Developing Your Skills Mind and Body

SUMMARY

To achieve personal objectives it is necessary to analyse another fundamental resource for achieving them – yourself. By looking at what you want to achieve and the tasks required you will be able to identify the skills and knowledge needed. If you work in a primarily technical environment, then knowledge of particular products or processes may be important. If your environment is mainly people-oriented, then the skills to develop and manage others may be vital. Review yourself objectively by examining the key components of your skills mind and body. This article helps you to understand and prioritise your personal needs and help you decide how to address them.

PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT

An effective training plan should also be “smart” and should include both short-term training needs, and longer-term development needs. Development needs may also relate to professional education requirements, particularly if your job status requires mandatory continuous professional education. In this instance a written plan for the year and a review process are essential evidence for maintaining status within your professional body. The concept of Lifetime Learning is now accepted commercial practice, with the emphasis on your active self-development, rather than passive acknowledgement that training is merely something to do when time permits.
There are four elements to a training plan: the objectives (what you intend to learn or do as a result); how you will implement training (through projects at work, formal class-room tuition, reading or audio-visual media); a schedule showing the implementation; and a review measuring what was done and its effectiveness for you.

LEARNING STYLES

You should also consider your preferred learning style as selecting inappropriate methods will hinder development. Peter Honey’s four styles are commonly referred to. Activists who are often lively outgoing types who like to “learn by doing”; these people prefer games, exercises and activities, such as role-play. Reflectors are more cautious and quieter often observing others before getting involved; they benefit from time to analyse and review.
Pragmatists like to develop new ideas and quickly link them to the job in hand. Theorists want to see the rationale for change and understand the model or system before applying it on a step by step basis. Decide which of these four types is your preferred style and ensure the training method fits accordingly.

LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES

Most learning occurs naturally and informally at work, and it is worth reflecting upon the opportunities that present themselves and how you can take better advantage of them. Mixing with and sharing work with others allows for learning through information exchange; involvement in research activities; even personal activities outside work (voluntary work, club secretary, school governor) provide a rich source of experience which can supplement work-based activities.
If you do not take your personal development seriously you will be sending a clear message to all those who work with you or for you. An effective way of demonstrating your intent to learn is to ask those who work with you to rate your effectiveness in your job. You will usually find this overcomes the deficiencies of your own subjective self-appraisal, particularly if you ask for their anonymous feedback and assure them of no recriminations.

MASTERING MEMORY

The increasing volumes of information can be better managed by people with good memories, a skill, which is mainly acquired rather than inherited. Your head contains three brains, not one: the Reptilian brain, which stems from the spinal column and controls basic instincts and functions (breathing and sense of territory); the Mammalian brain (or “limbic system”) which controls emotion, sleep and long-term memory; and Neocortex, the two-sided cerebrum that controls intellectual processes (reasoning and talking). The latter comprises the left-hand “logical” brain, controlling language, and the right-hand “creative” brain for artistry, music and innovation. The two sides combine to assist the memory function in three stages: registration of information, retention, and retrieval. Your brain has the capacity to register and retain every single piece of information you encounter. Your challenge lies in recalling and retrieving, and “memory-masters” often use a few simple techniques to do this.
Linking new information to existing knowledge can be facilitated by exaggeration, humour and emotive images. The brain is stimulated by the unusual and if you have difficulty remembering people’s names this technique works well. The name Clive Bonny can be transformed into Bonnie and Clyde alongside the image of a gun-toting gangster into which you can insert the person’s face. Music can be anchored to particular memories, so that when you learn or experience something whilst hearing a particular musical piece, the playback will recall the original context. One of the most common memory techniques is “mind-mapping” pioneered by Tony Buzan. Mind-maps mirror how the brain works by stimulating both left and right brain hemispheres.

BRAIN MAPS

The principle of brain mapping is to record information on paper (or screen) in a format which fits how your brain likes to register and retain information. The principle steps are as follows: Start with a blank sheet and a central image or word representing the theme of your subject. Draw curved lines outward from the centre with each line containing one word. Use up to four colours and vary the size of word to reflect its importance. Use the same colour for each branch of lines and images rather than words appeals to the right-hand brain; drawing arrows and patterns to connect themes appeals to the left-brain.
The style of the finished item may appear like a confused octopus, but your memory will prefer it to conventional alpha-numeric information and you will find yourself recalling more information by scanning your brain-map than by recording in traditional methods. Applications include speech-making, project planning, problem-solving, creating ideas and taking minutes.
Other techniques include rhyming principles e.g. “Thirty days has September, April, June and November….”, acronyms e.g. “SMART” objectives, and “peg” systems which hook your information to images which are more memorable: The number 7 can be represented by a boomerang, the letter B by a bumble-bee, the word Monday by money, or August by a gust of wind. As with developing any new skill, such techniques will feel uncomfortable at first, but with patience and practice you will find that enhancing your memory can both astound your colleagues and improve your abilities in a wide range of activities.

SPEED READING

Most busy people have difficulty finding time to read the increasing volumes of information now available and information overload is an issue we often made worse through overuse of technology’s ability to copy data world-wide. Speed-reading can increase your capacity from 200 up to 1000 words per minute, a five-fold increase. More efficient reading can also improve concentration and comprehension. For a general improvement to reading ability it is important to clear the workspace, set time limits and hold an upright posture with the reading material at about forty five degrees in front. Your eyes should be guided with a pointed (a pencil or finger will do) which sweeps the page with eyes following at a constant speed. Scan the first and last paragraphs for key ideas, and then focus only on nouns and verbs in the body of the text. Avoid stopping and going back, as creating a flow and momentum is important. Gently increasing speed over a period of time will ensure you develop the skill at your own pace.

MENTAL FITNESS

Mental fitness is paramount to personal effectiveness, as it is increasingly more difficult to cope with the pressures and demands of work and home. At home there are more and more expectations related to consumer comforts and relationships. At work the pace of change in the job, new targets, technology, deadlines and flatter hierarchies combine to create an environment of pressure.
Everyone experiences pressure which in itself can stretch you to better performance, but too much pressure for too long leads to stress if you are unable to manage it. Stress can also occur in very short periods: making a presentation; doing a task for the first time; handling an irate person; making a mistake; being late for a meeting; or just high noise levels. Your body responds by automatically increasing heart rate and blood pressure, tensing muscles and the digestive system, and increasing breathing rate. This is your body’s fight or flight response programmed by evolution for emergencies. The problem at work is you are unable to release these physical symptoms with a physical response thereby creating a bottleneck, which further increases pressure. This can create a downward spiral.

HANDLING STRESS

The first step in managing stress is to recognise the symptoms. You can identify signs by feeling impatient, depressed, frustrated or isolated. You may hear yourself slam phones or doors, drum fingers or talking quickly. Visually you may catch yourself nail-biting, blinking excessively or changing your eating and sleeping patterns. These tell-tale signals should be taken seriously and quickly on board. Most people suffering stress are usually diagnosed by all but themselves, and the “loose cannon” effect only serves to further isolate the sufferer. A stressed manager is often unapproachable yet is often the first to complain that people around them are failing to communicate. The ripple effect then creates bigger problems.
Sometimes it is simply a person’s perspective which generates stress – the old adage of the glass being half full or half empty. The personality “type A” is a restless high achiever and more likely than “type B”, who is more relaxed and accepting, to put pressure on themselves.
You can create new perspectives by putting yourself in the shoes of others, by sharing your views, or by writing up the issues and assessing them factually. A few simple ways to put things in perspective are to think how the issue could be even more difficult to manage (making reality relatively easy) or consider how much more important other matters are (making this issue relatively unimportant). Focus on those activities which you control especially your thought pattern, which should be positive. The American habit of writing or saying out loud positive mental affirmations (“PMA”) is recommended.

ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH

Mental health is governed also by physical health. Your environment must be comfortable: avoid fluorescent bulbs, have a fresh air flow, control room temperature. Your workspace should not be cramped, and your chair should assist lumbar support and give you a straight spine. Your keyboard should allow elbows to be directly under shoulders with forearms parallel to the floor, without resting on the desktop. A two minute break from the VDU every twenty minutes will prevent headaches, particularly standing up to stretch and change eye focus. Closing the eyes for a minute can also help.
Using a telephone headset has been proven to reduce neck and shoulder tension or swap a normal headset between your listening ears. Organisations are increasingly offering lunchtime massage and short courses in self-massage are now available for office workers. The choice of colour scheme affects the thinking climate: yellow stimulates creativity, blue facilitates deeper thinking, green promotes calm, and red stimulates challenge. Some companies now have colour-coded rooms for different activities. More than 250 different harmful chemicals have now been identified in office air, known as VOC (volatile organic compounds). These come from photocopiers, wall insulation and floor materials and from dry cleaned clothing. Studies by NASA have shown that plant leaves absorb many of these pollutants, purifying the air naturally, especially spider plants, chrysanthemums, azaleas, tulips and lilies.

FOOD AND DRINK

Besides managing your environment you should also plan your food and drink intake. Six to eight glasses of water per day is optimum, and installing a water tank in the office, instead of a coffee or cola dispenser, will also reduce the build up of stomach acid. Vitamin supplements will overcome some of the deficiencies of fast food at lunchtime.
Vitamin A in fish oils improves vision and joint flexibility. B vitamins in meat, milk and eggs help memory especially B5 and B6, Vitamin C is an anti-oxidant, which protects other vitamins from destruction, and Vitamin E in grain and wheat improves cell oxygenisation. Rather than eating sweets, try glucose tablets as they can generate 25 watts of electricity for brain functions (the brain needs 70% of the body’s glucose). The wrong diet equates to putting diesel into a sports car.

PHYSICAL EXERCISE

Your speed of thought and mental agility should be supported by a physical agility programme. Exercise is not just for the sporty types but must be seen as an essential building block to your quality of life. Fitness is an effective stress-buster and your physical fitness plan should aim for a gradual improvement in your exercise frequency and type. You should build up slowly to a half-hour workout every other day. If you have had little exercise previously this may take several months.
Select an environment in which you enjoy exercise, which could be either in a club or at home, and try to set goals which give you sense of accomplishment. These could be stretching from ten to fifteen lengths of a swimming pool, or be a walk to the local station rather than a drive. There are many excuses for not exercising regularly, but if you ask colleagues who do it if they would go back to inactivity they will often say NO. Exercise will clear your mind of worries, release physical tension, help you sleep and give you more energy to enjoy life. As one major leisure company says “Just Do It”, but remember over-exercising is as dangerous as under-exercising.

ASSERTIVENESS

One of the greatest causes of personal stress is to take on more than you can do. People prefer not to say NO being more competitive (Type “A”) and want to win against all odds. Others prefer not to appear to be weak and their desire to support others results in overloading themselves. About 95% of the population fall into one of these two styles – either aggressive or passive, and although most would prefer to think of themselves as assertive, only about 5% of people are naturally so. The key differences between these three styles can be defined as follows:
Assertive types express themselves at no-one else’s expense. Passive types fail to express themselves at their own expense. Aggressive types express themselves at someone else’s expense. The problem of aggressive types in the workplace is widely recognised and the law now protects against bullying at work. Forms of harassment, which can now lead to perpetrators becoming personally liable in the courts, include offensive jokes or gestures, purposefully excluding others from social activities and coercion and intrusion by pestering. The legal interpretation of a healthy and safe working environment now includes mental not just physical health and there are numerous cases of large financial compensations being awarded against complacent employers and managers. The message to aggressive types is to recognise the risks of inappropriate behaviour before it is too late, and for passive types to realise they have a final mechanism for support if all else fails. Prevention though is preferred by asking for what you want, directly and openly in a way which respects others rights.
Finally undertake a self-assessment and ask friends and colleagues to also share their assessment of you. You can learn much about yourself through the eyes of others.
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