Updates on Some Recent Posts

I wanted to share some further materials and tyhoughts regarding a couple of earlier posts I had written this year.


sleep tablet

The first concerns the issue of children’s sleep, particularly in relation to the reduced amounts, their relationships with media etc. The two earlier articles garnered quite a bit of feedback and discussion including some exchange of mails with readers and discussions on social media. So, the following article from The Guardian hit me very starkly. It highlights the massive increases in the numbers of children in the UK for whom medical interventions are being sought to address issues of sleep deprivation and resultant issues that are impacting the children:

The Guardian – Sharp Rise in Hospital Admissions for Children with Sleep Disorders
(Click on the link above to open the article in a new window or tab)

Whilst the article flags up issues of sleep apnea (which are frequently linked to issues of being overweight or obese) as the cause of some of this increase, a lot of the blame is also focused on media, smart phone and tablet use by children. As well as the article itself, there’s also a link on the page (just above the picture) to a case study of a seventeen year old boy, whose mother actually works in a sleep clinic.

Here are the links for the two original articles related to this issue:

Sleep and School Start times
Going to Bed

Climate Change  – Responses to Environmental Issues

Climate Solutions

Another article i wrote earlier this year looked at the issues of how we address manmade climate changes that are leading to global warming. To date, so many of the responses, especially taught in schools have been about what people should stop doing, do less of or change in their personal lives and habits in order to bring about change. In my article I acknowledged my own gradual realisation that these ‘killjoy’ approaches will never be the solutions – telling people to stop doing things, to go without things they enjoy or to refrain from aspiring to the things they see others enjoying are just not going to be realistic. Rather, we have to look at the positive steps that can be taken. These are based in science and focusing on them changes the debate. Now, our focus needs to be on ensuring that governments are creating the right environments, incentives and investment climates to support ventures in these areas. Also, there’s a need to ensure that up to date information is shared and readily available to innovators and business people so that their interest in these activities result in real change and tangible actions.

So, I was delighted to see that there have been initiatives in this direction to bring to the fore in the public domain the information about what those scientific advances are and how they can be harnessed to address the issues and reverse atmospheric warming to prevent the worst of man-made global warming. That research comes in a report from Project Drawdown.

Here are two articles that share information on the key findings from Project Drawdown:

Science Alert – 76 Solutions Available Right Now to Slow Down Climate Change
Fast Company – Project Drawdown – 76 Solutions

This was the original article I wrote, right at the tail end of last year on which I’ve received a fair bit of feedback;

Global Warming: The Way Forward

This reinforces my belief that the answers lie at least as much in the focus in science (and STEM generally) teaching, as well as building public awareness and political lobbying to ensure that these kinds of initiatives get the right support to ensure that the world’s problems get addressed effectively.


Going to Bed

Girl Wearing Pajamas Watching TV in her Room

I wrote an article recently about why I don’t believe schools should be bending to the demands of those who suggest that Secondary School start times should be made later, to accommodate the tiredness of pupils. One of my main reasons was my belief that any academic gains or benefits would be only temporary, until the students simply adjusted to a new normal, their bed times shifted later and they would now be operating according to an even later sleep cycle (hence back to sleep deprived when getting up to go to school).

So, I was very interested to see the following article that outlines the findings of a paper and research on sleep procrastination – the process of delaying going to bed (and hence going to sleep), however tired one might be or however stressful one’s day might have been.

British Psychological Society Digest – Why Some People Find it Harder to Drag Themselves to Bed at Night
(Click on the link above to read the article in a separate tab or window)

The first finding that was striking was that for the worst of the sleep procrastinators, they could easily be delaying going to bed by a very significant 40 – 50 minutes each night. I have some reservations that, like so much psychological research, the test subjects were college and school-going students, but nevertheless the findings are interesting and point to a need for further research.

The key conclusion of the research was that people’s perceptions of themselves in relation to willpower played a significant part in determining whether or not they had sleep procrastination tendencies. Participants were categorised as either having a limited theory of willpower (believing it’s a finite resource that, once used up is gone until you can sleep or take other action to replenish it) or non-limited ( you can have as much willpower as you like available to you at any time, subject only to your level of self-control to draw on it.)

The conclusion was that the latter group are far less likely to procrastinate sleeping and going to bed than the former group. However, no causal link was established, so they’re still very much at the level of conjecture as to why this happens. More research is clearly needed, because greater understanding of why will offer scope to learn/ teach the skills necessary to address the issue.

At this point, i need to come clean and enter the confessional. I have had, for many years, a tendency to procrastinate sleep and going to bed. The severity of it varies over time, but i’ve never been quite sure what makes it worse. Ironically, it can, at times, seem to become worse when i put  more focus and attention on it, become frustrated or try to engineer strategies to get better. In my case, all too often, it’s about productivity. I can remember times in the past, years ago, when it might be occasions of mindlessly watching TV, continually telling myself that it’s time to switch off and go to bed, but failing to actually do it (and thinking less and less of myself for my failure to act). These day,s I watch very little TV and it’s much more commonly about an urge to get just a few more things done from whatever ‘to do’ list I had set myself for the day/ week etc. This seems to coincide with a rush of newfound energy, even though there is a voice in the back of my head reminding me that I had committed to myself to go to bed earlier (and that whatever task I’m engaged on can perfectly well be picked up on in the morning). Worse, and even more irrationally, I’ve often realised the next day that if I’d held the task over and got my rest, I probably would have done it quicker and to a much better standard.

To me, it’s further evidence that changing school start times is only likely to deliver short term benefits, that are quickly lost as the students adjust to new norms. We need alternative strategies, backed by scientific understanding about why it’s happening (not just who it’s happening to), that enable us and young people to take control of the situation and do what is in their/ our own long term best interest.

Sleep and School Start times

School Bus

In a small village somewhere on a great plain, the village elders sit in a circle around a smokey fire. They slowly pass a large pipe around the circle and sip from small cups of a rough liquor made from some local roots. This is a tribe of hunter gatherers whose lives have changed little over many generations.

After a period of silence one of the younger members of the circle clears his throat and explains, “The young adolescent members of the tribe have a request and have asked me to bring it to this forum.@

“Speak,” said the village chief.

“Well, it’s like this. They’re not feeling very comfortable about getting up as early as they are currently made to. They feel sleepy and groggy and a bit weak – especially with all the running and spear throwing they’re expected to do. So, they request that the hunt start an hour later to give them the chance to get an extra hour of sleep in the morning that their adolescent brains require.”

The elders around the circle shook their heads slowly, before falling in to fits of laughter.

“Please go back and tell our young men to go to bed earlier, to stop staying up late doing whatever it is they do. Then, maybe they’ll be ready to play their role properly in the village society. If we delay the hunt start time, we will catch no animals and the tribe will be doomed”

Over the last few years, with increasing volume, ‘experts’ have been regaling us with the information that adolescents are sleep deprived and that, as a result, secondary schools should start later in the day, to accommodate their needs – so that they will be able to fulfill their academic potential. There have been many schools that have done it. Now, for the first time an entire State in America has mandated that all Secondary schools are to shift their morning start times later. One of the arguments that has been used to sway the debate is that evidence has been found that adolescent brains show evidence of a later ‘natural clock’.

NBC News – California Pushing Back School Start Times

What I don’t think I’ve ever seen in all the evidence of neurological difference in teenage brains is which came first – the chicken or the egg. Which came first – adolescents’ deferred sleep clocks or the various media temptations that cause them to resist going to sleep at night because of FOMO or other addictive tendencies cleverly and consciously built in to those media.

When I was a child I was the oldest of three. We had staggered set bed times (a bit later at weekends) and as is the tendency of eldest children I lauded it over my sisters when this meant I got to stay up to watch something on the TV that they also wanted to see. However, even my later bed time couldn’t insulate me from the sickening dread of having to walk away from something on the TV that was holding my attention. In fact, at times I’d go to almost any lengths to distract my mother from the time, to beg or cajole extra time to ‘just see to the end’ of some programme. Issues of whether I was tired or not didn’t come in to the picture. Worse, both at home and when away at boarding school it wasn’t unheard of for me to put an earpiece in and tune a radio to spend some illicit time listening to Radio Caroline (an illegal station that used to broadcast from a ship).

Today’s children are growing up in a world where the media temptations are on a completely different scale to those that used to snag me, tempt me to deprive myself of sleep and do myself harm.  This is made far worse, in my view, by the fact that we don’t teach children about how their brains work, how their brains are being hijacked by media or strategies and tools to keep control over these things, so that they can keep themselves healthy.

Years ago, parents were advised to keep digital tools out of children’s bedrooms and have them only using or accessing them in ‘public’ parts of the home. I knew some parents who policed this with laptops, yet still put TVs in the children’s bedrooms (usually to stop arguments preventing them from watching what they intended to watch). So, as children got used to consuming TV in their own rooms, as more and more of them got smart phones, those lived in the bedroom and parents had little to no control over what was happening on the phone, or the hours it was being used. At this point, most parents had relinquished their control over the timing o when their children went to bed (or at least when they go to sleep). Even those who are not actively using social networking etc. in the night hours, are still having their sleep disturbed by pings and notifications.

I’ve lost count of the numbers of conversations I’ve had with parents who are aware that their teenager is chatting online at times in the night when they should be sleeping. Further, if they attempt to curtail these habits, their child’s reaction can be almost as extreme as a drug addict deprived of their regular fix.

Against this backdrop I ask one key question – when scientists have tested the brains of adolescents and declared them to have different ‘ time clocks’/ circadian rhythms to adults – do they KNOW whether they are looking at cause or effect. In other words,  could the teenagers’ brains have changed because of them succumbing to the temptations and lack of self control at nights caused by excessive smart phone use?

There have been some schools that have made their start times later and have shown data that suggests academic performances of their students improved. However, as far as I can see, none of those experiments have gone on long enough to show that the academic gains are sustained. If the sleep deprivation was caused by smart phone use, then I fear that teens will adjust to a new norm, continue to use their phones later in to the night and the benefits will disappear (or there will be calls for even later start times!)

The ubiquitous smart phone has come crashing in to all of our lives at a pace that has been impossible to adapt to immediately. As a result, we all know adults who have uneasy relationships bordering on addiction (or even over the line) making them distracted through the day and unable to disconnect at night. This is affecting people’s work quality, their interpersonal relationships, as well as their productivity and focus at critical times. The teens, naively, often believe that, because they’ve grown up with these tools as an extension on one hand, they are more than able to cope, are not controlled or manipulated, are fully able to multitask effectively and are fine as they are.

The answer with our young people is that we need to share more of the science with them. There was a time when youngsters would say to themselves – “I can smoke without getting addicted. It’s no big deal.” however, as awareness has developed, more of them know and understand how addiction works and the implications. However, even there, more can be done. We’re not doing nearly enough to teach young people how their brains work. This is for another day and another post, but here I do believe that it could play a significant part in beginning to develop their skills to deal with the potentially disruptive impact of smart phones and other devices (on this, believe we should be making a lot more use of work by people like Nir Eyal, Stamford University Psychology professor – I’ll be sharing more about him in a later post).

I fear that these young people who have sought and gained later start times will struggle to adapt as they get older, move on to colleges and in to the world of work where they will frequently have expectations on them that make it essential to be available early in the day

Even if all this wasn’t enough reason to question these decisions to move school start times later, I believe there are some very practical reasons why it doesn’t work’

a) In major cities there has been a tendency for the schools related traffic to be on the roads before the heaviest of the work related traffic. Moving the school start times later is likely to exacerbate congestion issues at the peak traffic times in the morning (and possibly in the afternoons as well)
Not only is this bad news for all, bad news for pollution in cities, but also probably means that much of the sleep benefit will be lost. Most of us living in cities have had the experience that leaving home ten minutes later can add five minutes to total journey time. If the children’s journey time to school gets longer, then a start 40 minutes later might only lead to them leaving their home 20 minutes later. So, only 20 minutes extra in bed is available.

b) Many family routines dictate that the family would all still be rising at around the same time, even if the Secondary student member of the family had a later start.

c) A later departure from home can be highly disruptive for parents’ departure time from the home for their work. If the child takes a school bus, the parent will generally want to see the child on to the bus before they prepare for their own departure. Thus, parents may be forced to delay their departure. Leaving for work later is likely to lead to them returning home later.

d) The later start time leads to a later finish time. This can erode the time available for after school activities – especially physical activities that require daylight. Thus, later school start times could lead to further loss on top of losses that are already worrying in children’s levels of physical activity. There is ample evidence that this can be detrimental to their mental wellbeing and learning, as well as their physical wellbeing and issues such as obesity.

e) Different start (and finish) times for Secondary students can lead to a mismatch between their timings and those of siblings in elementary education. This can create family burdens on child care and, in the worst scenarios could limit the engagement of mothers in the work environment.

Finally, I return to my earlier point. Rather than changing the school day to respond to children’s changed habits around sleep, motivated by the addictive and habit forming temptations of media I believe we need to be preparing these young people for adulthood by addressing the issues of their relationships with the media. Too often in the past this has been driven by parental dictat, sticks and carrots and control-driven methods. Instead, we need to do a much better job of teaching children how their minds work, the inter-relationship between body and mind and how to manage their habits. In this way, we can prepare them to be adults with healthy relationships with IT and media.

In time, i believe we’re going to see that changing school start times wasn’t the right way forward. In the meantime, we need to do more work on those ways to teach children, in age appropriate ways to understand their minds and become commanders over their habits.


Sleeping For Exam Success

Sleep for exams

Particularly in India, I know that with the festive season and New Year over, for many students their thoughts have turned to exams in March. Some will believe that through super-human and inhumane scheduling they will squeeze out phenomenal marks in order to secure the college or higher secondary stream of their choice (and because they and their parents are going to wrap a considerable amount of their own identity and societal status on the height of those marks and especially beating their peers).

Whilst it’s laudable to set goals and put maximum effort in to achieving them, so every student has to acknowledge they were not born with the ability to do the impossible. Their relative success will actually be most down to how smart they plan and execute their preparation. Smart, intelligent planning, execution and consistency will always trump random, unplanned or unscientific effort.

Probably nowhere is this more important than in relation to sleep. There’s a certain irony that students spend much of their time these days bemoaning their special needs for sleep, only to ignore all their needs and the science when exams loom on the horizon. I can admit that when i was young I made a lot of mistakes in these areas – mistakes that undoubtedly cost me and prevented me from fulfilling my full potential. However, today’s youngsters have access to so much more information, science  and really should find it much easier to do what is in their best interest.

The following article is fascinating. Some of the conclusions are pretty obvious, but there are also some surprises;

Science News for Students – Surprise

a) Lack of sleep WILL impair performance in exams,
b) Good sleep habits before exams doesn’t just have a small impact on performance – it may be one of the biggest influences,
c) Losing sleep for one or more nights can’t be made up by sleeping longer on another night. (This isn’t just important for exam preparation – there is now copious evidence that old habits common when I was young, to incur a sleep deficit during the week and make it up at weekends doesn’t work!)

Maybe the biggest surprise – the biggest impact doesn’t come from the overall quantity of the sleep, the quality, the amount of restlessness, but the consistency AND this doesn’t need to be consistent just for a few days, but ideally for weeks or even months.

I don’t have any exams coming up, but have set as a health goal for 2020 to be more consistent on bed and rising times.

Students, that consistency needs to start now as a habit and then be maintained right through to your exams. Here’s to your success!!


Active Kids Are Healthier Kids


Today’s parents grew up before the arrival of the smart phone or tablet. As a result, those who stop to think about it struggle to figure out what’s right to do. Especially with very young children it’s phenomenally tempting to let the device take the place of a child minder. Small children, once they have such a device in their hands, prove to be remarkably speedy learners. They can find their way around, delete things, download apps and open what interests them most. And they become so terribly passive, ‘well-behaved’ and docile, giving parents no trouble or disturbance while they surf the latest riveting posts and make themselves ever more anxious that their dull, messy lives cannot match up to the amazing, beautiful lives of their dear friends on Insta and Facebook.

If you ask many whether what they’re doing is OK, they might show a momentary hesitation – but it’s all so tempting. Little Johnnie hasn’t given any trouble for the last hour. And the last time Mama tried to take the tablet away from him the screaming fit in the middle of the supermarket was just so embarrassing.  So, better to let him carry on. he must be OK.

But, there is a small nagging doubt in the back of Mama’s mind, ever since she read news stories about how high placed people in the Silicon Valley tech companies don’t allow their children to use mobile devices. They ought to know what’s for the best? But, little Johnnie’s so much better behaved like this, and Mama has a headache worrying about the fact that she seems to be the only one of her friends who hasn’t yet Konmari’d her home. She used to invite friends round for coffee, but now it would just be too humiliating.

Today, Mama’s really not sure she has any gratitude for the wise people at the World Health Organisation (WHO) who have carried out an extensive review of the scientific evidence to issue guidance which was published last week. Their recommendations address the appropriate amounts of sleep, exercise and screen time for babies and infants under 5. They had issued guidance for older age ranges earlier dealing particularly with physical activity (5 to 17, 18-64 and 65 and over).

World Health Organisation Guidelines – Diet and Physical Activity

Mama hasn’t forgotten the trouble that happened when it was discovered that her older son’s friend was feasting on copious amounts of screen time at her house, after his parents had specifically told her that they had made a rule to limit him to one hour per day. “Surely, that was cruelty to deny the child something he liked so much,” she rationalised. In her heart she knew her real reason was that she saw no way of introducing and maintaining such a rule for her own child, and she does like to be the popular Aunty! Such a minefield dealing with other kids’ parents!

These new WHO guidelines deal with needs for exercise, sleep and (passive) screen time for three age categories; under 1, one to two and three to four. Their focus regarding screen time seems to have been more on the physical effects of inactivity more than effect on eyes or mental and psychological impacts of excessive screen time. More screen time equals more sedentary time, means major contribution to growing levels of childhood obesity.

CNN – Health – Exercise, Sleep and Screen Time Recommendations For Under 5’s

The information contained here is vitally important for care givers as well as those in a position to educate and guide parents, especially professionals working in early years environments. However, it should also lead many in early years and playgroup situations to assess their own practices as well. It’s important to note the stress placed on free and active play as the primary route for learning for children in this age range. Educators who become hellbent on an academic head start for these children with weighty syllabus and limited play would do well to review the implications of these recommendations. If parents are a long way from the scenario in these guidelines, at least the educators shouldn’t be making things worse!

Finally, here’s an article from The Atlantic that acknowledges some of the challenges in moving towards these guidelines. If anything, this is an acknowledgement that in many environments, especially prosperous Western cities, the children are already a very long way away from what’s being recommended. There’s a long road ahead and time will show the full implications for children growing up with shortages of quality sleep, active physical play and an excess of passive screen time.

The Atlantic – How Should Parents Interpret Screen-Time Recommendations?

Mixed Outcomes From Delaying School Start Times

Over the last few years there has been a growing level of noise about shifting school start time for teenagers in high schools. The argument is that teenagers’ body clocks are running on different time and that, to acknowledge that, we shouldn’t ask them to get up so early in the morning and school should start later.

I’ve read a lot on this and, my son for one would hate to hear me say it – I never really bought it. I remain open to be convinced, but as of now I just don’t believe the case has been made strongly enough.

Even before getting in to the science and the issues about children and their body rhythms there are, to my mind, some very obvious practical issues. In almost any city in the world, the one good piece of news with early school starts is that the commute time for children is reduced by the fact that they’re on the road to school before the worst of the traffic. As the early hours of the morning move forward, every 10 minutes later leaving home requires an extra 5 minutes on the road. So, you finish up with situations where a 45 minute shift in school start time only sees students leave school 20 minutes later than they were before. The rest of the time is ‘lost’ on the road in heavier traffic.

In addition, many families have their time routines dictated by the time parents need to leave for work. So, again, shifting the school start time may have relatively little impact for the child. practically, the family may still need the child to get up at about the same time.

Then, we come to all the reasons why this was being suggested in the first place.

When I was growing up, there was a continual game going on between me and my sisters and our parents. The object of the game from our perspective was to use every kind of subterfuge or time-wasting excuse to stay up. My son did exactly the same thing from an early age. I think it’s driven by all sorts of things. FOMO – fear of missing out is one part. In addition, there was television and that always seemed to offer the most interesting and tempting fare just after the allotted time for going to bed.

For children today two significant things have happened. Firstly, the temptations of media have multiplied exponentially. So much so that the TV may hold relatively little interest compared with the PS4, social networking etc. Secondly, ‘discipline’ and rules are not as cut and dried as they were in my time, especially with teenagers. Parents find they have to ‘pick their battlegrounds’ with their oh so sensitive teens. Peer pressure says that everyone else stays up to whatever time they want, so attempts by parents to exert any kind of rules are seen as draconian and completely unreasonable. Thus, masses of research that shows that like most adults, teenagers are sleeping less now than in the past.

So, if this becomes habitual, should we really be surprised that they can’t get up in the morning, or that their body clocks accept this as normal?

There’s another problem that started, I think, with my generation and has only got worse since – the laying in at weekends. This is the idea that you can get yourself increasingly sleep deprived all week, and then make up the deficit by staying in bed late at weekends. All my understanding today of the evidence is that this is disastrous – a terrible thing to do and highly detrimental to the body clock and to many other aspects of effective functioning.

I have to acknowledge that I picked up this particular bad habit in my younger years and, at times, it’s been hard to escape from. So, I can quite understand how children today are even more quickly sliding in to the kinds of habits that don’t support them to be at their best in the morning.

The evidence is starting to come out, more and more, that this was a naive and simplistic response to a problem that is really, more than anything else an issue of self-discipline, good habits and persistence in the face of temptations. Here’s a recent article;

US News – Later High School Start Times Yield Mixed Results

My son recently had a change of travel arrangements to school. it meant he leaves the house around 20 minutes later than he used to. For the first couple of months, this was great news and he was fresher, on time and I didn’t have to chase him out of bed in the morning. However, over time, even though i encouraged him to stick to the previous bed time, he started to push the limits on the bed time. The result – probably as much struggle to get up on time for the later time as for the earlier time. The benefit of those 20 minutes has already gone.

As I said before, I’m still open to being convinced that there is a scientific basis to this – one that doesn’t simply reflect that adjusted sleep habits have their own outcomes. In the meantime, I’ll keep working on undoing the bad habits I’ve acquired regarding sleep over so many years. Maybe, ultimately, setting good example is the best thing I can do for my own child.

Doing Great Work

I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t, at least at some time, wrestle with issues of conflict between dealing with the pressing and urgent in their work and the need/ desire to give quality time to work that’s important but less pressing, immediate and urgent.

We have never worked in more connected ways. Even when we’re not meeting or interacting face to face, today’s work day is punctuated by a continual flow of emails. One of the problems, in my experience in most organisations is people don’t openly talk about expectations with regard to these issues. If, for example, somebody sends an email, by when should they anticipate or expect that it will have been seen and a reply received? On the subject of emails, are companies training their people in effective email etiquette and best practices? My suspicion is that very few do. And yet, within most companies there are vast hidden costs being incurred through inefficiency and lost productivity and effectiveness. All this also causes a great deal of stress and anxiety, especially for employees who want to be productive, to achieve and individually and collectively take their organisations forward.

One of many examples is where people (and I’m not going to claim innocence on this type of thing!) send multi-point emails. If I send someone a mail asking four different questions, and they can only answer two immediately, what are they to do? Answer on those two and make a commitment by when they will answer on the others? Hold off answering any of the points and keep the whole mail pending? There’s no easy answer.

Worse, the answer will vary within an organisation depending on who were the sender and the recipient. There are all sorts of issues about rank and status, but different people tend to operate with different practices and expectations (while all their colleagues have to figure out what’s expected).

Another very common issue with email is where people find it ambiguous about expectations when mail is sent outside work hours. Personally, I’ve often sent mails out of hours, but partly so that the mail would be available to the recipient as soon as they get in to work on the next day (or after a weekend). However, i do recognise it’s important to tell people that I’m not expecting them to be working out of hours. This particular issue has been perceived so negatively that France and other European countries have passed legislation prohibiting the sending of work related mail outside working hours. I personally feel it’s rather sad that it had to come to such a prescriptive ‘blunt instrument’ approach in those countries. people should have flexibility and an ability to work in the ways that suit them best, but we need to find better ways to make that fit with others’ working needs.

Emails are one of the bad interruptions that disturb our ability to carve out real quality blocks of time in the working day to do meaningful, high quality work. One of the others is face to face interruptions. it’s a very rare organisation where people stick to the rigours of using calendar scheduling to fix mutually agreeable times to meet, even for 10 minutes. Instead, you have the infamous, “I just need two minutes,” that invariably turns in to 15, which is then followed by 15 minutes of confused and muddled working as the individual tries to regain their focus on what they were immersed in the moment the interruption came. In the worst cases, your interruptions can get interrupted leaving you completely confused. I confess, one day last week i got home after a long day in the office, only to realise that an important email I’d started writing at 11.00am was still open on my laptop, nearly finished along with two others from during the afternoon that were barely started!

In open plan and glass offices it’s become fashionable to suggest that all leaders are duty bound to keep an ‘open door’ policy. However, i believe that if this is at the expense of failure to carve out decent blocks of time to do meaningful and important work, then it’s counter-productive. The urgent cannot always have precedence over the important. We have to be willing to have the conversations with our colleagues and team members about how to give each other the space and time to do meaningful blocks of work. Otherwise, we finish up filling each others’ days with urgency, leaving us no choice but to sacrifice personal time away from the office to do the truly important work in less disturbed circumstances. haven’t we all found that in two hours at home, we can complete more than we would in 8 office hours and to a better standard. However, it shouldn’t have to be that way and at the expense of personal space and time.

Another area where we struggle is with meetings. Meetings have been universally disliked for as long as i’ve worked in my life. yet, they can serve valuable purpose and cannot/ shouldn’t be avoided. Again, there need to be process discussions that ensure people understand what’s expected of them so that meetings can be truly effective;
a) people owe it to each other to come prepared. Too many turn up to meetings poorly prepared and meeting time is then spent getting people up to speed with where they should have been on arrival,
b) Focus needs to be on the meeting – not on laptops, mobile phones and other external things. We have an interesting challenge coming up with video conference technology installed for remote meetings. In the past, skype calls with groups have been messy and disjointed because people had the habit of leaving the room(!). Even those who stayed in the room sometimes took the opportunity to complete other, non-related work. If those meetings are to be effective, we’ll need more self-discipline than that!
c) Agenda creation for meetings can be a minefield if team members seek to ‘stack it’ with their personal agendas. People can be fond of requesting fixed finishing times for meetings, but go off at tangents, ride hobby-horses and use time wasting as a tactic to avoid decisions they disagree with. On the other hand, overly rigid meeting protocols stifle meaningful discussion rendering meetings sterile and mundane. It takes real effort on the part of all to find a happy medium.

I’d like to finish here, sharing a fun piece from Fast Company in which some senior employees from Tech companies share their thoughts on the habits they want to break so as to be more productive and efficient in their work;

Fast Company – Kicking Seven Work Habits

Right, I’m finishing there, because i acknowledge that habit 6 is most certainly one for me to tackle!

Screen Time and Sleep

These are two topics on which I’ve written quite often, mainly because these days they are right at the top of the agenda when it comes to causes of worry and anxiety for parents (and anyone working with children). The fear levels tend to rise in the weeks of ‘idle leisure’ of school vacations when children feel free to indulge themselves.

Screen time and usage is something really quite new, both for children and adults, and so people struggle with very differing opinions about what’s right, healthy and makes sense without causing harm. For many parents, seeing their child frittering hours of meaningless time on mindless ‘online’ activities, the suggestion that we should be using more ICT in the classroom and as part of the learning process is met with some alarm. The internet is seen (sometimes because of parents’ own experiences) as a place of loss of self-control, the ultimate procrastinator’s pit of damnation. Their fears for their children are very genuine – my child will become habituated, if not addicted, to messing around mindlessly, won’t do what’s necessary to learn and study and will, as a result, be left behind in the race to succeed in life.

Recognising these fears and concerns, many experts have sought to research and experiment to shift these debates from the realms of conjecture to something based on real evidence. From time to time, there are some very good appraisals of where that research has reached. This NPR article I came across recently is such an example;

NPR – Education – On Kids And Screens, A Middle Way Between Fear And Hype

The article takes a sensible and nuanced line, avoiding sensationalizing. Key messages include;

a) Yes, there are risk issues for children, and we should be talking about them. However, that discussion should be balanced by more talk of the benefits to be had.
b) Buying the hardware/ software then handing it over to children and disengaging increases the risks. Adults need to remain engaged with the child and the technology to be sure they really understand what’s happening.
c) With a little creativity, parents can use the internet as much as TV to bring families together, rather than atomising – use of shared screens, watching or absorbing things together and having debates and discussions sparked by the material.
d) Technology use in schools is a problem area – it’s tending to only really be used creatively in the classrooms of odd individual teachers with a ‘techy, nerdy’ leaning rather than being embedded effectively in learning processes. There was a lot of early hype and at times this was more about wowing everyone with something new, rather than being clear that real, genuine learning benefits were resulting. Now, it’s time to move beyond that through more solid changes that work through curriculum, teacher training and school infrastructure development

In short – we need to get less ‘hypey’ about the technology, work to understand what’s happening with it more rationally and make our messages for parents and children far more nuanced about what’s in their best interests.

The topic of sleep in relation to children is usually very strongly entwined with issues of parents’ abilities to establish firm, consistent and effective home routines and habits around sleep issues that become natural and positive for children. As a result, it can be a painful touch point for some parents when they find themselves confronted with the evidence that they’ve not been as good as they might (or as good as some others) at getting effective home routines in place for their children. At times, this debate gets mixed up with the one above related to screen time and usage.

Who, as a parent, wants to willingly confront issues of their own inadequacies or shortcomings? Plus, what really is the evidence on the issues of sleep?

Well, the most obvious evidence is the clear data that shows we’re all sleeping less (often a lot less) than our ancestors accompanied by some fairly weighty evidence that this is all having detrimental effects on our health – physically and mentally. Here’s a recent article that shares some pretty startling data linking later bedtimes in young children with much higher levels of obesity in the teen years;

Stgist – Study says kids who sleep early are less likely to become obese teens

It’s important to understand that an article like this is saying that there is correlation, not cause proven in this statistical data. This does mean that claims can be made about one (late sleeping) can be a pre-cursor or evidence for the other (teen obesity), but not that one is caused by the other. Nevertheless, it all adds to a growing body of evidence for the life disadvantages that come for a child when strong disciplined home routines in the early years are patchy or non-existent.

I believe this has to be seen in a similar perspective to the development or management of positive life habits in people of any age. When Western countries had the big drive against smoking, there was a lot of stigma attached to a person who failed to quit. The suggestion was that such people were weak, lacked willpower or self discipline to do what was necessary to change their bad habit in to something positive. This was made worse by implications that such people weren’t just letting down themselves, but society as a whole!

We now know that such sanctimonious approaches really didn’t help. vast numbers of people were genuinely trying to deal with the issues, but by being stigmatized they were left with the impression that trying and failing (to quit) was almost worse than not trying as it demonstrated very visible human weakness and frailty. What worked for many of these people was an acknowledgement that changing ingrained habits is hard, has its good and bad times, but that each failure is not terminal.

I believe we must see the same approaches to help parents with establishing sleep and bed routines with young children. All are different. Some will get good routines quickly and easily and retain them. others will struggle for a long time to get good routines, but once they have them will retain them. Then there are others who will swing through periods of good and bad habits. We need to do more to help this latter group with strategies, especially when so much of the evidence points to significant benefits and points out an ever growing set of risk factors associated with the bad habits.

In the meantime, one of the most important factors is to be properly informed and to be making decisions from a position of knowledge and understanding.

Yet More Evidence on Sleep

It really does seem that sleep is a very hot topic for experimentation lately, and as a result we’re coming to know more and more that is critical from which we must learn lessons.

The latest I came across was this research that had some startling news that I really need to take note of:

Fast Company – Why Six Hours Of Sleep Is As Bad As None At All

What the article told me, very convincingly, is that when I’m consistently getting 6 – 6 1/2 hours in bed a night and think I’m experiencing no negative effects, I’m deluding myself. There is a cumulative effect and it’s very significant one. Over the years I’ve always wanted to believe I could squeeze a bit more out of each day – soe extra time for reading, email, blog writing (!) or other tasks, with the result that I’d have to ‘chase myself to bed’!

After reading this article there’s some serious habit changing work ahead, starting right now! I promise in a while I’ll share how I’m getting on and what benefits I see. Incidentally, after reading this, I’m even clearer in my mind that we should be teaching our children about this stuff and helping them to understand why it matters.

Taking Sleep Seriously

The weight of evidence is so strong that we really have to kill off all the macho, heroic myths around sleep deprivation. I remember that, years ago, there was much talk about how Margaret Thatcher only needed four hours of sleep each night when she was Prime Minister of Great Britain. I’ve also seen similar claims related to Tony Blair.

In my student days, it was almost seen as a badge of honour when you put yourself in the situation to ‘pull an all-nighter’ to get n assignment completed and handed in with minutes to spare the next morning.

Now I’m older, and hopefully a bit wiser, i can see that it was a basic equation between prioritising time for what was necessary/ important or what was fun, immediate and wanted. I don’t think I can really remember a single occasion when a night spent working and getting no sleep wasn’t the result of bad judgement and lack of self-control/ regulation rather than genuine volume of responsibilities and necessity.

I’ve been writing for some time about how sleep deprivation is exacting a toll on students and limiting their learning potential. here’s a very well written and presented article from McKinsey & Co that looks at another perspective – the organisational costs of insufficient sleep, especially when leaders are making decisions without getting enough shut-eye;

McKinsey – The organisational Cost of Insufficient Sleep

The article sets out a very strong case that the implications are so great that this must really matter to organisations. Rather than perpetuating cultures where people are recognised and rewarded for appearing to make personal sacrifices by going without sleep, organisations need to see that they potentially pay a heavy price when people are operating in less than effective states. In other words, they have to educate their workforce and help them to develop positive and healthy habits. Two days ago, i wrote about the Netflix culture. Interestingly, that was very clear that there should be n rewards or recognition for people according to how long they spend on the job or how much time they put in to work. Recognition should link purely to outcomes and the link to time should be de-emphasised.

I think it’s often quite hard to change such habits in adulthood. As a result, the right habits need to be established from an early age. This means;

a) Developing good routines and patterns around sleep and bed time for very young children,
b) Not treating staying up late as a special treat (too many do it with junk food as well).
c) We should teach our children about the basics of the science related to sleep, so that they understand why it’s important (not just tell them to do what we say),
d) We need to set good examples to our children about getting a healthy amount of sleep, including things like switching off devices an hour before bed. When we are at a less than optimal level of effectiveness due to lack of sleep, we should acknowledge this to our children.

In the past, we really didn’t know just how harmful these sleep issues could be. Ignorance is no longer an excuse, so we must change our ways.

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