There’s no such thing as multi-tasking.

Miller quote2

Photo by Ryan McGuire, Gratisography

It wasn’t too long ago that “multi-tasking” was a standard term in both job descriptions and resumes. In fact, a quick search on Workopolis, Canada’s largest online job search site, results in a list of more than 2,300 jobs with this requirement. In the past I’ve been guilty of including this “skill” on my resume, but no longer. Why?

Because multi-tasking is a myth.

Instinctively I’ve known this for years. I just can’t get as much done when I’m trying to concentrate on more than one thing at a time. Sure, I can walk and chew gum simultaneously, but write an email while talking on the phone? Not a chance.

Turns out what we’ve thought of as multi-tasking is actually switching our attention very rapidly from one task to another. The problem is, each time we make this switch we lose time as the executive function of our brain adjusts to the new task. The result is lost productivity, not an increase, as I used to think.

In this brief video, neuroscientist Earl Miller at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explains what’s happening in our brain during our attempts at multi-tasking:

Sometimes attempts at multi-tasking can have deadly consequences. It takes just a quick glance down at your cell phone while driving to travel a fair distance without your eyes on the road. If you’re lucky, there’s nothing in the way and you stay on the road. Did you know that drivers engaged in text messaging on a cell phone are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash or near crash event compared with non-distracted drivers? (Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, 2010)

So, how do we resist the pressure — usually self-imposed — to “multi-task”?

There are no easy answers, given not only the pervasiveness of the multi-tasking myth in our culture, but the real benefits we can derive from the practice.

A study published in the Journal of Communication found that, even though productivity was significantly reduced, the students participating in the research multi-tasked because they found it emotionally satisfying. Multi-tasking was relaxing, entertaining and fun.

To combat the urge to attempt multi-tasking, Dr. Miller suggests:

  • Plan ahead
  • Work in a quiet environment
  • Remove distractions
  • Plan to be productive, rather than “overly productive by multi-tasking”

Have you developed strategies to  increase your effectiveness at “single tasking”? I would love to hear about them!

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Take a hike! (Or at least a walk.)

Now that spring is in sight (finally!), my thoughts have turned again to the tremendous benefits of walking. I love walking for several reasons: I can do it at any time and at a moment’s notice, it requires no equipment other than a sturdy pair of walking shoes, it boosts my energy and improves my sleep, gets me away from my desk and computer screen, and so much more.

In 2011, Toronto doctor Mike Evans produced a short video that has now been shared more than 4.5 million times. Called 23 and ½ Hours, it outlines the positive health impact of walking. Have a look:

I rediscovered the joy of walking last fall when I ventured out on the walking path that encircles my former employer’s office complex. I decided to set aside 15 or 20 minutes at lunchtime to go for a walk. A lap was good for about 2,200 steps toward my daily goal of 10,000. I quickly came to recognize the regular walkers and would exchange a nod or quick hello as we passed. I absolutely loved it.

I admit that I let my daily walking routine slide once the winter weather hit. I am definitely a fair weather walker! I don’t like being cold or having wet feet, so I am thrilled that the weather is now improving.

I am fortunate to live near the Credit River in Mississauga and to have quick and easy access to the David Culham Trail, which is great for walking and cycling. It’s still fairly wet though, so for now I am walking around my neighbourhood for 20 to 30 minutes each day. I also have a pair of Nordic walking poles that I like to use. They give me a good upper body workout and also provide extra stability on uneven surfaces. I highly recommend them!

Consider building a walk into your day. The health benefits are undisputable and it’s something that most people can do. Start small and then begin to increase the distance and length of time you walk. Before you know it, you’ll start feeling the difference physically, mentally and emotionally. Go for it!

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Getting the most out of your To Do list

Einstein quoteI’ll admit it. I am a huge fan of lists. Top 10 lists. How-to lists. And my favourite: To Do lists.

Making a list helps me stay organized and on track. Lists prevent me from forgetting important tasks. They help ensure needed items make it into the suitcase. And that I don’t come home from the grocery store without cream. Plus, list making has a definite psychological benefit: it helps keep me calm!

A few years ago on a very busy day (I think we were planning a party), I was spinning like a top because of everything that still had to be done. My concerned husband took me gently by the shoulders and said, “Honey, make a list. You’ll feel better.” I laughed (somewhat hysterically) and then took his advice. He was absolutely right. I didn’t have the memory capacity to keep track of every single detail that needed to be tackled. Albert Einstein was bang on when he said, “Never memorize what you can look up.” (I wonder if he was a fan of lists too?)

One of the things about To Do lists, however, is they can easily grow out of control. Before I discovered some key list-making techniques, I found my lists would sometimes run to two or more pages with 30+ tasks! This had the opposite effect of what I intended. Instead of spurring me to decisive action, my huge To Do list overwhelmed and paralyzed me.

What was I to do?

Well, I knew I couldn’t be the first person to ever have this problem, so I went on the hunt for some solutions. The terrific ideas and resources I found helped tame my list madness.

Here are the three best things I’ve learned:

  1. Keep your To Do list short and focused. Honestly, this is the best tip ever. Follow the 1-3-5 Rule: keep your list to nine things; one big, three medium, and five small. When implemented with discipline (it’s hard at first), this approach will make a massive difference to your productivity. To learn more about this technique, read A Better To Do List: The 1-3-5 Rule on You can also download the 1-3-5 List template.
  2. Make tasks on your list specific. Break down big tasks into their smaller components. Focus on the very next action step you need to take to get something done. So, instead of writing “Dad’s birthday party” on your list, think about the actual work Write things like “Draft guest list” and “Research three potential venues”. A great resource I highly recommend is David Allen’s excellent book, Getting Things Done. For an overview of Allen’s approach, check out his TED talk, The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.
  3. Keep a running list for grocery shopping. It’s not a big thing, but can save a lot of aggravation. At the beginning of each week I outline my shopping list by grocery store departments: Shelf Goods, Dairy, Bakery, Meat and Deli, Frozen and Other. As I run out of items during the week, I’ll add them to the list. No more wasting my brain cells on trying to remember I used the last of the basil!

I admit however that there’s still one area in which I haven’t experienced success: Implementing To Do lists for other members of my family. For some reason, my attempts in this department have been met with resistance. I’m sure there’s a lesson for me there somewhere!

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The art of giving it a go

tree painting

Painting by Liz Leake (!)

For as long as I can remember, I’ve harboured a secret dream of learning to paint. On canvas, that is, not walls!

When I’m having a hard time falling asleep, I sometimes imagine myself sitting at an easel overlooking a beautiful sea coast, painting broad sweeping strokes on a large canvas with wild abandon.

So when a friend of mine invited me to a “Sip ‘& Paint” evening at Speckles Art Studio in Oakville, I decided to give it a go. During the two-hour session, Tracey walked our group of six through the steps of copying one of her paintings. We learned basic techniques and came away with our own wonderful creation. What was so interesting to me was that, even though we were all copying the same painting, each creation was uniquely our own.

Perfectionism is something I struggle with, so sometimes I find it hard to get started if I don’t think I can do whatever it is really well. Unfortunately, this can prevent me from trying something new, even if it’s something I’ve been dreaming about for a long time. I hate that fear so often gets in the way.

I also find that I tend to overthink trying new things. I worry that I don’t have the right tools, or techniques, or workspace, or enough time or a host of other “success” factors. I’ve come to realize that for me, overthinking is really a stalling tactic, rooted in fear.

I’ve been reflecting on my experience at the studio and what made it possible to create a painting I’m proud to hang on my wall. The following were my real success factors:

  1. Tracey kept telling us that it was impossible to make a mistake, all our work was beautiful! That was tremendously encouraging.
  2. She gave great step-by-step instructions and just the right amount of technical information. I wasn’t overwhelmed, but still learned a lot about mixing paint, the kind of brushes to use, and the importance of planning ahead.
  3. She kept it simple. We weren’t copying the Mona Lisa (also known as La Gioconda) or Georges Seurat’s pointillist manifesto. There were just a few elements in the painting. This made it harder to mess up and also grew my confidence as I worked. Starting small is a good thing.
  4. Facing a blank canvas is hugely intimidating! Tracey eased us into the first step (the most difficult one), encouraging us to use a piece of chalk to draw a circle for our sun/moon. If we didn’t like it, we could easily rub it out and try again.

Now I can’t wait until my next Sip & Paint class. I don’t even care what it is I’ll be painting! The important thing is that I’m keeping a promise to myself to step out and try something new. Turns out, it’s easier than I would have ever dreamed.

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Creative problem solving from a three year old

one way sign cropped

Photo by Ryan McGuire, Gratisography

When my son, Little A, was about three years old, he loved to play hide-and-seek around the house. Big A (husband) and I joined in with enthusiasm, as we are dedicated hide-and-seekers from way back.

One morning, Big A decided to hide behind the full-length curtains that cover the sliding doors in our kitchen. Despite the large bulge and big feet sticking out the bottom, Little A wasn’t able to spot his dad. His frustration grew until he noticed the dramatic rustling of the curtains. (As an aside, here’s a simple explanation of the difference between drapes and curtains.)

Little A figured that, because it was so hard for him to find his dad behind the curtains, it would become his own go-to hiding spot. Of course, when your three-year-old son is hiding, you don’t want to spoil the game by finding him right away. Part of the fun is making a big deal out of looking! We loved to stand in the kitchen making comments about Little A’s great hiding spot.

Little A soon realized though that standing behind the curtains prevented him from seeing if anyone was coming. This was a big problem from his perspective.

I was about to discover that my son has quite the capacity for solving problems.

One morning I came into the kitchen and was stunned to see two peepholes in the curtains! Yes, you read that right. Little A had solved his problem with a pair of scissors, cutting away the fabric that was obstructing his vision.

Once I got over the shock, I started to giggle. I tried to keep it quiet because, who wants to encourage their child to cut peepholes in the curtains? Admittedly, I might have reacted differently if the curtains were new. Thankfully, they weren’t. I decided to keep them up until I found a replacement pair.

You may think the story ends there, but it doesn’t.

A few weeks later I came into the kitchen one morning and was staggered to see another set of peepholes. This time, they were four inches higher up the curtains.

It was like déjà vu, all over again (to quote baseball legend Yogi Berra).

My reaction was the same as previously. (Although I do remember thinking to myself, “I have to write about this one day.”)

This time I did change the curtains. But I kept them in a box for a long time before finally parting with them.

Those curtains were, and still are, a reminder to me that there is always more than one way to solve a problem. While I don’t advocate slicing into your mom’s favourite curtains, I do suggest giving serious thought to what’s blocking your vision.

The scissors can be metaphorical.

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Reconnecting with an old love!

cello 2

Image courtesy of antpkr at

A couple of weeks ago, the children of a good friend of mine surprised her with the gift of a cello. It seems that when she was younger, Krista had played clarinet in the high school band and cello in the orchestra. She enjoyed playing both and was able to balance the demands of playing two instruments. However, in her final two years of high school the music director asked her to play clarinet in the band and orchestra. Krista agreed, although played cello once in a while, always with the intention of going back to it. When the final year of high school hit, she found herself too busy to play both instruments. She dropped the cello altogether.

Fast forward several years, a handful of children, a busy career and a variety of volunteer experiences. Krista had occasionally mentioned to her family how much she missed playing cello and her regret at not keeping it up after high school. Her kids, now grown with paying jobs, decided to do something about it. Turns out a cello makes a pretty awesome birthday gift!

There are several things I love about this story.

  • First, it’s the realization that rarely is it too late to reconnect with something you love. I think the yearning never really goes away, don’t you? It just takes the right set of circumstances to bring it back to life.
  • It was Krista’s family that made it possible for her find her way back to the cello. They listened to their mom’s words and her heart.
  • Krista received this gift with joy, even knowing that her playing would be rusty for a while. But that doesn’t really matter does it?

I had a similar experience to Krista’s a couple of years ago when I was given a violin. I’d played viola in high school, but didn’t have one of my own. I missed playing, but purchasing a viola wasn’t even on my list of priorities. So, when I was given a violin I was very excited. There are a lot of similarities between violin and viola (although the music for them is written in different clefs), so I was pretty sure I could pick up the violin. I took some violin lessons at a community music school (despite feeling quite out of place sitting in the waiting room with a bunch of kids!).

I am still incredibly rusty on the violin. But now that Krista has her cello, we can encourage one another in our playing. Who knows, before too long we may be jammin’!

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Tired of asking what’s for dinner?

Dinner menu 2

Here’s my weekly menu board. Now you know what’s for dinner!

A few years ago, I worked in downtown Toronto and took a commuter train to and from my home in Mississauga. While I quite enjoyed the 30-minute trip (it gave me the chance to gear up or down, depending on the direction I was going), there was one thing I didn’t enjoy: figuring out what to have for dinner each night.

The conversation with my husband, who picked me up from the station, often went like this:

Me: “What should we have for dinner?”

Him: “I don’t know. What do you feel like?”

Me: “Hmm. Not sure. What do you feel like?”

Him: “Anything really.” (Pause)

Both: “Let’s just pick something up on the way home!”

This went on for a quite a while and used up more mental energy than I wanted to spend at the end of a busy work day. Plus, it got expensive and a bit unhealthy. Thankfully, I came across an idea that would make a huge difference in our daily dinner dilemma: weekly menu planning.

Here’s how it works:

Before my weekly trip to the grocery store, I plan what we’re going to have for dinner each day. I take into consideration things that will impact our plans, such as evening activities or working late. I poll my teenaged son and husband for suggestions (we all have our favourites!) Then, on a magnetic white board I keep on the side of the fridge, I write a list of what’s for dinner each day.

It’s such a simple activity, but has revolutionized dinners at our house.

Menu planning also changed my approach to grocery shopping and saved money. That’s because I build my shopping list around what’s needed to prepare the dinners I’ve planned. No more wandering through the store picking up various items with no real plan for how I’m going to use them.

I’ve learned that the combination of menu planning and shopping to the menu has many advantages. Here are my favourites:

  • If we don’t feel like having what’s planned for dinner, we just swap it with another night. We already have the necessary ingredients ready to go!
  • Greatly reduces the number of science experiments lurking in the veggie crisper.
  • My son no longer asks, “What’s for dinner Mom?” He looks at the menu board and sees for himself!
  • Great leftovers for lunches.

If you’re facing the same dilemma as I did, or are just weary of the science experiments in your fridge, why not give this idea a go? Try it for two weeks (to give yourself enough time to get the hang of it and reap the rewards).

I’d love to hear how it goes!

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Making space for the great things that come along

“What lies in our power to do, it liesHave you ever been asked to do something you like but don’t really love? It seems that there are endless opportunities to say yes to things that are good, but not necessarily great. Whether in family relationships, friendships, work, volunteering activities, and other dimensions of our lives, requests for our time, talent and treasure bombard us.

We all receive worthwhile requests and it can be hard to say no. But who has an endless capacity to say yes? Unless we develop the discipline of saying no — even to good things — we won’t have the space in our lives for the great things that come along. Complicating this is the pressure to make quick decisions and the fear of making the wrong decisions.

To help me sift through the opportunities and requests that come my way, I find it helpful to ask myself some or all of the following questions:

  1. Am I the only one who can do this? Am I in a unique position to give my time, talent, or treasure?
  2. Is there someone else who can do this instead of me? Is this a better opportunity for someone else?
  3. Am I being given enough time to carefully consider the request or am I being pressured into a quick response?
  4. Will it give me a chance to stretch in a way I’ve been wanting to?
  5. Am I afraid to say yes? If so, why?

Of course, there are occasions when I feel like I don’t have the power to say no. It could be at work when my boss asks me to drop what I’m doing to help with an urgent project! But really, I always have the power to say no, don’t I? It’s the consequences that sometimes hold me back.

What really helps me with all of this is an understanding of the story I am writing with my life (more on that in another post!). My big picture view of what I want to do is the lens through which I can look at the requests I receive. Wanting to say yes to great things makes it easier to say no to things that are a just good.

I take my favourite definition of capacity from the Oxford dictionary: the ability or power to do or understand something. Aristotle was bang on when he said, “What it lies in our power to do, it lies in our power not to do.”

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Liz TARDIS 2Welcome to my blog, Larger on the Inside. Doctor Who fans may recognize the reference, although I admit it’s a bit off. For those unfamiliar with Doctor Who, it’s a popular BBC TV show about an alien who travels anywhere in space and time in a spaceship disguised as a 1960s British police box. (My thanks to Allan Leake for the photo composite at right. Background image courtesy of NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)).

The thing about the Doctor’s ship is that it’s bigger on the inside than the exterior would indicate. Those lucky enough to enter the ship (called the TARDIS), comment on this anomaly. I wanted to call this blog “Bigger on the inside”, but unfortunately, the title was taken.

What I love about the idea of “larger on the inside” is that it speaks to our innate sense that there’s always more to things than we realize. Phrases such as, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” or “Appearances are deceiving,” or “Still waters run deep”, underscore this idea.

We can see examples of “larger on the inside” (LOTI) in popular culture. I still remember when my father took my brother and I to see the movie Mary Poppins in 1964 (I was very young!). Mary is a magical nanny who cares for a busy banker’s two children. One of my favourite scenes takes place when Mary is settling into her room. In front of the two children, she unpacks her carpetbag (it’s like a suitcase that’s the size and shape of a modern weekender bag). As the children look on with amazement, Mary first takes out a hat stand, followed quickly by a large wall mirror, a three-foot potted plant, and a floor lamp with a very large shade. There is just no way that a regular weekender has the capacity for all those items. There is definitely more to that bag than meets the eye!

More recent examples of LOTI can be found in the Harry Potter book series by British author J.K. Rowling. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for example, Harry’s friend Hermione carries a little beaded handbag that has magical properties. It appears to be small but actually has a huge capacity. Hermione’s bag holds numerous objects including camp cots, a tent (which itself is larger on the inside), several books, and a sword, among other things. I think it’s definitely a nod to the Mary Poppins carpetbag! I wonder if J.K. Rowling is a Mary Poppins fan?

While Mary Poppins and Harry Potter and his friends are fictional characters with magical abilities, we in the real world don’t have the ability to make things larger on the inside.

Or do we?

I believe that we all have the capacity to become larger on the inside. There are many ways to do this. We can learn new things, explore different places and grow in unexpected ways. And so, this blog is about exploring our capacity to do this. Thanks for joining me in the journey!

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