their best interest in mind, that you have their back. They’ll feel the need to look out for themselves and that creates a barrier in the relationship.   Without being able to connect at a heart level, people may like you, but they won’t fully trust you.   2. The ability to be oriented toward the truth. The basic part of this aspect is what we all associate with integrity, which is honesty. The ability to trust what someone is saying is the “cost of entry” in any relationship. Without trust, there is no relationship.   But this goes beyond that basic aspect of truth, to something deeper. It’s also about a person’s willingness and ability to see and acknowledge reality. Some people believe only what they want to be true. People of integrated character are willing to see and face even the hard or disappointing realities.   For example, there have been many leaders over the years who were unwilling to see and adjust to cultural or technological changes. Think Kodak. Others have been unwilling to listen to managers, peers, or subordinates about their blind spots, winding up losing the majority, if not all, of their influence within the organization.   And all-too-many people have ignored family, friends, or coworkers who’ve tried to help them see the self-destructive behaviors in which they were trapped, only to be ruined by them.   3. The ability to work in a way that gets results and finishes well. A lot of people think that working hard is a huge key to success. But there are a lot of people who work hard that fall far short of big, long-term success. That’s because too many people focus on the “what” of the work (the technical or process side) instead of “who” is doing the work.   Unfortunately, this has too many components to cover in this one blog post, so I’ll pick my personal favorite. Have a clear grasp on your identity, i.e who you are and who you are not.  
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  Be humble yet confident about what you do well and be just as willing to admit and stay away from what you do not do well. Invest your time, energy, and other resources heavily into your areas of talent, gift, and strength.   According to Gallup, it’s important to figure out, and find a way to do, what you do best every day. It’s one of the most important keys to the high levels of competence and fulfillment that will enable you to produce great results on a recurring basis.  
Being a person of integrity goes far beyond telling the truth.

Joe Denner


Pressing On

We are all a work-in-progress. The need for development in one or more of these areas is normal and natural. What’s important is the willingness to admit where your shortcomings exist and embracing the changes needed to grow in your character.   Be looking for next week’s post where we’ll cover the last three critical components of fully integrated character.   Question: Which aspect would you like to develop further? [question]person-of-integrity[/question]  
Seize the day!
Personal Development

Why Your Team Doesn’t Measure Up

You cannot manage what you do not measure.  
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  That’s one of my favorite management adages of all time. It captures a timeless truth in a simple sentence that can be grasped by all who are willing to take heed.   Too many managers I’ve come across prefer to use a style of management that I call “hope management.” They hope things work out. They hope things turn out the way they want them to. When they don’t, they’re often not even fully aware of it because when you’re not measuring it’s very difficult to tell, with any degree of certainty, whether things are actually getting better or worse.   Additionally, if things are getting better or worse, do you know by how much? Do you understand why you’re experiencing improvements or degradations? If not, you’re not really managing, you’re hoping.   Measuring gives you an opportunity to affect the outcomes you or your team are generating. Because you know whether you are gaining or losing, you can make adjustments to the “recipe” and then gauge what impact your adjustments have produced, positive or negative.   That’s real management.   Let’s look at four aspects of measurement that are critical to your ongoing, long-term success.

What to Consider When Measuring

1. Use a balanced approach of measurement. One of the biggest mistakes I come across is companies that are relying solely, or much too heavily, on the income statement to assess the health or success of the business. Unfortunately, this leaves you with plenty of blind spots and things can change drastically without anyone seeing it coming.   In the mid-90’s professors from the Harvard Business School came up with the Balanced Scorecard concept. It has taught us the importance of looking at the company from four equally important perspectives:  
  • Financial
  • Customer/Stakeholder relationships
  • Internal business processes (your operations)
  • Learning and Growth (your people)
  What’s critical to understand about this is that the last three categories have a direct impact on the financial results. But, if all you ever look at is the monthly or quarterly financial results, you’re going to miss the train that’s coming down the track.   This balanced approach allows you to see cracks in the armor before they become financially fatal. This puts you in the driver’s seat to manage these critical business aspects so that they produce a positive return on your investment.   2. Measure certain items weekly. If you wait until the end of the month to look at all of your measures, you’re going to find that you’re often “too late to the party.” However, if you’re reviewing the team’s performance on select items on a weekly basis it gives you the ability to make decisions proactively that can change the end outcome for the month.   For example, if you have a monthly revenue goal and review it weekly, and find that after week #2 things are off track, you still have two weeks to work with your sales team to effect a successful outcome.   Another measure that I recommend tracking on a weekly basis is your cash balance/forecast. There is no more important measure for a CEO or small business owner than this.  
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  3. Measure what matters most. It’s important that you understand the key economic levers or drivers within your organization. You can’t measure everything so you need to measure the things that have the biggest impact – on your people, your processes, your customers, and your finances.   For this it is critical that you and others on your team have a thorough understanding of what those key drivers are and how they impact the bottom line. For example, I once knew a Sales Manager who commented that if his team made 100 sales contacts per day, they’d hit their monthly revenue goal almost every time.   As another example, one of my clients knows pretty clearly what labor percentage his crews need to be at (as a percentage of sales) in order for them to hit their desired net profit levels.   What customer, process, or employee-related measures have the most direct, positive impact on your profit, cash flow, and balance sheet?   4. Don’t neglect cash flow and the balance sheet. Cash is king, as they say. But, too many companies are blind to what their cash looks like today, much less have a forecast of what it will look like a week or more from now. That could be a fatal mistake. There have been companies that have gone out of business even though their sales have been at record-breaking levels, because they weren’t watching their cash.   Additionally, many companies completely ignore the balance sheet. While the income statement gives you incredibly important information, the balance sheet gives you insights into critical financial aspects of the company that the income statement cannot, such as liquidity – i.e. a measure of how quickly you would be able to convert your assets to cash.   The balance sheet will tell you whether or not the current assets of the business are sufficient to cover the current liabilities and whether or not you are relying too heavily upon debt to run the organization. It also gives you important information about your cash cycle – i.e. how long it takes, on average, to collect payment on your invoices.  
If you’re not measuring, you’re not managing, you’re hoping.

Joe Denner


Final Thought

One last thought as you think about how to measure your business. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. It’s easy to get overzealous when it comes to measuring, so as you turn your sights to this all-important aspect of your business you need to apply the KISS principle – keep it seriously simple.   Start by asking yourself what three, non-financial measures have the biggest impact on your bottom line. Once you have your arms around that, you can begin expanding to a larger scorecard.   Question: What is the most important non-financial metric for your business? [question]team-measuring-up[/question]  
Seize the day!

What Kind Of Wake Are You Leaving?

We have certainly entered the “dog days of summer” here in northern Illinois. Last week you could cut the air with a knife it was so humid. Thankfully, this week has seen some minor relief.  
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  Water sports are definitely a good call for anyone wanting to stay cool. Water skiing and tubing are a couple of my favorites, although I don’t get to do them very often. However, some of you may remember last year when I cracked four ribs trying to barefoot water ski for the very first time. I prefer to forget.   No water skiing or tubing this year, at least not so far. Not even a boat ride. Maybe next week! But that does remind me of an important leadership concept.   What kind of a wake are you leaving?   As you move the through the waters of other people’s lives in your family, community and workplace, what kind of wake are you leaving? Here are a few questions to consider as you look behind you:
  • Are people smiling and laughing? Are people skiing and tubing? Or are there bodies strewn about or floating in the water?
  • Is there a growing string of maturing leaders gliding along, or are there medics and chaplains tending to the wounded and dying?
  Another way to look at it might be to ask, “What is your personal leadership brand?” When people hear your name, what images or emotions emerge? Whatever the answer, as with the earlier mentioned items, it has a powerful and defining impact on your ability to truly lead others.   Some people use fear and intimidation to get what they want from others. In my experience those kind of folks are only likely to get short-term results, if any. Especially as the millennial generation becomes a larger and larger part of the labor force, that kind of behavior will become increasingly ineffective.   There are four things that people want from those they choose to follow.

Four Essential Qualities

Leadership requires followership. If nobody is following, then you’re not leading. Following is not something that happens by coercion, but by others choosing.   1. People choose to follow people who know how to follow. I wish I could take credit for coming up with that, but I have to give credit to my friend, Dr. Jeff Myers. But, it rings as true to me today as it did the day I first heard it.   I have interviewed hundreds of candidates for my clients over the years, and I often ask, “What are the leadership qualities that you have come to admire?” While no one has used this specific phrase, they have described it to a tee.   The number one way people describe it is: someone who won’t ask anyone else to do something they aren’t willing to do themselves. Or, they are very willing to get in the trenches with us and get their hands dirty.   The best way I know how to describe it is by using the word “humility.” They aren’t arrogant nor do they think themselves above others. Jim Collins’ research bore this out as told in his bestselling book, “Good to Great.” This was the #1 quality of the leaders of the “great” companies.   2. People choose to follow people who care about them. John Maxwell is famous for saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Caring opens the door to following because when people sense that you genuinely care they feel safe.   When you are confident that someone has your best interest in mind, you don’t feel the need to protect yourself from them. You are much more inclined to entrust yourself to them. That’s ultimately what following is about.   That feels too mushy for some. All I have to say is, “too bad.” That’s the way it is and if you ignore it you’ll be the one who loses in the end. It’s not about being emotional, it’s about having and demonstrating a genuine concern for the needs of others.   One of my favorite books is called, “Leadership and Self-Deception.” It sums it up this way. Do you think about people as people, or objects? Before you answer too quickly, think about it again.   Other people have needs, wants, hopes, dreams just like you do. Objects are to be used for your own ends. I challenge you to be blisteringly honest about how you really view the other people in your family and at work.  
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  3. People choose to follow those who provide stability. People want a smooth ride. They know there’s turbulence ahead, somewhere, sometime. But they are looking for those who are able to ride out the storm and wind up still floating.   There are two things that I think are key here, both about which I have written previously. The first one is leading with a stable set of core values. Values drive behavior. Consistency in this area means that people know what to expect from you.   The second one is leading with transparency. In the absence of information, people tend to assume the negative. That is human nature. You need to supply the storyline or others will write it for you, and it won’t be pretty. Just think “soap opera,” and you’ll get the idea.   4. People choose to follow those who give them hope. A friend of mine is fond of saying, “Whoever provides the most hope wins the heart.”   Giving people hope is about showing them the possibilities, painting a picture of a desirable future, and instilling confidence in our ability to get there together.   Read my previous blog about how Brooks, Lewis & Clark, Churchill and King Jr., all who faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles, inspired people to follow them all the way to victory.  
Following is not something that happens by coercion, but by others choosing.

Joe Denner


What Will It Be?

So, what kind of wake are you leaving? When they hear your name, what images and emotions emerge?   You are ultimately in control of how others will consistently answer those questions about you. Decide right now what you want the answers to be and then live and lead like you mean it.   Question: What is one thing you can do today to begin creating the wake you want? [question]leaving-wake[/question]  
Seize the day!
Personal Development

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