Three productivity tips that trump the rest

In this video a couple of Fast Company editors chat about their productivity issue, and why productivity is such a hot topic right now. Leadership editor Kathleen Davis says this speaks to something great about human nature, “that we always want to be a better version of ourselves.[…] People are looking for ways to get more done and have more important things to show for their lives.” It’s a good chat, though are we really, as they suggest in the talk, all “suddenly obsessed” with productivity? David Allen’s Getting Things Done was published in 2002. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was published by Stephen Covey in 1989, and there were Ben Franklin’s 13 virtues which he developed back in 1726. Perhaps they mean productivity culture is gaining more popular appeal outside of business and technology circles? What do you think?

In any case, Davis provides a very useful insight by boiling down all of the productivity hacks she’s encountered in her role at Fast Company to three core ideas:

1. Get up an hour early.
2. Leaders/managers need to learn to delegate.
3. Consciously unplug for periods of time to get things done – we can’t multitask.

I have found all three of these ideas useful in my own business and personal life.


Why singing is good for you, even if you think you’re bad at it

Apologies to our neighbors, but all that singing is medicinal.

I can’t begin to count the number of people over the years who’ve told me they can’t sing, or have no talent for musical instruments. Pish. It doesn’t matter whether you’re gifted. Even if you think you’re terrible at music, can’t carry a tune, have no rhythm, you should sing and play, and teach your children to do the same, unabashedly. It will improve your mood and your health and boost your brain’s performance.

I play the piano or guitar and sing something almost every single day. Not because I’m disciplined or gifted, but because I crave it. I don’t play long, usually, sometimes just for ten or 15  minutes, and not with any structured practice goal. When I’m dealing with big challenges, stressed out, or feeling down, I play longer, lost in the, piano working out chord voicings and runs, and trying (usually without success) to hit all the vocal high notes in the Billy Joel songbook. You’ve gotta hear me endeavor to sing “New York State of Mind.” Then again, maybe it’s best if you don’t.  

Why do I do this? I’m not really getting better, my nights of playing guitar in bar bands are behind me, and I don’t have any illusions that I’m doing great art when I bang out “Let It Be” for the thousandth time.

Sure I want there to be music in the house for the kids’ sake, I want them to be exposed to the idea that we can make it for ourselves, not simply rely on our iPhones to deliver it to us pre-packaged. But that noble intent is… well.. too noble for it to be the driver of a such a consistent habit. No, for playing and singing to have been so deeply ingrained in the flow of my life, an unconscious habit, there has to be a different kind of itch being scratched.

And even if this were entirely about the noble aim of inculcating a love of making music in the kids, and empowering them to do so without embarrassment, the question would remain: why? Why do I want them to care about playing and singing? What value does it bring to someone’s life if he’s not a professional musician?

There are many high-minded, philosophical answers to that question, enough to fill tomes. But lest you think, duh, everyone knows music is good for you and the reasons for instructing your children in it are self-evident, I assert it is a valid question to ask. Aristotle did, writing “It is not easy to determine the nature of music, or why any one should have a knowledge of it,” before going on to break those reasons down for us.

But you don’t have to get all Aristotelean to answer the “why do I do this” question. The short answer is: almost every time I rise from the piano bench, I feel better than when I sat down. And as it turns out, it’s not just because I enjoy playing. There’s a medical explanation.

An image meme flowing through my Facebook newsfeed caught my eye recently, and led me to some deeper reading on this topic: “Singing daily for at least ten minutes reduces stress, clears sinuses, improves posture, and can even help you live longer.”

My first thought was, “that sounds true.” Because I wanted it to be. My second thought was, “what’s the source for that statement?” (The search for some confirmation was the catalyst for this blog post.)

Because if this was true, scientifically valid, then I finally had a practical justification and explanation for my endless infliction on my family and neighbors of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” belted out top voice. Yes, it’s a warm day, yes the windows are open, and yes dear friends across the street, that’s not cats fighting; Burden is singing again.

And whether the claims of that Facebook meme were strictly correct, the idea behind them, that singing and playing music effects physical changes on body and brain, are certainly true. References abound, in blogs, the mainstream media, and medical journals.

Writing for, Julia Layton says: 

“All types of singing have positive psychological effects. The act of singing releases endorphins, the brain’s ‘feel good’ chemicals. Singing in front of a crowd, a la karaoke, naturally builds confidence, which has broad and long-lasting effects on general well-being. But of all types of singing, it’s choral singing that seems to have the most dramatic effects on people’s lives.

“Choral singers need to concentrate on their music and technique throughout the singing process, and it’s hard to worry about things like work or money or family problems when you’re actively concentrating on something else. So choral singers tend to have a built-in “stress-free zone.” Learning is also part of the process — learning new songs, new harmonies, new methods of keeping tempo. Learning has long been known to keep brains active and fend off depression, especially in older people.”

Sarah Rainey wrote for The Telegraph (UK):

“Over the years, scientists have found that crooning has a number of health benefits. The Gothenburg researchers proved that with singing we can train our lungs to breathe better; similarly, a study at Cardiff University in 2012 found that lung cancer patients who sang in a choir had a greater expiratory capacity than those who didn’t. Singing has also been shown to boost our immune system, reduce stress levels and, according to a report published in the Journal of Music Therapy in 2004, help patients cope with chronic pain. A joint study by Harvard and Yale Universities in 2008 went one step further, claiming that choral singing in a Connecticut town had increased residents’ life expectancy.”

Music rewires your brain, so much so that the practice is used for treatment of psychological and neurological disorders. But you’ve got to make the music, not just listen to it:

“Unlike music listening, active music making places additional demands on the nervous system, leading to a strong coupling of perception and action; processes that are mediated by sensory, motor, and multimodal integrative regions distributed throughout the brain. This integrative fronto-temporoparietal network overlaps with components of the putative mirror neuron system, which is important in the perception and execution of actions.” (“The Therapeutic Effects of Singing in Neurological Disorders,” Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal.)

Performance Boosting Power of Music

And music-making won’t just cure what ails you, it’ll also take your performance up a level.

Alzheimer’s patients, “have enhanced mental performance after singing classic hits and show tunes from movies and musicals.” (“5 Reasons Why Music Boosts Brain Activity,”

Music training for can boost the power of memory,  and enhance literacy, reasoning, and math skills.   (How Music Affects Us and Promotes Health,

So what should you take away from all of this? Everybody needs to sing for ten minutes a day? You need to treat music like fitness and schedule workout regimens? I don’t think so (unless that appeals to you). The takeaway is, whether you think you have musical gifts or not, you probably enjoy singing, and maybe or plucking away at that old guitar you bought but never really learned how to play, or tinkering around on the piano. You enjoy it but refrain because you don’t think it’s a productive use of your time, or worse, because you have to have achieved some degree of skill before you should be allowed to participate.

Not so. You’re good enough to start right now, and you probably have  been since you were a baby. And now you know that it’s doing you some good to boot.

So go ahead. Sing.

For more references for the claims of physiological and psychological benefits of making music, the citations at the end of this PubMed paper are a great starting place.

The End of a Streak; Belated Manchester *HALF* Marathon Race And Season Notes


It’s fitting that I’m getting around to jotting a few notes on this race almost a week after the fact. The whole thing ended up being a bit nonchalant, given it was my main race of the season and the focus of 18 weeks of training. Note that it’s a half marathon race report, rather than a marathon race report. This distinction is at the heart of this season’s lesson: we’ve got a finite amount of energy and headspace; you can run the training miles, but they won’t always get you the same results, and you won’t always have the will to push yourself all the way into depths of suffering you’ve been enthusiastic to visit in the past. And so, with this 13.1 miles in lieu of the marathon, my  stretch of running two marathon-or-longer races a year is ended.  Wimping out? Getting old? Maybe, or maybe it’s accumulated wisdom. I’ve been around and among committed, 40-50-something age-grouper distance junkies long enough to notice that when you feel like you need to step off the gas, you ought to do it. If you don’t, your body does it for you.

I realized I wasn’t going to run the marathon about four weeks ago. If you’ve been by the blog over the past year, you know I wrestled with the conflicting impulses to take a break from marathons and a continued relish of the training process and the challenge of racing that distance. Before Boston this spring, I was sure I wasn’t going to run another for a long time. But Boston 2014 was such a good experience (if not a particularly fast run) that, well, think of that famous Michael Corleone line from The Godfather Part II:

Anyhow, I ran the training miles, squeezed in late at night or early in the morning, and they kept me fit, but I wasn’t feeling it. The hard workouts weren’t going well, and I just wasn’t wanting it. I was pouring heart and soul into other things, and enjoying the easy running and the interval work, but not the long tempos, not the grinding up hills at in the late-night dark on Wednesday nights. Finally, 10 miles into the last, 15-mile race-pace long run on my schedule, I had a minor epiphany.

And that was it. I didn’t have the headspace for it. I really didn’t want it this time around. I didn’t want to run the fastest 26.2 I could and be physically broken for the rest of the year. Nor did I want to forgo the racing and run the 26.2 “easy.” I remembered my decision last spring, to finish Boston and then just enjoy running for the fitness, the mental health benefits, and the competition and camaraderie of shorter races.

I emailed the race director and switched my registration to  the half marathon, enjoyed the rest of the training period, and showed up race day feeling rested, relaxed and happy to be there.

I figured based on my race-pace long runs on the Manchester course (accurately described by race officials as “hilly, challenging and scenic”) that I was in about 3:06 marathon shape for that course. I speculated that would get me somewhere between 6:40 and 6:50 pace for a half, but with the hills, I wasn’t really sure. I’d go hard at it in the lower part of that range and see where I came out.

The morning of the race was quite windy, 24 mph with heavier gusts, and temps in the high 30s. Rain or snow had been forecast but it held off. I rolled out of bed, ate a leisurely breakfast, had coffee, read the paper and jogged the mile and a half to the start at 8:15 a.m. Key benefit of a hometown race.

I was struck by two things when I arrived. How hardy these runners – of all ages and body types – were as they stood and chatted happily as the gale roared around them. And how lucky I am to have so many friends I have in this warm and welcoming running community. (Want to get to know more runners in Manchester? Check out the Athletic Alliance Running Club.) I met up with James Porter (picture above, finished right around the time I did) and we did some strideouts and then it was race time. We held our hats over our hearts for the National Anthem, eyes on the flag whipping in the wind atop City Hall, the gun sounded, and we were off.

And all along that hilly course friends braving the cold to cheer. And at the end, friends and family, Kris and the four kids, all bundled up and cheeks red and eyes shining and I was simply delighted. Overcome almost with gratitude.  And that was the second little epiphany. It doesn’t matter what the distance or how I finish: they are still there.  That’s a good feeling, especially as you look toward the future and know that your future PRs may soon need to all be age-adjusted.

Cue the lines from Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

Anyhow, remember I said I guessed I was in 3:06 marathon shape? Well I ended up running 1:28:59 in the half, which is about two minutes slower than my PR at the distance, but almost exactly what the calculator predicts based on the 3:06 marathon time estimate. I was 2nd in my age group,  5th in masters division, and 12th overall, and so I was happy enough with that. And even better? I ran an easy six on Tuesday and my legs were a little heavy, but that was about it. Already recovered. I think I like this half marathon distance! 


For anyone interested in running Manchester, the race site is and you can view a video of the course here: It’s definitely challenging, but I think that gives it a unique strategic element. And it’s beautiful if you like old New England mill cities, as I do.

Here’s the elevation chart:

Manchester 1/2 Marathon Elevation

And here’s how I approached the splits, which is far from even splits I typically run in long races (I guess I’ve picked a lot of flat courses over the years). I had the opportunity to really work through the approach as I did most of my training runs on the course. I backed off some on the toughest climbs and saved my legs so I could hit the descents hard, especially the last mile: 6:35, 6:50, 6:46, 6:57, 6:51, 6:35, 6:56, 6:54, 6:43, 6:48, 6:41, 7:00, 6:23, 1:00.


Wonderful time pacing a group at Baystate Marathon this morning

There is nothing quite so gratifying as helping to guide people to a PR or some other personal running success. I think I actually like this better than racing these days!

A Few Good Runs In Manchester, New Hampshire

So a question popped up on Twitter recently – could anyone recommend a few good, safe runs in Manchester, NH – 3-6 miles, hills okay. Having spent the last seven years running endless miles around my adopted home city, I’ve got favorites at all distances, and a true booster’s spirit for mill city running.

So here are a just a couple of options.

(I run a lot at night, but some of these might not be totally, 100%, in keeping with your request for safe after dark, depending on your tolerance level for safe. In the morning, daylight these should be totally great. My wife runs them and concurs, see her notes below.)

1. Fisher Cats Stadium to bike path, over pedestrian bridge to the West Side.

If you are new to the city, this is a great one. If you are staying downtown, let’s make the Radisson at Elm and Granite Streets the reference point. (Across from the Verizon Wireless Arena) Run down Granite Street and take a left on South Commercial, which will bring you to the Fisher Cats baseball stadium. Behind this runs a paved recreation path along the Merrimack.

Run the path for a quarter mile and hook a left up a steep curvy paved path, which will bring you past a bronze statue of a bull and onto a wooden footbridge over the Merrimack. Here you’ll get beautiful views of the river and the Millyard to your north. Across the bridge you can keep running on the paved path, crossing one busy road, and then on along the Piscatquog River. The path ends on on Electric Street on the West Side.

At this point you will have run about 2.5 miles. You can either turn around and run back, getting in a nice, pretty flat 5 miles, or keep going.

2. Run one extended with West Side and Millyard Additions.

From that point you can turn right and run up Bremer Street – which will definitely put your hill running skills to work. (This is not the most immediate, steepest right, which is a path, it’s the next right, a sidewalk along a quiet street.)

Run up Bremer Street and down the other side. Take a right on Coolidge Avenue and then instead of following Coolidge down the hill, continue straight on Notre Dame.

You’ll know you’re on the right path because you can follow the steeple of Ste. Marie Parish – a basilica style French Canadian Catholic Church that dominates the West Side skyline. You’ll run right past (peek inside for a look at a really beautiful interior, including a spectacular altar and stained glass windows).

From here, take a left on Putnam Street, just past Catholic Medical Center, fly down the steep hill there, and hang another left to follow McGregor Street past the front of the Medical Center and toward Bridge Street. Take a right onto Bridge Street and cross the Merrimack again, getting another awesome view of the Millyard.

Take a right onto Elm Street. But don’t call yourself done. Hang a right on Spring Street and dive down into the heart of the Millyard. Take a left on Commercial Street and find yourself amid the Amoskeag mills that were the largest textile manufacturers in the world in the 19th century. Run Commercial all the way back to Granite Street, turn left and run back up the hill you started on, and back to the Radisson on Elm.

Six miles even.

There are so many more, let me know if you’d like different ideas.

PS – My wife notes that any time you are on the recreation paths, you may encounter a “shady” character. or two, but usually they’re just loitering. (or maybe smoking pot under one of the bridges.)  She’s never had a problem and runs these all the time, as do I (I run them day and often at night) and if you go in the morning, daylight, there will be plenty of other men and women, families, kids, dog walkers, etc. at the same time.

My wife also notes that running on Elm Street early on a Sunday morning is a real pleasure, iconic main street, and you get it all to yourself. And she really likes running in the stately North End. Just head north on Elm Street.

Here’s the map, below – enjoy!

Create Maps or search from 80 million at MapMyRun

Do You Need Carbs To Run Fast? Concluding The Experiment, Sort Of

Common wisdom says you need copious amounts of carbohydrate to run your best, but who doesn’t love challenging common wisdom once in a while? After reading the Art & Science  of Low Carbohydrate Performance by Volek and Phinney last year, and following the work of Dr. Timothy Noakes, who was kind enough to give me some advice during the process, and other low carb athletics advocates, as well as no-sugar-no-grain advocate, trainer, author and gifted podcast raconteur Vinnie Tortorich, I put it to the test. I started eating high-fat-low-carb Nov. 2, 2013 and stayed either in ketosis or just on the edge of it for the next nine months. (*Reasons, expanded on?)


On no running, or lower weekly mileage (say under 30 miles), I am really happy eating extremely low carb – staying in ketosis even. My brain feels sharp and my sleep is rock solid, a real boon given a lifetime of nagging insomnia. I don’t feel hungry all the time the way I did on a high-carb-low-fat diet, and I can keep weight off  even if I’m not running or exercising at all. It’s a fantastic lifestyle to combat the many negative effects of the ridiculously high-sugar, processed food culture we live in (and which is at the heart of the obesity issues Americans are facing).

But – and this is the big but – I simply couldn’t hit the performance levels I’d been achieving prior to going low carb. This played itself out first in my prep for Boston this spring. I’d been rehabbing an injury, so didn’t run from Nov. 2013 through Jan. 2014, and when I finally started again, I really had a short cycle to back into shape for Boston.

I blamed the too-short training cycle and the two months with no running for my inability to get back into three-hour marathon shape, but likely  it was those two factors combined with the ultra-low-carb diet. Starting in March, I experimented with adding strategic carbs before and after especially tough workouts, and carb reload days, but I was still dragging, and felt like I was stressing my system as well.

Further, most disturbing, I really wasn’t enjoying running, especially long runs, which had been my escape, my mental health time, and often, deeply spiritual. Now I was just grinding through them.

I ran Boston more to participate in the event than to race as hard as I could, and ran a very enjoyable 3:12, which didn’t leave me too beat up. Even so, I took time off after, contemplated what to run next, and decided, nothing. I’d put nothing on the calendar and just run short stuff. I ran one 10K in June, and bailed on the idea of racing it after only a few miles, dropping back to run it with my wife instead. I just didn’t have the juice in my legs to do what I wanted to do – what I’d been able to do just one year before. It was as if, after only two fast miles, the glycogen stores were completely empty. A bonk. Yet not a bonk, since at the slower pace, I could have run all day. It was a top-end-speed bonk only. Frustrating.

Fat Adapted? Yes, But Not Enough For Tempo Running, Racing

They say adapting to low-carb is a long process involving significant physiological changes. I think I made quite a bit of progress – I managed to get back into the 40-mile-a-week range, felt pretty good on short speed work staying very low carb, but still couldn’t manage the long tempo runs. Even just running marathon pace (6:49) felt like a struggle after a few miles, even though I could feel other markers improving, including capability in longer interval workouts.

Despite having said I wasn’t going to run a long race in the fall, I started training in earnest in July and signed up for Manchester a month later. I missed the discipline of the training calendar. And I was seeing improvements, yes, but still, where was that tempo endurance? And why were the long runs still so dang plodding?

Like Flipping A Switch

So a few weeks ago I finally acknowledged that if this was to really be an experiment, I needed to test the other side of the coin and try training higher carb again.

Could I have have gotten even more fat adapted if I’d given it a year, or two years? Perhaps so. Likely so. But I’m in my mid-40s, and I don’t have that many years left to try to improve my marathon times. Or just to enjoy the cruising sensation of a long run, fully glycogen loaded.

Still, I didn’t want to give up all of the benefits I’d been getting  in other areas of my life from low-carb eating. I figured maybe increasing carbs but sticking in general to lower glycemic foods like beans, squash, etc., might keep my blood sugar more steady and maintain some of the happy aspects of low carb living, while allowing me to repack muscles with glycogen consistently throughout the week, not just in bursts.

It was like flipping a switch. My pace on longer runs dropped (9-18 miles) between 15-30 seconds a minute per mile or more, on any given day, with no additional perceived effort. I allowed myself one or two Hammer gels (carbs but very little sugar) on runs over sixteen miles. I increased my mileage back into the mid 50s and felt as strong at the end of the week as I did at the start. And finally, near the end of a 60 mile week this week, I ran a treadmill 9 miler with 5 tempo miles in the middle. Now I mentioned I’d been having to work very hard with a 6-mile marathon pace (6:49) run, even on the treadmill. After a three-mile warmup, the next five tempo miles flew by, with the first four miles at 6:35 pace and the last at 6:31. I could have gone farther or faster. Maybe both. I felt like a different runner. Or more accurately, like the runner I had been.

Now I get it, there are so many factors in play here, mileage, place in training cycle, sleep, it’s hard to control for any one thing perfectly, but the change was too abrupt and notable to be coincidence, and not just on speed days, but on about every run of the week for three weeks in row.

So what now?

So now I stick to the good, clean, whole foods mostly no-sugar-no-grain eating (excerpt for the grain in a good IPA now and again), but with many more carbs in the mix. I’ll make sure I’m still getting plenty of healthy fat. And instead of counting carbs or calories, I’ll keep an eyeball on the glycemic load of the foods I’m eating, though not too close of an eye. As long as the performance continues to improve, and the gnawing hunger or poor sleep doesn’t return, I’ll figure I’ve found a happy medium. Between race cycles, or when my knee finally fails or some other injury sidelines me for good, and I’m no longer burning 7,600 calories a week (this week’s output), I’ll switch back to very strict low carb living and enjoy that.

I continue to both advocate a low-carb diet for the many modern humans struggling with weight and metabolic disorders, as well as for any athlete who’s having luck with it and will benefit more from weight loss and appetite control they might by accessing their top end speed, whatever that might be. And if you don’t go completely low-carb, at least play around with no sugar no grains and see how you feel. I think Vinnie’s onto something easy to follow with that simple, straightforward formula.

In the meantime, someone pass the sweet potatoes.  Today was long run day.


* Note my full reasoning for going low-carb isn’t necessarily clear from the intro above. Those who follow the blog know there are two primary drivers – a lifelong struggle with weight, hunger and adverse reaction to sugar when not running a high-mileage training schedule, as well as a desire to see if increased fat adaptation (burning fat in a larger proportion during exercise) would improve my abilities in marathon-distance running.  

Case for Multilingualism In Business

For those of us who work internationally, sure we know that most everywhere you go English ends up being the common language of groups with disparate native tongues. But does that mean there’s no point to learning a second language? Not at all, according to Robert Kaplan, who makes the case for developing multilingual talent in Harvard Business Review.

It’s All About My Race, Not The Race: Do Runners Care Who Wins?

Distance running is wonderful sport in part because the races are so egalitarian: the back-of-the-packers are literally competing in the same event as the world champions. You pay your fee, enter the race and run – albeit usually far, far behind – the elite runners. But it’s worth chewing over the idea that with the exception of huge marquee races like the Boston Marathon, nobody cares who wins, what records were set, what the best course times are, etc.

We care instead whether we ran a PR (personal record) or PB (personal best) for my friends from the UK.

In one sense, it’s a pleasant notion – I enter these races to compete against myself, in a community of people doing the same thing. It’s all about being a self-motivated individual in community; and who can dislike that? Except this is a race, man. Look left, look right – those people are your competitors. Let’s have a bit of both, community and competition.

By adding some of the depth of context involved in being not just a participant in a race, but a fan of running, the sport – and our own race experiences – can be enhanced. Win win.

Which brings me to the main thing that struck me at the last race I ran – the Market Square 10K in Portsmouth last month.  My friend John Stanzel won the second place age group award (50-59) for his 39:21 run through Portsmouth. Great run. My wife Kristen and I stuck around for the awards.

Take a minute and watch the video.

Why the laughs? It’s just funny that despite what I’d heard was a record turnout for this race, the awards ceremony is … umm… intimate.

One thousand eight hundred and ninety eight people finished the race and the only a dozen or so people cared enough to see the awards ceremony. I’m not pointing fingers here – I wouldn’t have stuck around if John hadn’t been collecting an award. And I have to be honest, I didn’t recall the name of the guy who won.

But I think I would have appreciated the whole event more if I knew some of the details of the top-end competition. And in an era where mega races sell out as soon as they are announced, where it seems like almost everyone is a “runner” – why aren’t the champions among us – those folks who win the races we all enter and run together so communally, local celebrities?

We bring our kids to get autographs of minor league baseball players after a game; what would the winners make of it if we had the family hang around at the end of the next race we run, and we asked them to sign our race numbers?

(By the way –  Andrew Huebner won the race. He’s 26 years old, from Portsmouth. His time was 30:31. Holy smokes. You guys know what that means? He was averaging 4:55 per mile for 6.2 miles on a course with its share of climbs – not a fast flat one, that’s for sure. Now maybe this doesn’t quite put him in striking distance of  the 26:17.53 Olympic record set by Kenenisa Bekele in 2005, but it’s damn fast nevertheless. To put it in perspective, next time you’re at a workout with the local track club, try and hit 4:55 pace – just for a quarter mile. That means get yourself around the track in 1:13. You may be able to – it’s not outrageous. But then think about doing it 25 times or so. Yeah, Andrew’s pretty fast. And didn’t that little dip into the stats add some cool context to your own 10K experience?)