How to Warm Up Your Mental Circuits on Demand

A friend of mine once told me that she hated doing housecleaning. Rather than make herself clean on a schedule, she would clean only when she felt disgusted by something dirty. That would give her the motivation to clean up that area.

This method worked for her for housecleaning, but it doesn’t work as a general approach for getting things done. For example, if you work on a team, sometimes you need to do work even if you simply don’t feel like doing it at the moment. Indeed, one of the challenges of sticking to a plan for the day is that it’s impossible to ensure that you will be revved up at 3:00 p.m. to do the task you scheduled for that 3:00 p.m. time slot.

This can be a problem, even if nothing else interferes, and even if you’re not particularly motivated to do something else. It can be a problem, even if you are, in principle, willing to do the task.

For example, I often feel zero interest in writing a newsletter at the appointed time, even if I have a “great idea” already identified to write about.

This “great idea” probably struck at a time when it was inconvenient to write. When that happens, I make a few notes and schedule the writing for another time. Unfortunately, when it comes to the appointed time, I sometimes have trouble rekindling my interest in the topic.

What you need to know is that it is impossible to write an interesting article when you feel uninterested in the topic. I may have willingly sat down to write. I may want desperately to finish the article on schedule. I may remember that I was previously excited about the topic. But if I have no emotional interest in the topic at the moment, I’ll be paralyzed.

If I want to write the article in that time slot, I need to activate the value context. But since I am completely uninterested, I have no values to grab onto. Fortunately, there is a way out: Warm up the factual context

Warming up the factual context is easy and under your control. Once you have your knowledge activated, you automatically start to see the values at stake, and you will become more interested.

There are many ways to warm up a factual context. If you previously did some thinking on paper on the topic, you can read that. If you did a “Mental Cleanup,” you can read that. Or maybe there is something else you can read. Reading is one of the easiest ways to warm up a context.

But sometimes, you are starting from zero. There is nothing to read, or it doesn’t do the job. Then, I simply brainstorm a list of 10 things I know about the topic. I say “brainstorm,” because it’s important to accept every idea that occurs to you, even if it seems lame or barely relevant.

For example, to warm up my mental circuits to write this article, I listed the following 10 things I know about warming up (edited slightly for clarity):

  1. It has to be easy.
  2. It doesn’t matter what concretes you use.
  3. A list is easy.
  4. Word association can be used.
  5. Anything related will work–particularly key concepts.
  6. Some key concepts are “context,” “values,” “subconscious.”
  7. The goal is to activate relevant knowledge so it starts occurring to you.
  8. Re-reading notes works.
  9. Telling someone about the issue works.
  10. “Complaining” can work, if you keep it on topic.
  11. Reading your mental cleanup works great.

This is a hodge-podge of suggestions, abstract points, and commentary. That doesn’t matter. Some of my points will be confusing to you. That doesn’t matter. The goal is to activate related information, not to win a clarity contest. Clarity can come later.

What matters is that making the list is easy peasy, I brainstormed this list in less than 5 minutes, which then got me thinking about some of the issues I needed to include in this article.

As a side effect, those ideas also activated my interest in the article. They reminded me that warming up is easy and effective–it’s an important tool for my readers to have in their mental toolkit. It implicitly raised some interesting content questions. Was I going to discuss values? (Yes) Or the subconscious? (No)

My teaching premises were soon activated, and ta da, I was able to start serious work on the article, with just a few minutes of transition time.

This tactic works because it is easy. It really doesn’t matter what goes on your list, as long as it has something to do with the topic you are warming up.

For example, suppose my friend decided to try to warm up the context to clean the house at a specific time because her sister was coming to stay. Here are some things she might list:

  1. It’s nice to see the house clean.
  2. I hate getting chemicals on my hands.
  3. I wouldn’t be doing this if my sister weren’t coming.
  4. There’s a lot of dog hair that needs vacuuming.
  5. I need to pick up before I can vacuum.
  6. I want to clean up in the easiest way possible.
  7. I want to clean up in the shortest time possible.
  8. I don’t care if there is a little dust around the edges.
  9. The carpet could be beaten. That’s kinda fun.
  10. Maybe my husband would help me clean. Maybe my sister would help me clean.

On the other hand, here are some thoughts she might have that would be irrelevant, and wouldn’t make the list of 10:

  • This feels like an artificial exercise.
  • We need more dog food.
  • Time is an interesting concept.
  • Tonight we have theater tickets.

There is nothing wrong with having these other thoughts. However, they are not related to cleaning, so they will not help you warm up your knowledge and interest in cleaning. Since that is the goal, they don’t go on the list. Only thoughts related to cleaning go on the list.

Warming up your mental circuits often gets you “over the hump” and motivated to do what you need to do. It’s a great technique to have in your back pocket when for some reason you need to start a task, but are not mentally ready for it. By activating what you know about the task, you will also activate why you care about it. That’s the simplest way to transition to action.


December 30, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Becoming More Productive by Testing the Rule of Six

“The key to being productive is to stick to the six most important things you need to get done that day,” says Chet Holmes, author of The Ultimate Sales Machine.

Why six?

Holmes argues that this makes the list short enough that you can be sure to complete the list. He writes, “there is an enormous psychological boost to crossing off that sixth item on your list,
especially when all six of them were the most important things you needed to do that day.”

Yes, but why six? Why not three, five, seven, or ten?

Holmes doesn’t say. I suspect he stipulates the number six partly for shock value. Whoever heard of aiming to have a particular number of items on your to-do list each day?

Now, I don’t believe there are one-size-fits-all rules for time management. But I’m quite willing to experiment with a rule to see what’s behind it. Here are my findings from trying the “Rule of
Six” for a few weeks:

1) Three items would be too short a list. I always have more than three crucial tasks to do during the day.

2) Ten items would be too long a list. I never have ten important tasks in a day, nor could I fit ten into one workday.

3) Taking a few minutes each morning to make today’s list helps focus my work.

4) Aiming for exactly six items every day gives me a little push to prioritize better. When I’m tempted to add a 7th item, I see I need to take a hard look at whether it is more important than something else on the list. Better to figure that out in the morning, than to see in hindsight that evening that I failed to do the more important task.

5) Despite making to-do lists every day for several weeks, I have only once finished all six items. I usually finish only four or five on a given day. Apparently the “Rule of Five” is more realistic for me.

The concrete lesson? Six is not a magic number, but the discipline of listing a set number of to-do’s each day can boost your productivity.

The abstract lesson is more interesting. A productivity “rule” may sound arbitrary, but contain an important principle. You can find out the principle by experimenting with the rule, keeping your eyes open to see how it does or does not make your work more productive.


October 3, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Three Ways to Prepare for a Constructive Conversation

If you’ve been following my work, you know that I’m interested in making conversations on controversial topics more constructive and less contentious. I think I’m making progress, but, yesterday I had a contentious conversation with someone who I am in basic agreement with. The topic was how you persuade people. Ironic, I know.

After a little reflection, I realized that I had not prepared. It had not even occurred to me to prepare–I thought we were in basic agreement. But as a result, I didn’t have the mental resources I needed to have a constructive conversation.

The #1 resource you need is mental “crow” space. A conversation is a kind of performance. Your performance will degrade if you get mentally overloaded. You need to have the mental wherewithal to adapt and adjust as you go. If you are scrambling to keep your next point in mind, or to understand the other person, or to figure out a better argument, you don’t have enough capacity for really engaging with the other person.

So how do you prepare for a conversation? One way is to role play with another person in advance. This is very helpful if you predict that you are going to trigger specific objections or defensiveness. You can get someone to act like the other person, and try out ways to handle it.

But even before you role play, you need to do some mental preparation. Otherwise, the role play will go haywire, too. Here are three ways to prepare that will give you more crow space for actually having the conversation.

1.Identify your framework for reaching conclusions in this area

By your framework, I mean the basic assumptions, logical processes, and standards of value you use to decide what is true or false, right or wrong, important or unimportant in this area.

Incidentally, I got the idea of a framework for a conversation from Alex Epstein. If you’re remotely interested in this topic, I recommend checking out his Human Flourishing Project podcast. This is my understanding of the issue.

For example, in hindsight, to discuss how to have a conversation, I think my framework should have been something like this:


  • Both people are thinking beings, who control their own minds and need to do their own thinking
  • Rational agreement results when each person independently sees the truth

Logical Processes:

  • Concretize any abstract ideas using an example that both people can understand
  • Start by finding an area of agreement and then work toward understanding and/or resolving any disagreements
  • Get clear on the two contexts so that you can identify whether disagreements are due toa) lack of knowledge
    b) false beliefs
    c) imprecise ideas that need clarification


  • Alignment: both parties in a conversation need to have compatible goals or intentions in the conversation
  • Connection: to be a positive conversation, both parties need to get visibility–some recognition of their values
  • Communication: whoever is slowest at understanding needs to set the pace so that neither person gets overloaded

The reason for doing this preparation is to make it easy to spot key logical issues. By doing preparation, there is less thinking you need to do in the conversation, and therefore more crow space available for listening to the other person and addressing what he says.

2. Ground yourself emotionally so that you have sufficient patience

By grounding yourself emotionally, I mean that you preemptively process all of the emotions that you anticipate having in the conversation. You imagine a disaster, and give yourself empathy for that.

This is not just introspecting the emotions, but also understanding the real conflicts. You want harmony, and also self-expression. You want agreement, but this is not under your direct control. You might be concerned that you aren’t clear enough, and that therefore you could be manipulated. In each of these cases, you need to come to terms with the conflict, so you go into the conversation with your eyes wide open, not expecting harmony, alignment, and ease which you are unlikely to get.

There are many specific ways to do this. For example, I teach the “empathy bath” in Focused Choices and in the Thinking Lab.

The reason for grounding yourself is so that you can stay “present” in the conversation. By present, I mean that you have enough crow space to be able to process what the other person is saying, plus hear ideas coming up from your subconscious, plus monitor your emotions. If too many ideas or emotions are coming up from your subconscious, you will be overloaded, and will not be able to evaluate and address what the other person says. Pre-emptively grounding yourself emotionally increases your resilience and decreases your excitability. You are less likely to be surprised by what the person says–so you are less likely to be emotionally triggered by it, too.

Incidentally, I learned this from my colleague, Jeff Brown, who is a certified NVC trainer. He says he spends twice as much time preparing for a difficult conversation as he expects the conversation to last. That ensures he has enough emotional resilience to get through the conversation, even if the other person doesn’t give him an inch. His emotional reservoirs are full, so he can handle any emotional issues that come up for him during the conversation. The result? Tremendous patience, tremendous ability to listen, tremendous ability to come up with creative ways to bridge differences.

3. Identify the appropriate intention to hold in mind

By intention, I mean your goal for the conversation. This is the goal that you hold in mind, that sets the standard for choosing what you say and do.

You need a different intention in different conversations. Your intention needs to be consistent with the other person’s. Otherwise you create immediate conflict. The other person gets emotionally triggered and distracted from the conversation. Any attempt to reach some mutual conclusion is undercut.

For example, in a teacher-student conversation, the student’s intention is to understand the teacher, and the teacher’s intention is to support the student to understand. If you have a teacher’s intention, but the person you are talking to doesn’t want to be your student, the “student” will feel lectured at. You create immediate conflict that gets in the way of any communication.

As another example, in a leader-follower conversation, the leader’s intention is communicate something the follower needs to know to perform his part on the team. The follower’s intention is to reach a firsthand agreement with the leader–which may require challenging him respectfully.

If you don’t know have any pre-set roles in a conversation, the intention you can always hold, non-controversially, is to connect with the other person, i.e., to in some way identify shared values. You can do this either by giving him “empathy,” in which you guess the deep rational values behind what he’s saying, or you can express yourself in terms of deep rational values and see if he responds. More informally, you may tell a story to establish connection. If you keep your intention on connecting, even if you don’t succeed with your first attempt, you will get information from the other person that will help you adjust and connect on the second or third try.

For those who don’t recognize it, this is the method I learned from Marshall Rosenberg. “Connection” works as an all-purpose intention in social situations, because it is the fundamental value you get from associating with other people. When you make a connection, you are seeing that person as a rational valuer–an asset to your life in that respect.

The need to have consistent intentions means some intentions are ruled out, such as “get him to agree with me” or “make him do it.” I believe these are ruled out on the basis of respecting the other person’s thinking mind–you need to leave him free to do his own thinking, as my friend Catherine Dickerson says. It would be irrational of the other person to hold an intention compatible with your authoritarian one, such as “don’t make waves” or “just do what the boss says” or “don’t judge, just keep harmony.”

To be clear, I do not mean mean that you drop any desire to persuade someone of your point of view or to convince him to take an action. You may have as your longer-range goal to persuade people of your point of view or to find someone who could cooperate with you to achieve some goal. But you never need the cooperation of any specific person to achieve your long-range goals. (If you think you do, you have set the goal incorrectly.)

Unless you have a friend who genuinely likes arguing, and that is the agreed-upon terms of discussion, persuading the other person should not be your immediate focus. Your focus is on an objective step you can take toward your goals–given what the other person has communicated regarding his interests and intentions. For example, maybe you are trying to find out if he is someone who would be a good person to talk with or collaborate with.

If you short-circuit making sure there is some buy-in from the other person, you kill hope for the communication. You set yourself up as an antagonist.

If this all sounds like a lot of work, I agree. I thought that once I learned some real-time skills, all my conversations would be easy. But I am learning that the real-time skills are only part of the solution. They help with a range of problems. But the more difficult conversations are objectively more difficult. For those, you need to set yourself up for success by preparing yourself logically, emotionally, and mentally for the conversation–so that the real-time skills have a chance to work.


October 1, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Three Signs You Need to Check Your Premises

Ayn Rand coined the catch phrase: “Check your premises.”
A premise is a past conclusion that supports your present thinking. Her point was that if you arrive at a contradiction in the present, there is an error somewhere in your past conclusions. You need to find that mistake, because otherwise it will sabotage you.

Here’s the problem: mistaken premises can be difficult to spot. You need a special act of self-awareness to catch them and correct them.

A mistaken premise is difficult to catch because it forms a kind of a blinder. Let me explain.

At the time you formed any premise, you concluded it was true. It may even have been true then, but some factor in the world has changed since that time.

In every choice we make, in every conclusion we reach, in every outcome we predict, we rely on our past conclusions. What we have previously established as true or good or important provides an automatized context for concluding whether some new idea is true or good or important. We couldn’t function at an adult level without this context; we’d be like a mentally retarded adult, seeing only what is in front of him, without the wherewithal to project much into the future or learn much from the past.

For the most part, our automatized context of conclusions serves us well. But when there is a wrong premise in the context, it distorts the calculus. It means that a new idea is tested against a false one. You can easily reach a new mistaken conclusion.

To concretize, imagine you were in a neighborhood that you had visited many times. On your way out to the highway, you take shortcut. But en route, you see a sign that indicates the highway is in a different direction. How would you judge that new information?

You might very well conclude you know better, especially if you had an explanation for why your shortcut wasn’t marked. It is normal to trust your own mind.

However, it is possible the traffic pattern has changed, and your “better” way is no longer an option. If that’s the case, you will wind up taking the long way around, not a shortcut. You won’t figure out that you’re making a mistake until you follow the premise all the way through to failure.

When a few minutes delay is all that you risk, it may not matter how soon you catch a mistake.

But as the stakes get higher, you need an early warning system to alert you that a premise deserves checking. Here are three signs that I use to warn me that I should consider whether I am operating on misinformation:

1. Surprise

Surprise is the ultimate “does not compute” signal, and a definite sign to check your premises. And yet often people assume that the new information is misleading, rather than that they have made a mistake in their thinking.

For example, an experimental researcher I know found she had to train new graduate students to take surprise seriously. When an experiment gave a surprising result, their default reaction was to re-run the experiment rather than check their premises. But surprising outcomes indicate new factors that were unknown.

Some great inventions come from following up on surprising results to learn something new.

2. A Pattern of Failure

When things go wrong in the same way, again and again, despite your effort to the contrary, it’s time to check your premises.

For example, if you’re having the same argument escalate again with the same person, you know for sure that you are not discussing the real issue. Or if you’re having trouble getting to work on time, despite troubleshooting the issue, you know that you have not identified the root cause of the tardiness.

Such problems are vicious cycles. They are often held in place by a false theory about how the world “should” be. The argument “should” convince the other person. Or the other person “should” listen better. Or you “should” be able to get up without hitting the snooze button. Or you “should” be able to do your morning routine in 32 minutes flat.

When practice refutes theory, theory needs to change.

3. Victimhood

“I have no choice.” “It’s impossible.” “I can’t.” Whenever you see yourself as the victim determined by circumstances, you know there is a premise to check.

Don’t get me wrong, there may be an objective problem, but whether to solve it and how you solve it is your choice.

For example, I remember being disappointed that I “couldn’t” take a class on Human Anatomy and Physiology (A&P) in my senior year of high school. It didn’t fit with physics, which was required for college. My younger brother proved that premise wrong. He took physics as a junior, so he had the flexibility to take A&P as a senior. I had not valued A&P highly enough to make it a priority, which includes planning long range to make it possible. He had.

There can be circumstances which make it difficult to achieve a specific goal. But if that goal is literally impossible to achieve, it is illogical to aim for it. Having it as a goal is based on a wrong premise.

On the other hand, if the goal is very difficult, it’s important to acknowledge that going after it or not is a choice of priorities. A difficult goal may require significant time and energy. You may need to drop lesser goals that would prevent you from achieving it. You may need to plan over time to ensure you can achieve it.

It is not true that you can “have it all.” You can have what is most important to you. Facing your actual choices often takes challenging old premises.

When you have a wrong premise, one way or another it puts you on a path to failure. That’s why eliminating wrong premises sooner rather than later is so important to success. The first step? Pay attention to these three signs that you need to check your premises: Surprise, a pattern of failure, and victimhood.

September 23, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Three Steps to Following Through on Your Priority

Your top priority is not necessarily the most important task on your list, nor is it necessarily the most urgent one. It is the one you decide you should do first–prior to the others. Often, as soon as you identify your top priority by naming the reason it’s #1, you will be motivated to jump into action.

But sometimes you won’t be. Either you are unmotivated, or you feel pulled toward some secondary task, something you have already determined is not your priority now. A distraction.

What do you do? I don’t recommend you wait until you feel the motivation to get started. At a minimum, you’ll suffer costs of delay. In the worst case, you’ll never do the task that matters most.

But I also don’t recommend that you shut down your thoughts and force yourself into action, despite the lack of motivation. That is a prescription for killing creativity and hating the most important work you do.

So what do you do in that moment? How can you stay loyal to your values, without shutting down your mind? Here are three steps you can take to move into action:

1. Acknowledge the situation.

Acknowledge that you are not motivated to do what you have concluded you need to do. You are in conflict.  That means you are in for some unpleasantness, no matter what you do next. One thing you know for sure: you will not be brilliantly efficacious in the next five minutes.

Acknowledging the situation helps you manage your own expectations. We all prefer to be “in the flow” when we do work. That’s not going to happen here. The best you can do is to ensure that the next few minutes are only unpleasant, not painful. You can handle a little unpleasantness and not knowing what to do.

Steps 2 and 3 are designed to ensure you keep the unpleasantness to a minimum.

2. Turn your attention to the priority

Turn your attention to the priority without officially starting work on it. You may feel conflicted about doing the task, but thinking about it more is always doable.

How do you turn your attention to the priority without actually starting? Often I just make a list of 10 things I know about the task. Some of the items on the list might be subtasks. Some might be reasons the task is important. Some might be background information. The 10 things can be trivial or profound. They are just the first 10 things that occur to me.

This is a simple task that requires you to hold your goal–the priority–in mind for at least 3-5 minutes. Holding the goal in mind is the fundamental way that you control your mind. It changes the mental situation.

When you hold your goal in mind, three things happen:

a.) You activate knowledge relevant to the goal. Information from the subconscious is triggered in response to what is already in conscious awareness. Associated information gets triggered. This shifts the thoughts that occur to you. You hear fewer distracting thoughts, and more thoughts relevant to the task, including information about the value of the task.

b.) You quiet the impulse to do something else. When you put your attention on listing facts about the goal, you ignore the distraction instead of suppressing it or denying it. By the time you’re finished, the distraction will have faded away, without any particular effort on your part. You distract yourself from the distraction.

In contrast, if you deny or suppress the distracting impulse, it will come back as soon as you let up your guard. Your focus moves to what you are denying yourself, rather than on what matters.

c.) Focusing on the goal activates positive affect. Because you are thinking about the goal, you start seeing opportunities to act, which cause hope. You remember why you care, which causes desire. You reflect on past steps you’ve accomplished, which causes satisfaction.

Focusing on the goal means focusing on values rather than disvalues. This shifts your mood, outlook, and motivation.

To sum up, holding the goal in mind for a few minutes shifts the parade of thoughts going through your mind so that they are on topic, it dispels the distracting impulses, and it activates motivation for the priority.

This step takes some effort, and may feel uncomfortable, but it transforms your mindset.

3. Ensure the priority is doable now

Finally, now that you’ve warmed up what you know about your priority, you can check to make sure it is formulated such that it will motivate your action.

Your top priority is a specific kind of goal, with a specific standard. You may have heard that goals should be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timebound. That’s helpful, but it’s not enough to ensure your priority propels you into action. Goals on different timescales need different standards of doability, different degrees of certainty, and different depths of passion.

A priority is on the short end of the goal-setting spectrum. It needs to be what I call a “task”–i.e., a single step that takes less than 2 hours to complete. Something this short can be unpleasant, as long as it’s not painful, but it needs to be highly doable. You need to know what you’re going to do, and that you can complete it in a short amount of time.

Why less than two hours? Two hours is an objective upper limit–it’s about as long as most people can sustain work without a short break.

An open-ended task that goes on and on without a clear ending point is a slog. A slog is inherently unmotivating. In contrast, when a finish line–any finish line–is within sight, the desire for closure is strong, and you will feel motivated.

When you set a priority, you need to design your task so that you reach some kind of closure by the end of this expenditure of effort.

If your priority can’t be completed in an appropriately short time, it needs to be redesigned. There is always a way to spiral, layer, scale down, or otherwise carve up the task so that you can reach a stopping point in a defined amount of time.

For example, writing this article took longer than I had hoped. As I neared the end of my two hours on the task, I realized I was not going to finish.

At that time, I had a hard stop in 15 minutes for another appointment. This article was still my top priority, but since I couldn’t finish it in 15 minutes, I redesigned the task. I took the 15 minutes to summarize my notes so that it would be easier for me to pick up again after the appointment. In this way, I stayed on task with my top priority, and fueled my motivation to keep at it when I got the next window of time.

How to redesign tasks so you can get some kind of closure in a defined time is a big topic. But it is always possible. Psychologically, it is necessary so that you always have a legitimate sense of having acted to gain and/or keep your values, and all of the positive affect that comes with that.

These three steps: acknowledging the situation, turning your attention to the priority, and ensuring the priority is doable now, all take effort. But none of them are painful or hard. You can choose to take these steps, even when you are unmotivated. They take a little determination, but they don’t require shutting down your mind. On the contrary, they activate the knowledge and motivation you need to get that priority done.


September 17, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Want to be Happy? Set Objective Goals

I am often asked what’s wrong with setting a goal to “be happy” or “feel good.” The problem is that these “goals” are subjective–ultimately circular. Goals need to be objective.

To understand that goals need to be objective, first you need to understand what a goal is, and how it relates to emotions.

A goal is an intention you set to achieve a particular outcome. If you achieve the outcome, you succeed. If you don’t, you fail. It has a definite stopping place.

When you set a goal, you immediately change part of your psychology a little bit–you change your subconscious value hierarchy. The act of setting the intention gives your intended outcome a value significance to you. It is now identified as good and important to you. As a result, from that moment forward, you will feel emotions about the goal and your pursuit of it.

Absent other factors, if you see an opportunity to achieve the goal, you’ll feel desire. If you see a threat to achieving it, you’ll feel fear. If you sit around without doing anything about achieving it, you’ll feel guilt. If you take some steps to achieve it and fail, you will feel frustration.

In other words, an important function of your emotional system is to alert you to information which seems relevant to your achieving your goal. Both positive and negative emotions are useful in this regard. Emotions are an integral part of your value system.

Your value system is partly biological, partly chosen. A baby is born with a functioning value system, based on certain physical needs, such as food, water, and a comfortable body temperature. If the baby lacks one of these, he cries. From the time of birth, anything associated with fulfilling physical needs gets stored as a value in his value system.

As a child develops his mind, a new factor is involved in forming values: choice. The child learns that his choices affect his life. He learns the importance of gaining knowledge and initiating action to meet his needs and achieve his goals. This is why setting a goal infuses the goal with value significance.

But of course, he can make mistakes in figuring out what goals to set and how to achieve them. This is why as adults we all have philosophies–to help us figure out what’s true and what’s good.

If you’ve been reading my writing for long, you know that all of the ideas about psychology that I share are developed on the basis of my particular philosophy, Objectivism. Two key conclusions from Objectivism relevant to this discussion are:

1) The standard of good is what promotes man’s survival–man qua man the rational animal. The standard of good is that which is necessary for a living organism that survives by the use of its mind to flourish. On this standard, happiness is both possible and desirable.

2) Because this standard is based on actual facts about what a living, breathing, thinking human being can do and needs to do, there are no inherent conflicts within a person’s soul.

On this view, emotions are an important alert that there is a value at stake. When emotions conflict, they are alerting you to an internal contradiction in your goals and values that needs to be found and corrected, if you want to flourish.

But conflict is wearing. It is much better to avoid conflicts between your goals by using an objective test for them when you set them. Here are my three tests for a goal:

  1. Does it objectively achieve values needed for human life (deep rational values) in some way–is it pro-life?
  2. Is it achievable by you by your effort–i.e., is it possible to you?
  3. Is it worth the effort relative to the other goals you have set–is it a high enough priority?

A goal like “feel good” or “be happy” doesn’t meet the first two tests.

First, such a “goal” does not actually direct you to any specific values. Feeling good or being happy is a consequence of achieving life-supporting goals. So it’s circular.

But worse, when you set “feeling good” as a goal, every time you feel bad, you’ll feel doubly bad, because the implication is that you are doing something wrong, because you are failing at your goal of “feeling good.”

But bad feelings are not “bad” for you. They are alerts–important alerts about your values. You can’t flourish without them. If you try to eliminate bad feelings, you get yourself into trouble. You either become repressed (and can’t feel good feelings, either), or you turn to drugs or other mind-altering experiences in lieu of doing the work of achieving values. Without a willingness to experience “bad” feelings, you cannot flourish.

Second, how you feel is not under your direct control. Success doesn’t always bring joy, even if achieving the goal is objectively good for you. The joy you would normally feel can be covered up by emotions coming from “old baggage,” such as limiting beliefs like “I’m never good enough” and the like. Or the joy you would normally feel can be undercut by conflict, if the goal you achieved turns out to be incompatible with some other big value.

For these reasons, you are setting yourself up for failure if you set “feeling good” or “being happy” as your goal. If you aim at this outcome directly, you will fail.

That said, the desire to be happier is a great source of motivation for making life changes that can lead to happiness. It is certainly worth it to influence this outcome. In another newsletter I will discuss what practice you can embrace that over time will make you happier and happier.


August 19, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Thinking About Affirmations

I’m reading my friend Alan Zimmerman’s book, The Payoff Principle, which explains the process he teaches for achieving “what you really, Really, REALLY want.” He is inspiring me on many levels, including convincing me to take a second look at some practices that have not worked for me in the past. One is affirmations.

Affirmations are positive, “can do” statements that you tell yourself. They are supposed to change your mindset, and some say that they help you to achieve your goals.

I have criticized “affirmations” in the past. In many cases, they are attempts to brainwash yourself. They are often justified by a vague “law of attraction” argument, which is that what you “put out into the universe” will come back to you. It’s easy to be skeptical of them. It’s no surprise that they’ve been satirized on sitcoms and late night TV.

I have used “affirmations” myself, but only as part of a very specific writing process I learned from Jerry Mundis. He recommended writing down the “can do” statement (“I can write easily and well”) followed by objections, then repeating that process in various ways 15 times. I found that Jerry’s exercise cleared out all of the negativity, doubts, and distractions that assailed me when I sat down to write, leaving me free to concentrate.

Alan has convinced me to try his unique approach to affirmations, which he claims helps you achieve your goals. He first has you identify 50 goals for life, across very specific categories. Then you turn the goals into statements that “affirm achievement.” These you repeat to yourself three times a day. You continue affirming the achievements until each goal is reached, which sometimes takes years.

If you’re interested in trying this process, I recommend you buy Alan’s book and learn it from him. It’s in Chapter 11.

What I want to share is why I’ve decided to try it. One factor is that Alan has tremendous credibility with me. He’s a person who walks his talk. He shared personal and customer testimonials showing people succeeding using his method. He pointed out specific failings of some of the other methods of affirmation that were clarifying. He thinks it’s a crucial piece of the overall success. Alan’s credibility got me to seriously consider it.

But his argument was not enough for me to try it. I never take advice like this unless I see for myself why I believe it should work. What is the causal factor here? After all, if I’m going to put in say 20 minutes a day doing these, that’s over 100 hours a year. That’s a serious commitment of time and energy. I need to be convinced it can work.

What was really unusual about Alan’s approach is that he argued you need 50 different affirmations, specifically designed to cover all areas of life. This stunned me when I read it. I’ve never seen anyone advocate having more than a handful of affirmations–or perhaps one in each major life area. In general, 50 goals seems totally overwhelming. My head explodes at the thought of tracking 50 goals. It would be impossible.

On the other hand, he is not arguing that you track 50 goals, just that you remind yourself of them 3 times a day.

And on the other, other hand, it is certainly true that I have 50 or so goals floating around my head. I’ve never found an effective way to prioritize that many goals, so the lesser goals are all achieved “catch as catch can.” I have always felt a bit of loss as I’ve accepted that a particular goal doesn’t fit on one of my prioritized lists.

Rather than pretending I have even more hands, I’ll just say and…

And, I’ve been thinking a lot about the need for a “top of mind” standard for decision making. In order to make a decision quickly, you need to be satisfied with the decision you can make based on a short (3-minute) warmup of top of mind issues. (Three minutes is a rule of thumb I use–it’s enough time to get the obvious issues into awareness.)

And, here Alan is giving me a method for making sure that all 50 of my top goals stay top of mind. This ensures that they will be factored into any decision I make.

And, one of the benefits I’ve seen from affirmations is that they give you “the words you need for the time when you will need them.” They help you hold the context when self-critical thoughts go through your mind.

The bottom line? I have decided to test drive Alan’s method of “affirming achievement” for three solid months, because I think this may be a way to keep all of my goals top of mind, without feeling overwhelmed by trying to track them all. At that time, I will make a conscious decision for whether to continue for a full year. By then, I believe I’ll know whether this is a practice for the rest of my life. My only concern going in is: will these goals use up critical crow space and make it harder to do concentrated work? I’ll find out.

My reason for sharing this is not to convince you to try affirmations, but to show you the kind of reasoning process I use to consider advice from other people with whom I respectfully disagree.

Though Alan and I share critically important values, we have very different philosophies. He’s religious, I’m not. I’m an egoist. I believe he would say he is an altruist. In his book, he makes quite a few statements that I disagree with. But rather than dismissing his comments, or jumping into an argument with him, I take the time to identify the facts he is looking at. What is he seeing? What is a plausible explanation for his conclusion? Is there a context in which it make sense to me?

Then, and only then, do I ask myself to form my own conclusion about those same facts. Using this method, I’ve learned a lot from Alan, and from a lot of other  people with a diverse range of views. You can, too.


August 5, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Best Practices make “Best” Decisions Possible

Often people judge a decision by its results. When they don’t like the way the decision turned out, they conclude they must have made a bad decision. But that doesn’t follow.

When you make a decision, you make it in a very specific context. You choose between competing priorities, on the basis of incomplete knowledge, in limited time. The “best possible decision” is the best decision that could have been made, given those constraints.

To take a simple example, when I made my “to do” list Saturday, I did not include “buy a cat door.” John, our handyman, was coming in to fix a few things, plus install the door in my study. I thought he was bringing the fixture. He didn’t. “Buy a cat door” rocketed to the top of my “to do” list, leaping over 6 carefully chosen tasks.

Had I made a “bad” decision earlier when I set my top priority? It was based on a mistaken assumption. Does that make it bad? Not in my view.

My decision was mistaken but not bad, because I used best practices to make it. That means I made a good faith effort to review relevant facts, to consider value implications of the options, and to integrate the decision with my long-range goals–all within an appropriate amount of time.

This particular decision was made as part of a routine planning process that takes about 15 minutes each day plus an extra 45 minutes once a week. My rule of thumb is that planning should take less than 5% of the time available. Planning is intended to help you get more done. If it cannibalizes too much work time, it kills your productivity. This is why I recommend an “agile” approach to planning. You want “just in time” planning–just enough planning to keep you productive.

Making a meta-choice about how much time to spend on a decision is part of the best practices I teach. More significant decisions require more due diligence. There is a bigger cost if you make a mistake, so they are worth more time. For example, if you are considering changing your career, I suggest you take six months to deliberate about your new direction.

However, that doesn’t mean you wait six months to make a choice. The best practice that applies to major decisions is that you figure out the short-term decision you need to face now. Making that choice will help you take a small step toward making the bigger decision later.

The purpose of a decision is to move you into action. When you take a step, you change the world a little bit. You see a little bit farther into the future. You observe the actual consequences of your action. Those observations supersede any predictions you made, and help you make a better informed decision next time.

There are “bad” decisions. They’re the product of wishful thinking, jumping to conclusions, and other forms of dropping context–such as ignoring the very real negatives of dragging out your decision process.

In contrast, best practices help you activate the relevant information you have, make the best predictions you can, and reach closure in a timely way. They help you make a logical, emotionally-satisfying decision now. Then, even if you decide it was mistaken later, you will see that your decision now has helped you to move toward your goals faster than if you had made it any other way.


July 29, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments


Burnout is a common problem. When you “burn out,” you lose the motivation to do productive work that you have done in the past–and used to enjoy doing.

There are three common sources of motivation: a personally meaningful (selfish) purpose, an inspiring person, or an urgent priority.

The first of these is fundamental. If you don’t have selfish purpose in your life to set a direction and prioritize your commitments, other people and urgent priorities become a drain on your energy.

However, it is not enough to have a selfish purpose. I am wildly, first-handedly passionate about understanding how you grow your own mind. That hasn’t stopped me from burning out. From time to time, I notice that I have gone on strike. I have total resistance to doing work that in principle I want to do.

What I’ve learned is that it’s not enough to have a selfish goal: you need to learn to act selfishly in the moment, holding the full context. That means you need to learn how to choose in the moment based on values, not rules or feelings or any predetermined expectation of what the right thing to do is.

Your old thinking–that rule, automatized evaluation, or expectation–may be correct. But if you are feeling conflict, there is some value at stake that is not completely clear to you.

This has led to an important practice: whenever I feel I “have to” do something, I check my premises. I recognize I am trying to force myself to act on a past prediction of what is best for me right now. What I need is my best thinking on what is in fact best for me.

The truth is that the idea that I “have to” is wrong. You always have a choice–a metaphysically given choice. You may not like the choice, but you do have it.

The conflict means that there are values that need to be brought out to the light of day and factored into the decision. Logic requires that you hold the full context–of knowledge and values–before making the decision. You need to do a little due diligence to identify what is the value at stake.

Clarifying the values can be tricky when the resistance or temptation appears to be illogical. If the immediate explanation for why you don’t want to do something is irrational, like “I don’t wanna,” you might be tempted to dismiss it. In these cases it’s important to show respect for yourself. Take the time to identify the deeper rational value that is really at stake here–don’t settle for the superficial irrationality.

For example, a client I had once needed to write a grant proposal. She said she was procrastinating, and thought she should just jump in and start writing. But when she listened to her resistance to writing, she realized that she needed data to show that the earlier project was a success. She needed to send out a survey to past participants–urgently–so that she could get data to incorporate into the proposal. This had not been on her radar, until she examined the reasons for her resistance.

Going by “have to” is wrong. Just as it’s wrong to force another person, it is wrong to force yourself. If you use your willpower to force yourself to act against strong resistance, you will deny an important source of information about your work (the resistance), associate pain and suffering with the work, and eventually start hating it. That will cause burnout, no matter what the end.

Some people have have a rationalistic view of selfishness. They think that if they know that the overall goal is good, then any step toward it is madatory. But that is not the case. Both the end and the means need to be in your self-interest.

To be clear, I am not saying, “take the path of least resistance.” If you only take action that you “feel like” doing, you’ll never achieve your goals. The truth is, you need to exert your willpower effectively–on the small step that gives you leverage for gaining the big values over time. If you’re feeling resistance, you may be trying to take too big a step. You need to find a smaller step–maybe an uncomfortable or unpleasant step–that you are willing to take.

Another way to look at this–if you have a first-handed goal, and you are unmotivated, lack of motivation is not the problem. Unclarity is the problem.

Motivation is an effect, not a cause. If you are unmotivated to take an action you believe is in your best interest, your challenge is to get true clarity on the values at stake in this moment. That means–get clarity on your emotions.

Every emotion you feel is triggered by some value on your horizon. If your value is threatened, you will feel some kind of fear. If it is possible to gain a value of yours, you will feel some kind of desire.

When the thoughts seem irrational, they are a distorted attempt to achieve something rational. For example, an obsession with what other people think could be a distorted attempt to make a personal connection with others. Or it could be a distorted attempt to validate one’s own behavior. Similarly, apparent laziness could be motivated by a concern with health. Or it could be a way to avoid putting oneself to the test out of fear of failure. When the superficial reason for an emotion is irrational, you don’t really know what the motivation is until you introspect. The superficial explanation is just a rationalization.

You need to know. You need to know the deep value at stake before you can decide what is in your rational interest.

This doesn’t have to take a lot of time. In general, if you can’t resolve a conflict in three minutes, I recommend finding a step you’re willing to take despite the conflict, one that will help you resolve the conflict.

Just as you don’t make demands of other people-don’t make demands of yourself. Ask yourself, “am I willing” to take this step? If yes, it will take a little willpower to start. That’s an act of will.

If no, use your willpower to find the step you are willing and able to take.

To stop burning out, I needed to take seriously the idea that you cannot force a mind–not even your own. And that means forcing your action is never the answer. If you feel you need to force yourself, step back, understand the full value context, and choose a step toward your goals you can take willingly.


July 22, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Don’t mistake your questions for your choices

Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make in decision-making is to confuse your questions about the future with your choices. For example, I was asked, suppose you love music, and like medicine, but you are concerned about pursuing a career in music because it is so difficult. How do you decide between a career in music or medicine?

My immediate response to that question is: you don’t face that choice directly.

The choice of career is an example of a complex decision that is made over a period of months or even years. You have too many questions about the future to make a decision per se. If you just try to ask yourself “which should I do?” you could easily find yourself stymied by the answer “I don’t know.”

Indeed, the first step of my Eyes-Wide-Open decision process is to identify the choice you actually face. The choice you actually face is a choice between 2-3 options that you know enough about that you can act on now, as opposed to some vague desires regarding the future with many unknowns.

You may think of your decision in terms of a complex choice involving the future. But this decision needs to be made over time by reducing it to a series of simple binary choices–judgment calls–that you can answer with confidence right now.

A judgment call is the answer to a yes-or-no question, such as, “Should I go to this college?” or “Is this a better option than that?” Any simple judgment of whether something is true/false, good/bad, right/wrong, or important/unimportant is a judgment call. You could rewrite any such judgment call in the form of a “yes or no” question.

When you have a lot of gaps in your knowledge, instead of a “yes” or “no” answer from your subconscious, you will hear “I don’t know.” You also might hear “I don’t know” if you haven’t warmed up your own knowledge of the facts and values relevant to the question. Worse, if you haven’t warmed up that information, you have no idea whether your judgment call is correct. It will be based on ideas you’re presently aware of, not those that have been forgotten.

(This psychological fact gives rise to the #1 rule of logic: Hold context. If you have made a good faith effort to become aware of all relevant information, you are justified in assuming your judgment call is valid.)

The art of decision making includes figuring out which judgment call you can make now. You will need to reduce complex decisions into simple judgment calls because you simply can’t hold all of the complex issues in mind at once, and/or you don’t know enough to make a final decision.

In these cases, you need to step back and think at the “meta-level.” You need to think about the situation you are in, what choice you can make now, and how your choice will help you make the complex decision in the future.

The choice you face now is specific to your circumstances.

Suppose the person who loves music first, then medicine strongly, is 18 years old. The decision he faces is his decision of where to go to college and what to study. What he decides to do depends in part on where he is accepted. If he is accepted to top notch music programs, he faces a very different choice than if he is rejected by all the top music schools. His rejection by those schools is extremely important information about his prospects for making a living as a musician.

Suppose he gets into a good university with a top-notch music program, and decides to keep his options open by studying music and taking all of the necessary pre-med courses. He will have a different decision to make when it comes time to apply to medical school.

If he gets into medical school, he will have yet a different choice. If he is not accepted into medical school and he is not outstanding as a musician, he faces yet a different choice.

For any of these decisions, he will make a choice which incorporates what he sees as his prospects in both areas, including such values how much he wants to be a world-class musician, how much work it would take to be a doctor or a musician, whether he enjoys that kind of work, whether he believes he can keep both options open, and how much material comfort matters to him. That’s why he needs a decision process that helps him hold the full context.

None of these is a decision just between medicine and music. Each one is a decision, at a given time, to take a specific action, which has consequences for his entire life. In fact, all choices have consequences for one’s entire life, but it is clearest in major choices such as the choice of career.

The choice you face is between options you can act on now. If you are not accepted to medical school, you do not face a choice of whether to go or not.

When the future unfolds in a surprising way, you may need to do some high level exploration just to see what new choices you face. You might be able to name a dozen possible actions after you get that rejection slip. You could take additional classes so you can re-apply next year to different schools, enroll in nursing school, change your focus to podiatry or optometry or some other specialty that doesn’t require medical school, etc.

Before you could choose between so many disparate options, you might need to make simpler judgment calls, such as, should I…

  • attempt to get into medical school next year?
  • change to some other medical specialty for now and revisit medical school later?
  • drop the goal of getting into medical school?
  • leave medicine altogether?

The test of whether you have sufficiently simplified a complex decision is that your questions are answerable and your choices are actionable. You know what to do now, given the judgment call you just made.

Action is crucial to decision-making. As you take steps in the present to pursue music and/or medicine, you develop specific interests, you discover what work is involved, you find out what the risks and opportunities are for you, personally, given your intelligence, aptitude, and work ethic.

Complex decisions such as choice of career are made over time, by identifying the choice you actually face at each moment, and choosing the next steps based on everything you’ve learned plus everything you can predict. They are choices between real-life options in the present, not floating questions about the future.



June 17, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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